Religious Toleration From The Christian Perspective

By Bishop Joseph J. Gerry, OSB, Ph.D.



Let me begin by expressing my thanks for the opportunity to speak to you this morning. Given the historic distrust and antagonism in the Old World and in the New between Catholicism and the Masons, today marks an important step toward greater mutual understanding between us. I am happy to have a part to play in this dialogue. As was mentioned just a few moments ago, my visit and address here this morning comes almost thirty years to the day when Bishop Peter Gerety addressed a group of Masons in Caribou, Maine. In those days, just after the Second Vatican Council, hopes were often high that all of our society's difficulties and tensions would soon be resolved. The thirty years since that time have shown us that the divisions in our society, be they racial, ethnic, economic or religious, whatever the reason, the least of them not being man's proclivity to sin and selfishness, are more difficult to overcome than we might have first imagined. Nonetheless, true progress toward building a more just and equitable society for all has been made, though much remains to be done. Similarly, the dialogue initiated by my predecessor Bishop Gerety was a first step in what is no doubt a very long process of dialogue which the Catholic Church and the Masons in this state and in this country have only begun to experience. I trust that my remarks this morning will further that cause.


Just last month, I spent a weekend at the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, as part of a continuing dialogue between Catholic and Buddhist monks, a dialogue that has been in process for well over twenty years. Last year the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, hosted such a dialogue in the presence of the Dalai Lama. Similarly, over the last seven or eight years, I have participated in a series of dialogues between representatives of the Catholic Church in the United States and the American Muslim community.


In both cases, I have been struck by what appears to be outward similarities of religious practice and devotion. For example, both sides in each of these dialogues can speak of the importance of personal and communal prayer, of sacrifice and self-denial, of meditation upon the sacred books, of the value of silence in cultivating a sense of the transcendent, and of the need for mutual support in building a society that respects basic human and family values. On these points, there is much common understanding and mutual agreement.


On the other hand, I have also had the experience during these dialogues of feeling that all sides bring with them memories of historical events that were anything but respectful of the dignity and sacredness of the human person. With these memories there is still present in the hearts of those who strive to dialogue many suspicions and much distrust. These suspicions and distrust create a real chasm in outlook and perspective, so much so that they make it difficult, even for the most dedicated listener of good will, to really grasp the sense of what the other person is trying to say. Because the starting points for the discussion are often so familiar to the speaker, while at the same time not within the experience of the hearer on the other side of the table, it can sometimes feel during these dialogues like one is a fish asked to explain what water is to someone who has only lived in a desert. Still I must say that my experience in dialogue coincides with that of Pope John Paul II who after considering the question - why so many religions - draws the conclusion in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope: "instead of marveling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them."





With this in mind, let me begin by saying that I will attempt this morning to address the topic of religious toleration from the explicitly Christian perspective. More specifically, I will address the topic from the perspective of a Catholic Christian. I am conscious that Christianity itself is a very diverse and divergent faith. Not all Christians would be prepared to describe religious toleration in the terms which I will choose this morning. In fairness, however, it seems to me that I have no choice but to speak from my own tradition of Christianity. To attempt to speak for all of Christianity would not only be presumptuous on my part but would also constitute a disservice to all those who consider themselves Christians but who do not belong to the Catholic Church. This is only to say that each of you must keep in mind that other Christians could have a very different word to speak on this same topic.


I will be basing my comments this morning on three documents of the Second Vatican Council: the first is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, called Lumen Gentium, the second is the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, called Nostra Aetate, and the third is the Declaration on Religious Liberty, called Dignitatis Humanae. These documents were written and endorsed by the Catholic bishops of the world during 1964 and 1965. In addition, I will also derive some of my thoughts this morning from a book by Pope John Paul II called Crossing the Threshold of Hope published in 1994, which I have already quoted from and is likely his most well-known book. While not an authoritative teaching, like the conciliar documents I mentioned, this book by the Holy Father speaks in an insightful way to a number of the questions which interest us this morning. I am thinking particularly of four chapters: "Why So Many Religions?" "Is Only Rome Right?" "In Search of Lost Unity" and "Why Divided?" Each of these documents, according to its respective purpose, has something to contribute to our discussion this morning.


