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Hermann Schalück {*}

Poor Mark for Dialogue?

Comments on the New Evangelization Document
of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2008, pp 79-85
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The in mid-December 2007 with the participation of three dicasteries published "Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization" rightly reminds of the indispensable task of mission. In its understanding of mission, however, it shows an ecclesio-centric and defensive-apologetic tendency.


The event could hardly be described as entirely surprising, when on 14th December 2007 - after a corresponding advance notice of the "press room" - the "Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization" was presented to the public on the Vatican's website. Surprising in this context was rather the fact that three Cardinal Prefects were going to introduce the document: William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ivan Dias, Prefect for the Evangelization of Peoples and Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and of the Sacraments, previously responsible for Interreligious Dialogue, and Archbishop Angelo Amato, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The announced participation of those three dicasteries let expect that in the "Note" theological and dogmatic issues of evangelization and mission as well as aspects of inculturation and especially of interreligious dialogue were to be addressed.

The note is antedated on 3rd December, the commemoration day of St Francis Xavier, patron saint of the mission. Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Amato sign as responsible prefects. As usual in similar statements it is expressly pointed out that Benedict XVI had "endorsed the Note and ordered its publication".


Compared with "Dominus Jesus" a Clearly More Positive Basic Note

After a brief introduction in no less succinct presentations "some implications" of mission and evangelization are treated in a predominantly normative-doctrinal style, to be precise on the anthropological, ecclesiological and ecumenical field. It cannot be understood as negative criticism when here first is stated, the note apparently above all wanted to remind of well-known matters and to reinforce them anew for certain reasons ("growing confusion", No. 3).



This is helpful. The numerous citations especially from the major Council texts as Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes, Gaudium et Spes, the Apostolic Letter "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (Paul VI), the encyclical letters "Redemptoris Missio", "Fides et Ratio" (John Paul II), and last but not least "Deus Caritas est" (Benedict XVI) show points of reference which cannot be ignored by the theological reflection and the practice of missionary work today and in future.

The clearly more positive basic note in comparison with "Dominus Jesus" (2000) and the Vatican's "Answers to Questions about some Aspects regarding the Teaching of the Church "(29th June 2007) is encouraging for all who are committed to Jesus Christ's missionary Church that is forward-looking and able to speak and act in the discourse with modernity, with the One World shaped by interculturality and cultural-religious pluralism. It is the invitation to understand and live faith and mission as call into freedom, to respect the freedom of others, to avoid every compulsion and proselytism, and spiritedly to place one's hope on the powers of persuasion of personal and joint witness, not least by a common brotherly/sisterly testimony and commitment of Christians of different traditions (n. 12).

The fact of such an unusually concerted, besides apparently also between Rome and the US-episcopate transatlantically concerted action, which media-politically without doubt was more professionally done than the publication of "Dominus Jesus" or recently of the text "Answers to some Questions about Ecclesiology" opens of course the room for guesswork. Could there be a direct cause for the publication of the document, though it is neither explicitly mentioned in the document nor in the accompanying explanations of the representatives of the dicasteries? In spite of all objectively given necessity to counter a certain "tiredness of missionary work" and as "teaching authority" thus to accompany and, if necessary, to correct problems that are objectively asking for it and complex developments of the problem horizons "Dialogue and Mission", Inculturation and Interreligious Dialogue?

Indeed, that direct reason quite obviously existed. The text itself (No. 3) speaks generally of a "growing confusion" as regards the "Lord's order to do missionary work (cf. Mt 28.19)" and Cardinal Dias alluded in his statement about it to "some" Asian theologians, "who no longer see the necessity to preach still today to non-Christians Jesus Christ's unique position and the universal salvation outgoing from him ". But church media above all in Britain and the United States have already before identified and named the representative par excellence of the "theologians from Asia", who allegedly, as Dias said, "under the pretext of an unimpeded dialogue (...) place Jesus, who is God and Man at the same time, on the same footing with others, partly mythological founders of a religions".


Taking Aim at Asian Theologians

It is about the - in German-speaking countries until now unfortunately too little known Vietnamese-American theologian and philosopher Peter Phan, priest of the Archdiocese of Dallas (Texas) and for many years "Ignacio Ellacuría Professor of Catholic Social Thought" in the Department of Theology" of the Georgetown University in Washington, DC run by the Jesuit Order. Phan was born in Vietnam and arrived in 1975 as refugee in the United States. He first gained a doctorate in theology at the Salesian's University in Rome, then both in philosophy and theology at the University of London.

Phan has up to now been teaching among other things also at the "East Asian Pastoral Institute / EAPI" in Manila, which is supported by German aid organisations (including MISSIO and the Institute of Missiology Missio in Aachen) above all with scholarships and is indispensable for the development of the church in Asia. For several years he was also president of the renowned Catholic Theological Society of America. Like almost no other theologian at the time being Phan brings the Western theological thinking in fascinating ways in contact and fruitful dialogue with Asian horizons of thought [Erfahrungshorizonte].

