The History of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue
Always a part of the Christian approach, and exemplified by saints such as Francis of Assisi, interreligious dialogue entered a new era in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church went through profound changes at the time of the Second Vatican Council, a new, official way of dialogue was opened up between the Church and followers of other religions. It is expressed in the ground-breaking document Nostra Aetate (In our Age).
In 1964, Pope Saint Paul VI established the Secretariat for non-Christians, which would later be called the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and then the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue. In the succeeding years the Dicastery has served the Church and her mission of dialogue. In particular, the Holy Fathers have given guidance and direction for the initiatives of this Dicastery.
During Pope Paul VI’s Pontificate
Pope Paul VI is known for initiating the Church into a new awareness of the importance of dialogue, both inside and outside the Church.In 1964, in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, he established the Secretariat for non-Christians, later known as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID). In the decree of foundation he declared, “The ardor of divine charity must stimulate the Church, which carries on the work of Christ, especially in these times when many relationships are developing among men of every race, language and religion. Therefore, on our initiative…by virtue of this letter we erect and constitute a special council or secretariat for non-Christians…”
Pope Paul VI’s 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (His Church) is known for declaring the tone of his pontificate, focused on outreach and dialogue. He wrote, “The aim of this encyclical will be to demonstrate with increasing clarity how vital it is for the world, and how greatly desired by the Catholic Church, that the two should meet together, and get to know and love one another.” (3) He notes that to reach this goal the Church and individual Christians must know their own identity well—a theme that PCID would develop through its work of getting to know the followers of other religions. (9)
During the initial years, the work of the Secretariat for non-Christians, centered in an office in Rome, was begun by enthusiastic contributors to this aspect of the Church’s work, who had studied other religions, lived in diverse cultural contexts, and put dialogue principles into practice. These men included Cardinal Paolo Marella, the first President, Monsignor Piero Rossano, later auxiliary bishop of Rome, and Monsignor Marcello Zago, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. They invited experts to help write various guidelines on dialogue with the Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and the followers of African Traditional Religion. They also began to collaborate closely with bishops, bishops’ organizations, and members of the Church working in dialogue throughout the world. Official dialogue meetings between the Secretariat and various religious groups began.
During this period, not only the Secretariat for non-Christians, but the entire Catholic Church, following the directions given by the Second Vatican Council, was developing dialogue activities in every part of the world in an unprecedented manner. It was an exciting and sometimes chaotic time in the Church, a time for experimenting and clarifying, a time for laying groundwork and defining roles.
During John Paul II’s Pontificate
Pope John Paul II brought energy and enthusiasm to the work of interreligious dialogue. As one scholar put it, “The philosopher that John Paul II was saw God’s Spirit at work in other religions (Redemptor hominis 6). The traveller that he was approached many politicians of other faiths and inspired millions of non-Christian youths. The charismatic leader that he was succeeded in calling the world’s religions together in Assisi to pray for peace.” (Felix Korner, S.J.)
The most high-profile event during this time in which the Secretariat for non-Christians was involved, was the Assisi Prayer Meeting for Peace in 1986. Held in the city of St. Francis, the prayer meeting drew 50 representatives of Christian communities and 60 representatives of other religions. Pope John Paul II believed deeply in the power of prayer to change hearts and situations in the world. At the Prayer Meeting he said, “If there are many and important differences among us, there is also a common ground, whence to operate together in the solution of this dramatic challenge of our age: true peace or catastrophic war? Yes, there is the dimension of prayer, which in the very real diversity of religions tries to express communication with a Power above all our human forces. Peace depends basically on this Power, which we call God, and as Christians believe has revealed himself in Christ.”
The Secretariat, re-named the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) in 1988, continued to expand relationships with dialogue partners, opening and maintaining official dialogue with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs with the goal of mutual understanding and collaboration on issues important to humanity, such as human rights, peace, and religious freedom.
In addition to the good-will message to Muslims for Ramadan, which began in 1967, in 1995 PCID decided to send greetings to Buddhists for the Feast of Vesakh; in 1996, the Hindus too began to receive greetings on the occasion of the Feast of Diwali. The Messages of the PCID became an important method of expressing friendship and maintaining contact with followers of other religions.