I will address the issue of religious tolerance from two levels: first, from the theoretical, or philosophical and theological, and secondly, from the practical or legal point of view. All of us recognize that the multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices necessarily raises questions about the nature of God and of our knowledge of the Supreme Deity. How does one account for the unity of a Supreme Being when the human search for this Person is so startlingly diverse? What does this say about God Himself and about human beings? These are the theological and philosophical questions lying beneath today's topic.


On the more practical level, the fact that persons living in the same society will have differing, and sometimes mutually exclusive, religious convictions means that society must come to some way of living with these differences in peace. The experience of the wars of religion in Europe and the quest by the first pioneers to these shores to practice their religious beliefs in freedom led to the distinctly American experiment in religious freedom and non-establishment. Despite the tensions that, from time to time, mark religions in American society, one could say, that religious freedom has been one of the great successes of the American Revolution, one which a growing number of other countries around the world are now beginning to wholeheartedly emulate and respect.





The question of religious tolerance only makes sense in the context of religious pluralism. Indeed, if there were only one religion in any given society, no question would arise about one's relation to any other religion. The fact is, however, that Christianity from its origins has been intensely conscious of the existence of other faiths. In the earliest times of our era, Christianity gradually emerged as a distinct faith out of monotheistic Judaism only to become a tiny persecuted minority in a largely polytheistic culture. In the centuries of medieval Christendom Christianity was, for example, acutely aware of the religious and military force of Islam. But, sad to say, dialogue was not the instrument used to resolve differences. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Western Christianity fractured into competing denominations, a process which had already occurred in the East in the fifth and eleventh centuries. Finally after the arrival of Europeans in large numbers to the continents of Africa, Asia, and America, Christianity was confronted with indigenous religions, some of which predated Christianity itself and which had developed sophisticated ethical and philosophical systems to accompany them.


The documents of the Second Vatican Council, which I mentioned earlier, are the result of these centuries of contact between Christianity and non-Christian religions, as well as the result of a maturing in the Church's understanding of its relations with those who are not its members. Christianity's original openness to differing cultures allowed someone like Paul of Tarsus to speak to the Athenians on the Acropolis of the "Unknown God" which they worshiped and whose identity Paul came to proclaim. Christianity entered into dialogue with the cultures it encountered, baptizing Roman rhetoric and architecture, Greek philosophy, and Frankish spirituality.


In time, however, Christianity did not remain as open to the new cultures it encountered but rather drew the lines ever more sharply between those who were "in" and those who were "out," culminating in the famous dictum "Outside of the Church there is no salvation." The documents of the Second Vatican Council are a corrective to the narrow way in which that saying was eventually interpreted. These documents incorporate the best that the tradition has to say about the Church's varying relations with the peoples of the world, and apply that tradition to concrete, existing circumstances. Paul VI in his encyclical Ecclesiam Suam describes these varying relations as concentric "circles of dialogue" and I would invite you to imagine them with me as a series of expanding circles.


But, before reflecting on these "circles of dialogue", let me recall that following Paul VI the Second Vatican Council maintained in the Nostra Aetate No. 1 that persons:


... Look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence. The problems that weigh heavily on their hearts are the same today as in ages past. What does it mean to be a human person? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behavior and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgment? What reward follows death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?


These questions are part of the perpetual "dialogue of salvation" which human beings of every time and place undertake. We might say that from the Christian perspective, the way people respond to these questions places them in the varying concentric circles around the center.


Now for Christians, the center of all human history and all human questions is Christ. The person of Jesus Christ is at the center of these concentric circles of questioning and dialogue. The Second Vatican Council declares in Nostra Aetate No. 2 that the Church "proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life ( John 1: 6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (II Corinthians 5: 18-19) all people find the fulness of their religious life". Christ is the Son of the Father, the Word made flesh for our salvation, crucified and risen so that all might be saved. Through Christ, the Father in turn sends the Holy Spirit to be our Advocate and Guide until Christ returns in glory.