After corresponding reports of the Washington Post from 14th September 2007 as well as of the National Catholic Reporter from the same day, his book "Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue" (New York 2004) became the object of examination first in the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. From there it was then handed over to the "Committee on Doctrine" of the US-Bishops' Conference for comment and possible intervention. The Catholic News Service in Washington reported on 11.12.2007, hence in the immediate run-up to the announcement of the "Note" in Rome, the bishops' findings of the previous day had been very critical. Phans book of 2004 contained constantly "inaccuracies and ambiguities" and it could "easily confuse and misdirect the faithful".



The bishops then said that there were three central issues in question which Phan was further to deepen: Christ's role as unique and universal saviour of all humankind, the salvific significance of non-Christian religions and the Catholic Church as the unique and universal instrument of salvation. The bishops present as particularly worthy of criticism, because it is misleading, Phan's intention to fill the terms "only", "absolutely" and "universal" in the current context of global pluralism of religions with new contents.

Against it the bishops reinforce in closest connection to "Dominus Jesus" Christ's absolutely special position in the context of world religions, the Catholic Church's necessity for salvation and the indispensability of mission. That was - so the conspicuous anticipation of the announcement of the Roman note a few days later - no strengthening of influence and power but rather the expression of love for the world.

Against this background the "doctrinal Note", which - seen in itself - turns up rather quite inconspicuous and linguistically moderate, can only be appreciated in its consequences if one relates it to basic concerns of today's theology in and from Asia, as they have been formulated by Peter Phan, and before by Jacques Dupuis (see his probably most important work "Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism," Orbis Bookshop, New York 2001). Both are important voices of the Catholic Church in Asia, which is officially structured in the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC).


A Triple Dialogue

Already for about 20 years the Asian bishops and theologians have been setting themselves the pastoral and theological program of a "triple dialogue": dialogue with the cultures with the aim of a deeper inculturation of faith; dialogue with the great religions of the continent, with the aim of a better mutual understanding and concrete forms of cooperation; dialogue with the poor, with the aim of their "holistic liberation".

Against this background as well as also against the background of the Asian Synod and its result, the Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Asia", which is after all partly the answer to a quite open discourse of many synod members about the themes of the "Triple Dialogue", the note must be very disappointing. In the opinion of some theologians of the FABC's it was rather time to update the document of the Synod instead of restricting the scope of dialogue. In any case, it turns out that the Note only very unsatisfactorily presents and treats the positive and for the future path of a missionary church vital basic concerns and challenges in their depth dimension, as e.g. the importance of dialogue and the absolutely necessary interculturality and "multilinguality" in today's experience of world and faith.



This may not necessarily be the task of a relatively short "doctrinal note" or of a so-called "notification", as in the case of Dupuis on 24.01.2001. It can also be noted as positive that there were up to now neither in the case of Phan nor before in Dupuis' case sentences or even disciplinary measures. Since there is still an open horizon, - which should be fearlessly paced out by theory, practice and spirituality of mission -, for the issues addressed in the publications of the theologians as well as of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, some comments may be added.

About the topic of Interreligious Dialogue the note expressly emphasizes its necessity. It was a "sharing that provides a valuable occasion for witnessing and for Christian proclamation" (No. 8). But is it only one "occasion" among many others? Is that the right approach to an understanding of "dialogue" as comprehensive event of communication? Is dialogue not the atmosphere of any life, without which there is no understanding, no culture, no creativity and no religion? Conspicuous is the timid caution with which one talks about dialogue and at once warns against its dangers: Through dialogue "sin can enter in", it could serve "selfish motives" (No. 8). Such warnings, not least against the risk of "relativism" in the search for truth (No. 4), are of course justified, because everything good, true and beautiful can always also be perverted. But first however one wants at last, also in a Roman document, a deeper perception and anthropological-theological recognition and appreciation of the dialogue in its basic understanding as exchange of experience, life and hope, starting with sensitively listening to God's presence in the "other person".

All those who today are on the path to a promising spirituality, theology and also practice of mission and of passing on the faith and mission need a considerable amount of courage and frankness - and they should more and more be allowed to hope for signs of positive encouragement by their bishops. Only in meeting , in the ability for perception, relationship and dialogue those in each case new "transitions" (see Acts 16, 9-10) into other geographical, cultural and religious areas and worlds become possible, which let grow a church that can be - in a way today not yet visible - a truly comprehensive sacrament of salvation, a visible sign of unity (in diversity), and a welcoming house of faith for all, and therefore will be fitted out "with many mansions".

