Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
A Primer for Catholics
Some years ago, an acquaintance inquired
seriously and sincerely, "Why do Catholics worship statues of saints?"
Taken aback considerably, I finally managed to explain that Catholics
don't do that. We never have! Never would! Why, I exclaimed, that
would be completely counter to our belief system!
However, the experience set me to thinking
that if my own religious tradition was obviously badly misunderstood,
even by thoughtful people, there was probably a fair chance that
I was doing the same to other faiths. The more I studied these faiths,
the more convinced I became that 1) we share more than many of us
realize, and 2) if we ever hope to see the world's religious conflicts
wane, we simply must understand accurately the beliefs and practices
of others and respect them. This Update can do no more than
offer an overview which can serve as a springboard for further investigation.
Should Catholics be interested in other
Vatican II was a watershed council in many
ways. Decades later, we're still trying to absorb all it offered
for our consideration. While the contents of its four major constitutions
have had noticeable effect in Catholic life, some of the shorter
documents remain virtually unknown. In the case of one, that's a
real shame because it's a blockbuster. Maybe its title causes potential
readers to nod off: The Declaration on the Relation of the Church
to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). Deceptively succinct
(an easy five-minute read), it represents a milestone in Catholic
With the Holocaust less than 20 years past,
Pope John XXIII adamantly desired to have the Council make a strong
statement affirming the positive nature of Judaism and Christianity's
historical ties. The final document came to include other non-Christian
traditions as well.
"The Catholic Church rejects nothing which
is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect
upon those ways of conduct and life, those rules and teachings which,
though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets
forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens
all people. Indeed, she proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ,
'the way, the truth and the life' (Jn 14:6), in whom everyone finds
the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all
things to himself (see 2 Cor 5:18-19).
"The Church therefore has this exhortation
for her members: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration
with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian
faith and life, acknowledge, preserve and promote the spiritual
and moral goods found among these people, as well as the values
in their society and culture" (Nostra Aetate, #2).
What gives a religion world status?
What qualifies a religion for world status?
The number of believers, past or present, cannot be the criterion.
Judaism, which would make any list of great religions, has never
been large and is today practiced by some 20,000,000. Japan's Shinto
tradition currently has some 40,000,000 adherents. Christianity,
on the other hand, is the faith of choice for over one third of
the world's population, some 1,750,000,000 people. Islam, seen by
many as today's fastest-growing religion, numbers some 950,000,000
Is it the area of geographical dispersion
that determines a "world" religion? Perhaps to some extent, but
that surely would not be the dominant factor because while some
religions are found in widely diverse sections of the globe (Islam,
Christianity), others continue to be practiced primarily where they
have always existed (Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism).
The definitive aspect is the influence
a particular religion now wields, has exerted in the past, or both.
Religion is one of the most pervasive factors in a culture and,
as a result, has a lasting effect which sometimes outlasts the religion
itself. China's ancient philosophies, Taoism and Confucianism, are
no longer practiced to the extent they once were (the same is true
of Shintoism in Japan). But even those who are largely unfamiliar
with these faiths and do not practice them are the products of them,
since these deeply embedded traditions have determined to a great
extent the nature of the Chinese (Japanese) people. For that reason,
if no other, they will probably always be listed as world religions.
Interestingly, the places of origin of
the world religions fall neatly into two geographical areas, the
Near (Middle) East and the Far East. There are remarkable similarities
among these religions.
Commonalities among the three Near Eastern
(sometimes called Western) faithsnamely Judaism, Christianity
and Islam-make sense when one remembers that both Christianity and
Islam spring from Judaism and, therefore, share a similar worldview
and concept of God. These religions trust in a single omnipotent,
omniscient diety (monotheism) who, while entirely responsible for
the creation of the universe, exists entirely apart from it and
is in no way dependent on it. Human beings, made in the image (mirroring
the traits) of this God, can, indeed must, enter into an interpersonal
Morality is based on learning the will
of God, understanding it and living it out both individually and
as a community. Followers find themselves enmeshed in what is sometimes
called conflicting dualism, a constant struggle between the forces
of good and evil in which a person's free will plays the deciding
God is revealed through creation, scriptural
writings, other people, Jesus in Christianity and the ever broader,
deeper insights contributed by each succeeding generation as human
knowledge and understanding grow.
Time is viewed as linear, something like
a straight line from beginning to end. Therefore, as the Christian
Scriptures' Letter to the Hebrews states, "...it is appointed that
human beings die once, and after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27b).
Each person is seen as a unique creation, sojourning through a single
life span to attain the goal of eternal life with God. Resurrection
of the body is compatible with this; reincarnation is not.