Thus Pope John Paul II states in Crossing ...: "It is therefore a revealed truth that there is salvation only and exclusively in Christ. The Church, inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ, is simply an instrument of this salvation." Because Christ came to save all, and because all people are created in the image and likeness of God according to the pattern of Christ the New Adam, Christ has significance for all times and places, all peoples and cultures, even for all religions, even when he is only implicitly recognized. The Council affirms that in some mysterious way, all persons of good will are mysteriously related to Christ and his saving action, even if that relation remains obscure for us who believe in him explicitly.


And so, around this center lies the first circle of relatedness to Christ. The Catholic Church believes that she is related to Christ in this primary, but not exclusive, way for she is the same community founded by Jesus himself in his early ministry. As such she is "born from his wounded side" as he hung on the Cross, as the Fathers of the early Church reveled in saying. The Council would claim in Lumen Gentium No. 8 that the Church founded by Jesus Christ "subsists in" the Roman Catholic Church. That is not to say that the elements marking the community founded by Jesus are found only in the Catholic Church, and that is not to say that the elements of holiness of life and dedication to the faith are necessarily found most prominently in the Catholic Church. However, it is to say that there is nothing which was present in the earliest community founded by Jesus which is lacking in the Roman Catholic Church as it lives its faith today, nearly two thousand years after the coming of Christ.


Related to the Church, and therefore to Christ, in the next circle of dialogue are all those persons who claim the name Christian but who do not necessarily live in full communion with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church recognizes that its members and other Christians share many important elements of faith, namely, baptism and the Scriptures. This is not to deny the real divisions that, sad to say, exist between Christians, but it is to say with Popes John XXIII and Paul VI that "there is more that unites us than divides us." The Catholic Church honors all who bear the name Christian as brothers and sisters, even if at the present moment we live separated from one another for various reasons. One of the goals that Christianity has set for itself is to rediscover the original unity willed by its founder. The Roman Catholic Church participates in dozens and dozens of national and international ecumenical dialogues with other Christian churches and communities in the hope that through this process the Spirit of God will restore the unity that Jesus desired for his disciples.


It is interesting to note that Pope John Paul II poses the question in Crossing ...: "Why would the Holy Spirit have permitted so many different divisions and enmities among those who claim to be disciples of the same gospel, disciples of the same Christ?" As he struggles with the question he comes up with two possible answers. One he calls negative and the other positive. "The more negative one would see in these divisions the bitter fruit of sins committed by Christians. The more positive answer is inspired by trust in the One who is capable of bringing forth good even from evil, from human weakness." Then the Pope asks the further question: "Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ?" He then adds: "Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise ..."


At the next circle of dialogue can be found those who believe in one God without believing explicitly in the person of Jesus Christ. The Jewish people hold pride of place in this category. In the Nostra Aetate No. 4, it is stated very clearly that:


The Church of Christ acknowledges that in God's plan of Salvation the beginning of her faith and election is to be found in the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets ... With the Apostle Paul [the Church] maintains that the Jews remain very dear to God, for the sake of the patriarchs, since God does not take back the gifts he bestowed or the choice he made ... Remembering then her common heritage with the Jews ... the Church deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.


In this statement from the Council I think it obvious that the Church is saying mea culpa for the antisemitism that has over the years only too often surfaced in her own bosom.


Among the adherents of monotheism, the Church also sees itself as related in a special way with the followers of Islam, who likewise consider themselves, with Christians and Jews, sons of Abraham. Abraham is recognized as our common father in the faith. As the Nostra Aetate No. 3 states:


Although not acknowledging Jesus as God, Muslims venerate him as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For these reasons they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-giving, and fasting.


At the next circle of dialogue, the Church finds those who seek the unknown God by the light of their own conscience. Again, in the Lumen Gentium No. 16, we read:


God will not be remote from them since he gives life and breath to all and since the Savior wills all to be saved ... Those who ... moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their own conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found among them is considered by the Church to be a preparation of the Gospel.