Under anthropological aspects faith and mission are expression and fruit of relationship, exchange and relation. God himself as the Triune is "in relation"; he has not created man as "single" or as monad



but as a being that in manifold relations grows up to the fullness of life and also to "life in abundance" (Jn 10, 10), besides in the essential difference and plurality of the one human being, namely as "man and woman" (Gn 1, 27). Thus there is a primordial obligation to meet the "other person" in the way of dialogue, because in the perspective of the theology of Creation everything and everyone - like man and woman - is intended for complementarity and can in being related to each other find a new identity, and reach a new quality of life.

Hence dialogue in its fundamental anthropological dimension - as ability for perception, communication and relationship - is much more than an aspect or a strategic component or a way (among others) of mission. Dialogue is the key word for any verbal and non-verbal communication event. In the biography of the individual human being, in culture and history any experience of values, esteem, acceptance, beauty and also of God happens always in the way of Incarnation, because it is an experience communicated by dialogue: The God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ to man and creation is witnessed in historical concreteness and interpersonal relationship. This revelation and its testimony is not a one-off act. Just in a world and in a universe that is more and more understood and experienced as evolution it is subject to a constant change.

In the document there is no mention of such a deep anthropological implication of mission. Well, it is rightly said that the truth of our faith is not a result of human thought and action, but a gift that becomes fully accessible to us on the common and solidary path of faith, communicated by many "interpersonal and social relationships" (No. 5) and that then must not be withheld from others. This way of communicating is always a way in freedom, in the esteem of the otherness of the other person, and in attention to the truth that can be hidden in the other person, a way of reciprocity in giving and taking.

Above all theologians of Asia long since deal with three sets of questions, which are difficult in a de facto pluralistic world and on the answer to which much will depend for the credibility and the ability for adaptation of a missionary church. Could the real pluralism of cultures and religions not also be understood as outflow of the Triune God's Creation overflowing in generosity, without questioning by this view the uniqueness and centrality of the Christian revelation and the importance of Jesus Christ? Has God in his "dialogue" with the universe not spoken in "many and varied ways" (Heb 1, 1)? Should you not take pleasure in such wealth and such beauty?

This thought directly leads to the next challenge to theology, the answer to which must have consequences for ecclesiology, mission and interreligious and interdenominational dialogue. Dupuis e.g. asks whether unity could be thought and formed "in the way of relation" (ibid. 387). He calls the unique and unparalleled Christ event "sacrament of God's universal will for salvation". It is singular in its historical concreteness, but at the same time in a trans-historical way inwardly connected with all the other manifestations of God's love and salvation will, e.g. in other religions. Hence this theological paradigm is not "exclusive"; it does not simply exclude God's presence and work in the "other (person)" with reference to Christ's lasting uniqueness, nor does it devalue it as irrelevant.


Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism?

But it is also not just "inclusive" in a way that allows other religions only certain "traces" and "seeds" and moreover expects that they some day turn in their entirety to the Christian tradition and the Catholic Church. Only due to the fact that it regards also other religions as possible (partial) manifestations of God's creativity and salvation will, the relational view cannot be called "relativistic". It does not encourage relativism and ideological pluralism for the simple reason that it steadfastly stands by the centrality of the Christ event and the necessity actively to testify it (mission).

According to the relational paradigm the Christian revelation can admittedly still be "enriched" by other forms of the presence of God's love. It is "complementary". It does not bank on the "abolition" of what just now is not yet in the full light of revelation and Jesus Christ's church. On the contrary, trusting to the missionary-transforming power of Christ's Spirit, which remains promised until the end of creation's history, it is convinced of the constant growth of all people in knowledge and faith - up to the 'full age of Christ' (Eph. 4, 13), to a church that in its serving function as universal sacrament of salvation clearly and fearlessly announces this kingdom and its justice, and tries to live it already now.

After all, it is a matter of a theology inspired by the Asian horizon to be open to the questions of historical transformations in the global world, to the questions of evolution in its various dimensions (cosmological, biological-genetic, historical), finally to the questions and dangers, but also to the possibilities of creative design resulting from the meeting of religions for the global world.



Such a pious, intellectual and solidary movement has for Christians - not just in Asia - its starting-point in the unalterable "Alpha" Jesus Christ, and recognizes in eschatological perspective, i.e. banking on the completion of all temporary things, its aim in "Omega", in Christ's complete figure at the end of time. The Kingdom of God with its abundance of life for everyone is the common goal of Christianity and other religions. It is the actual and final aim also of the church and its mission.


Interreligious Dialogue must Contribute one's own God Experience

Thus on the one hand the note is to be welcomed with its clear encouragement of the personal testimony. For with all the complexity of dialogue as medium of mission and faith-sharing it must really become clearer for Christians than it is today for many of them that dialogue is no arbitrary verbal happening. Only that interreligious dialogue will be meaningful and purposeful which contributes the believing, the though fragmentary God-experience of one's own, the courage to profess, but also to perceive respectfully and silently different life- and God-experiences, and to joint search for convergences.