Members of Eastern religions are more likely
to believe in many gods (polytheism) or a single central reality
(monism). In the case of the Chinese religions, deities often take
a backseat or no seat at all to philosophy. Their prime concern
is how to live a happier, better life right here, right now. For
some, creation contains the gods within itself. Shintoism is frequently
thought to have originated as such an animist religion, seeing all
elements of creation from plants to people as possessing within
them an animating spirit. For others, such as Hinduism, the ultimate
reality (Brahman), while absolute and supernatural, is completely
unknowable and impersonal (referred to as "that" or "it").
Meditation which brings one onto the plane
of the transcendental centers many of these faiths. The "doing"
of the Western world gives way somewhat to simply "being." Conflicting
dualism gives way as well either to monism or to a more harmonious
dualism as exhibited in the interplay of forces known to the Chinese
as yin and yang. While diametric opposites in many ways, yin
and yang do not compete, but rather complement each other.
Balance is the order of the day.
While Far Eastern traditions possess holy
books and writings considered scriptural, they are not generally
as central to belief and practice as those found in the Western
world. Even within the same religion, there may be wide divergence
of opinion about sacred writings. The branch of Buddhism known as
Theravada accepts only the Tripitaka (Three Baskets) of early
Pali writings, whereas the Mahayanas' sutras represent many
times the length of the Christian Bible.
Comprehension of momentous matters may
come in an instant or never. The emptying of the mind during meditation
provides something like an open, empty vessel which is ready at
all times should enlightenment occur. This phenomenon is especially
prevalent in Buddhism. Buddha is actually a title, meaning
"the enlightened one," much as Christ is a title, meaning
"the anointed one." In the branch of Buddhism called Zen, this eagerly
awaited flash of insight is known as satori.
Time is viewed as cyclical rather than
linear, the view of Western belief. Hindus call these cycles of
creation, extinction, and re-creation, samsara. The same
word refers to the process of rebirth which the Western world calls
reincarnation. Samsara is more accurately seen as the transmigration
of souls. What the new life will bring is largely contingent on
what the old life held. Things can be made betteror worsethrough
the karma (action) of a lifetime. Climbing the karmic scale
in Hindu tradition involves a societal stratification called the
caste system. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth,
moksha, comes about when one is absorbed into the ultimate
reality, Brahman. A similar, but somewhat different, concept
in Buddhism is Nirvana.
To convert or not
The status of proselytizing (actively seeking
converts) ranges among world religions from near the top of the
priority scale to near the bottom. Christianity, along with Islam,
stresses making "disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19a) to such an
extent that it rarely occurs to Christians that adherents of many
other faiths may not see this as a priority.
That narrow focus has often hindered rather
than helped the Christian missionary effort. Open attempts to convert
have been viewed with resentment in areas such as India, where its
dominant religion, Hinduism, makes no effort to change the beliefs
of others, but rather finds ways to integrate them under the great
umbrella of traditions which comprise the Hindu faith. This inclusive
attitude has resulted in Hinduism's remaining largely on the Indian
subcontinent where it originated, while Christianity and Islam,
feeling obligated to spread their respective messages to the ends
of the earth, are today global.
Judaism, too, is non-proselytizing but
for a very different reason. To be Jewish has typically involved
not only a religious commitment but an ethnic heritage as well.
Both the Bible's Hebrew and Christian Scriptures contain references
to God-fearers: gentiles (non-Jews) who admired Judaism and practiced
it to the extent that this was possible (Ps 118:4; Acts 8:26-40;
10:1-49). This became a pivotal issue in the infant Christian Church,
most of whose members still considered themselves to be practicing
a new and fulfilled form of Judaism. Did gentile converts need first
to be Jewish? This issue led to the first general council of Christians,
the Council of Jerusalem, in about the year 48 (Acts 15:1-35).
Learning From Others
When teaching World Religions to high school
seniors, I routinely required them to address a series of questions
regarding any faith we studied. Among these were: What can we as
Catholic Christians learn from this religion to enrich our own?
What can followers of this religion learn from Catholic Christians?
What have you learned which would be of value in relating socially,
professionally, academically or religiously to people of this faith?
In these questions and others like them
lie the seeds, I believe, of the understanding and respect so desperately
needed, not only among the so-called world religions, but among
all people of religious faith and those with none. The study of
religious traditions other than our own may well be the greatest
contribution we can make as individuals toward the cause of global
Some raise the concern that such a study
runs the risk of weakening our commitment as disciples of Jesus.
The opposite is usually true. Learning about other faiths almost
of necessity requires us to delve more deeply into our own.
Next: Sacrament of Reconciliation Today
(by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M., S.T.D.)