The fundamental belief of the Church is that God wills all persons to be saved. All persons are in fact saved in and through Christ. God accomplishes this through the Church for those who know Christ, and, as is stated in Ad Gentes No. 7: "in ways known to himself, God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him." Salvation is guaranteed to no one but is rather the gracious gift of God. Salvation is denied to none of those who strive to know God as best they can and who lead an upright life according to the right dictates of their consciences. All truth or goodness or beauty found in any authentic religious belief and practice is seen as being inherently related to Christ who is the Truth in person, who is the perfect image of the Father's Goodness, and who brings about the beauty of harmony and unity through the work of his Spirit. The Christian tradition has called these elements of truth or goodness or beauty found in non-Christian religions "semina verbi" or "seeds of the Word," the Word being Christ. They are the initial stirrings of Christ's action in the human heart. The Council admits that the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible structure of the Church, making use of these elements of truth or goodness. The Pope doesn't hesitate to say in Crossing ... that these seeds, these elements, "constitute a kind of common soteriological [or saving] root in all religions." From the Catholic perspective, all persons are explicitly or implicitly related to Christ's saving activity. In some sense, then, all persons are in varying degrees related to the Church, Christ's Body in the World.


For some non-Christians, this notion of what we might call the "anonymous Christian," that is, one who is considered in some sense connected with Christ without explicitly knowing it, can be considered offensive. It seems to such persons that the Church is trying to spiritually "baptize" all those who either by design or by coincidence have nothing to do with Christianity in order to maintain Christianity's claims to universal significance and to Christ's role as sole Savior and mediator. While I can understand these concerns, I am also quite convinced that it is not the Church's intention to place any labels on anyone against their will. Rather this manner of considering how non-believers can still be related to Christ in some way is merely a way for the Church to make sense of Christ's own claim that he came that "all might be saved." The Church admits in all humility that she does not know how God works out this universal plan of salvation; that is known only to God.





It is from this theological and philosophical perspective that the Church then considers the more practical matters of religious toleration in the civil realm, or as I would prefer religious liberty in the realm of the civic order. I say religious liberty rather than religious tolerance because the word "tolerance" carries pejorative connotations for Catholics. For us, the word "toleration" describes the effort the believer makes to put up with the evil that he or she cannot change, but which he or she does not endorse. When considering religious pluralism, religious tolerance means that the established religion - whatever it may be - tolerates the existence of other religions which would be either impossible or too costly to eliminate even though the established authority considers these other religions to be false, or subversive, or even irrational. Thus in England after the Reformation, Catholics were tolerated in varying degrees until emancipation in the nineteenth century. Similarly, in predominantly Catholic countries, Protestant or Orthodox communities, Jewish and Muslim communities in the past were often tolerated to varying degrees.


Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has embraced the more positive notion of religious freedom. The Declaration on Religious Freedom resulted from the initiative of the American bishops and was strongly endorsed by the bishops from behind the Iron Curtain. The American experience of religious liberty, as opposed to religious toleration, was the main impetus behind the presentation of this declaration to the Council for its consideration. Ultimately this American experience was persuasive to the rest of the bishops assembled at the Council.


Religious liberty means that no religion is impeded in any way from exercising its beliefs and practices. Conversely, religious liberty can also mean that no religion is established as having special privileges over and above other religions in the civil society. To quote from this Declaration, Dignitatis Humanae No. 2: "Freedom of this kind means that all persons should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups or any human power so that, within due limits, nobody is forced to act against his or her convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others." The religious pluralism found in the original thirteen British colonies made religious non-establishment and religious liberty a necessity for civic peace. The success of these two principles - two principles that were embraced and lived over the last two hundred years by millions of Americans - has in time fostered a climate of civic peace and mutual respect. It is this success that has recommended the American experiment to the world.


From the Catholic perspective, the value of religious liberty is rooted not in its practical benefits, such as when it keeps different religions from fighting each other, but rather in the very dignity of the human person. All persons are endowed with the capacity to seek the truth, and are indeed obligated to seek it. This search cannot be conducted in an atmosphere of coercion or constraint which does not recognize the person's freedom to seek truth in so far as he or she is able. The personal assent to truth and to the demands of right living cannot be made under compulsion. Human dignity demands freedom in these matters of conscience, otherwise truly human acting and living is impossible. Moreover, the response to God is meant to be reasonable and free. No one can be obligated to embrace faith against his or her will. The very nature of faith excludes every form of coercion in religious matters. Thus, both the human search for the truth and the good, and the human response to God, both of these demand freedom of belief and action which is protected by the civil right called religious freedom. Without this kind of freedom, human persons cannot fulfill their inherent duties to each other and to the One whom some call God. Religious freedom as such is a right which all persons possess simply by being human. Various governments may protect or deny protection to this innate right, but governments do not create it. Human beings possess the right to religious freedom from the very fact that they are human and such freedom is essential to their being truly human is all respects.