The Secretariat’s initial efforts to clarify the meaning of the work of dialogue, for itself and for the Church, were expressed in the document “Dialogue and Mission,” published in 1984. The fruit of much discussion and experience, the document clarified that dialogue “…is a manner of acting, an attitude and a spirit which guides one’s conduct. It implies concern, respect, and hospitality towards the other. It leaves room for the other person’s identity, his modes of expression, and his values.” At the same time, a Christian engaged in dialogue is also proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ through words and actions. Rather than being at odds, dialogue and mission go hand-in-hand. The Church’s reflection on this truth is an ongoing task and a particular focus of PCID.
In 1991, PCID developed this theme further with the publication of the defining document Dialogue and Proclamation. This was a joint work of PCID and the Dicastery for the Evangelization of Peoples, and it clarified a question that had been gathering momentum as the practical work of dialogue evolved: For a Christian, what is the relationship between interreligious dialogue and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ? This thorough document forthrightly addressed the gifts and challenges of proclaiming the gospel in a pluralistic world. Christians are called to proclaim Christ in the manner of Christ—with respect, openness, obedience to truth, and patience—that is, in a dialogic manner.
During Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontificate
Scholars of inter-religious dialogue have reflected that Benedict XVI’s particular way to conduct interreligious dialogue was “reflecting with others” (Korner) with “a distinctive emphasis on truth.” (Howard) He wrote in his encyclical Caritas in veritate: “Reason always stands in need of being purified by faith… For its part, religion always needs to be purified by reason in order to show its authentically human face. Any breach in this dialogue comes only at an enormous price to human development.” 56
Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict was eager to participate in interreligious meetings on his apostolic journeys. On the 25th anniversary of the first Prayer Meeting, in 2011, he convoked a Prayer Meeting in Assisi. About 180 representatives of various religions participated.
During this time, increased attention was paid to religions in Asia, with travels to India, Japan, Korea, and Indonesia, initiating structured dialogue with Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain organizations and sending for the first time, messages to Jains and to Sikhs on the occasions of their respective feasts.
In keeping with Caritas in Veritate, PCID published Dialogue in Charity and Truth in 2014. Though published after Pope Benedict’s resignation, this document was already being prepared following the 2010 Plenary Assembly of PCID. This is the third major publication of PCID, summarizing past teachings on interreligious dialogue and applying principles to the present situation. It takes account of changing cultural contexts, including globalization, the increasing practice of using religion to justify violent actions, and the proliferation of relativistic dialogue activities that do not always respect the profound differences among religious traditions.
During Pope Francis’ Pontificate
One scholar of interreligious dialogue, Fr. Damian Howard, SJ, wrote near the beginning of Pope Francis’ pontificate, in 2014, “As, under Pope Francis, the Church becomes more aware of her missionary nature, she is likely to grow in appreciation of the place of dialogue at the service of that mission.”
Indeed, since 2013, dialogue and particularly interreligious dialogue has been center-stage in the Holy Father’s teachings about the missionary and evangelising nature of the Church. Pope Francis has emphasized the need to develop friendships with followers of other religions. In 2019, one of his own friendships bore fruit when he signed The Document on Human Fraternity with Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib. This document calls on Christians, Muslims, and all people of good will to build a world of human fraternity. They state, “Dialogue, understanding and the widespread promotion of a culture of tolerance, acceptance of others and of living together peacefully would contribute significantly to reducing many economic, social, political and environmental problems that weigh so heavily on a large part of humanity.”
In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis emphasized the uniqueness and beauty of the Christian faith while presenting a vision of how diverse peoples and religions can work together to further peace and justice in the world.
Pope Francis has made a point of visiting many countries that are multi-religious, encouraging the Christian populations, and calling on religious and political leaders to uphold human and civil rights for all.
The work of PCID continues as old and new relationships of dialogue are fostered through symposia, publications, and visits. PCID also initiated dialogue with Daoists in 2016. The Council has made good use of webinars during the COVID pandemic to stay connected with dialogue partners.
Cardinal Ayuso, the current President of PCID, in his address to the G20 Interfaith Forum in October 2020, expressed the challenge and gift of interreligious dialogue: “The world is passing through a very dark moment that demands adequate responses and solutions to the problems of our existential life. There is a real necessity for the human family to come together with a unified spirit and in a real friendship to propose answers to our common problems.”