But in its understanding of mission the "Note" de facto quite dominantly takes its starting-point from the so-called "mission orders" of the synoptists, especially from Mk 16, 15f. Other complementary, not contradictory views of the New Testament, such as the word of the promise of "life in abundance" (John 10, 10) are, if at all, only discernible in a very reserved manner. Unfortunately a clear reference to Luke 4, 16-20 is missing, to that liberating manifesto of Nazareth, where Jesus defines his mission to the poor and prisoners and the blind.

All that lets the "Note" and its terminology appear ecclesio-centric and defensive-apologetic, also because at the end, without the topic "dialogue" having been taken up in a differentiating way there is again talk of "relativism and irenicism prevalent today in the area of religion" (No. 13). This is all the more regrettable because on the other hand there are quite positive statements, e.g. when there is said that with the incorporation of new members into the Church it was not about the expansion of a power-group, or when as a basic motivation for passing on the Gospel 2 Cor 5:14 is mentioned. "The love of Christ impels us."

Since the note in the title does not speak of mission but of evangelization, it could have actually been expected that in the Kingdom-of-God-perspective a much wider range of challenges would have been presented for a lasting passing on of faith and for designing a fairer world out of faith. The actual identification of the terms "mission" and "evangelization", in which theology, pastoral and by the way also the church aid organisations point out some important, though complementary distinctions, is by no means helpful. By the way, there is no longer any reverberation from that stirring and cleansing discovery in "Evangelii Nuntiandi" (Paul VI, 1975), according to which first the church was constantly to become converted anew in modesty and self-criticism to the gospel, before it preached others.

The fundamental Christian experience, which Nazareth but also today's Asia contribute to the "conversation", is that of a God in humble shape; it is detectable in Jesus' person (cf. Phil 2). It is mainly the religious experience of the small Christian Diaspora community in the middle of other faith traditions. The life-practice of dialogue and relationship is for Christians a step into discipleship, into self-renunciation, an act of self-transcendence. But openness and tolerance towards others do not necessarily lead to abandonment of the Christian identity.

The at the same time missionary and the dialogical approach of the "Spirito di Assisi" (John Paul II) remains for the future highly topical. It is - as already with Francis of Assisi - a very important aspect of the missionary attitude, just in the interreligious and above all in the Muslim context: Christians should never - from a supposedly secure position - press on with the "conversion of others", but first be themselves prepared to accept the Gospel. In the meeting with the other person Christians can more authentically experience their own vocation.


The Church as Sacrament of Caritas Dei

In its innermost being the Church of Jesus Christ is the sacrament of "Caritas Dei" (Benedict XVI), the visible sign of that love which created all people as equal in dignity, which justifies people and gets justice generally accepted in world society and creation. All the baptized are responsible for it. Partnership, participation, synodality, reduction of clericalism, pastoral care for seekers having priority to a pastoral care of the larger areas at present e.g. discussed in Germany, and finally fair gender relations and the openness to new forms of church work are therefore essential characteristics of a missionary Church and parish.

The mission of our church, to which also our "Catholic Missionary Work" Missio and its Institute of Missiology are obliged, consists in talking with a clear profile and yet dialogically about a God who promises life and future and human dignity for everybody. At the centre is Jesus Christ, who in his "mission" bore a visible testimony of this God (Lk 4, 16ff).



But this mission is only possible in confidence in Jesus' prophetic Spirit, who has been promised to us forever, but who changes and leads only through many transformations to the goal.

Mission means to heal people in Jesus' spirit and power, to liberate, to lead to the Gospel, to build and support churches and local communities that will be leaven, salt of the earth, places of liberated and liberating faith, and ferment of constant renewal and healing - and this just not only for the baptized within the church but also for society and creation.

The mission of the church is indeed not immune against the danger of relativism, but probably not first for the reason that also the interreligious dialogue can lead to misunderstandings. In any case, it is salutary to listen to the warning from Rome and to take it seriously. But at the same time, the open areas not filled by this note should be used to give - in theory and practice - the mission a new effectiveness and brilliance, which are necessary for it to pass on just in today's complex world situation the belief in the God of life and love, and thus to serve the life and future of the One World. Anyway, the interreligious dialogue offers to it undreamt-of chances that have up to now by no means been sounded out.


    {*} The Franciscan Hermann Schalück (born in 1939) attained a doctorate on theology, from 1973 to 1983 he was head of the North-West-German Franciscan Province. From 1983 to 1985 he was Secretary-General of the Franciscan Order in Rome, from 1985 to 1991 a member of the Order's leadership. As General Superior Schalück led the Order with 19.000 priests and brothers in 90 countries around the world from 1991 to 1997. In 1997 the Vatican appointed him President of the International Catholic Missionary Work 'Missio' in Aachen.


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