This belief about religious liberty necessarily impacts the Catholic Church in its relations with other Christians and with non-Christians. For example, the ecumenical dialogues between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches and communities can only take place in a context of freedom and respect. That means that the Church will have to respect those Christians who choose not to dialogue with her. The Catholic Church cannot rely on threats or the exercise of civil power to achieve the goal of unity among Christians as was, sad to say, the case in the past. Likewise, in our interfaith dialogues with non-Christians, the Catholic Church enters into the dialogue to know more about the other party and to share as best she can her beliefs about the ultimate questions in life. The goal is simply mutual understanding and respect for the beliefs of the dialogue partner. That exercise is valuable in itself even if its purpose it not necessarily the conversion of the other party. At the recent gatherings for peace at Assisi, which gathered representatives from the major religions of the world, great efforts were made to accommodate the various faith traditions on an equal basis while not disregarding the differences which existed between them. Pope John Paul II was severely criticized in some quarters for being so welcoming to non-Christians, but it must be said that his efforts at Assisi were perfectly consistent with the views expressed in the Second Vatican Council's Declarations on Religious Liberty and on Relations with Non-Christian Religions.


In his reflection on different religions, the Holy Father acknowledges that in the East there remains many very ancient cultures that pre-date Christianity. He points out, for example, that in places like India when anyone speaks of Christianity many people experience very negative feelings. This of course makes it very difficult for such people to become involved in dialoguing about the Gospel. Mahatma Gandhi, Indian and Hindu, pointed this out many times, in his deeply evangelical manner. He was personally disillusioned with the way in which Christianity had been given expression in the political and the social life of India. The Pope then asks in Crossing ...: "Could a Mahatma Gandhi, a man who fought for the liberation of his great nation from colonial dependence accept Christianity in the same form as it had been imposed on his country by those same colonial powers?" Obviously such a question is a confession of Christianity's failure in the past to give true witness to the Gospel with its message to the world of building a civilization of love.





Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has seen itself much more as a partner in dialogue with other religions. This is in contrast to the way in which, in the past, the Catholic Church may have portrayed herself as possessing exclusive rights to religious belief and practice. On the other hand, at the Second Vatican Council, the Church also reaffirmed its commitment to evangelization, that is, to making Jesus Christ known and loved where ever he is still unknown. That inevitably involves the Church in truth claims about the importance of the person of Jesus which not all religious persons can accept. That is fair enough. But, the Church's proclamation of its faith in Jesus is always guided by the principle of freedom in matters of religious conscience, and respect for the ways in which God has already placed "seeds of the Word", that is, elements of truth and goodness, in the hearts of all persons. In that respect, the Catholic Church recognizes its need to listen to the "seeds of the Word" in others, as much as it reaffirms its own obligation to proclaim the Good News to all who are willing to hear.


The Catholic Church as a whole has benefitted form the American experience in religious liberty and is irrevocably committed to this principle as a fundamental human right which no government has the authority to abolish. The Catholic Church continues in good faith to dialogue with our Christian brothers and sisters who are separated from us, as well as with persons of faith or persons of no faith who do not recognize Christ. This dialogue is part of our mission, and we are likewise committed to it. We ask only for the opportunities, like the opportunity you have provided this morning, to offer our testimony in an atmosphere of respect and good will.


I thank you once again for your interest and attention. No doubt this small step toward greater communication will bear its own fruit in ways we cannot yet imagine. May we and the generations to come all be its beneficiaries. Thank you.

Presented to the Maine Lodge of Research

November 1997, Grand Lodge of Maine building


Copyright © 1997 by the Philalethes Society & Joseph J. Gerry

All rights reserved.