George Varghese Tothamkara, CM[*]

I. Vatican II Documents

The Prayer of Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Vatican II was, “O Holy Spirit, Come down upon thy Church and renew it with a new Pentecostal experience.” This prayer seems to have taken effect. We could see the spirit of renewal and unity in the Church. The greatest proof of this is the document “Nostra Aetate” where Church’s attitude towards other religions is defined. However, this topic is also dealt in the council documents such as “Lumen Gentium”, “Gadium Et Spes”, and “Ad Gentes”.

1.1 Nostra Aetate

This was one of the documents that was widely discussed after the council and received wide applause in the world. It seems Pope John had no intention of producing a document similar to this. He wanted a mention of the attitude of the Church to Jews, as part of a document on Ecumenism. But as the discussion progressed the attitude of the Church towards other religions also came up. So, in this document, the approach of the church towards Hindu-Islam-Jewish-Buddhist religions, was portrayed which was considered to be a new approach and vision.

Deviating from the tradition of comparing Christianity with other religions, and defining its own special identity, this document starts with searching for realms that unite different religions. All human beings belong to the same race and have the same origin.  It is God who has spread human kind all over the world. The final goal of every man is the same–God. His providence and salvific plan embraces all. This will continue until the chosen ones are gathered together in the city illumined with the glory of God (NA 1).

The document also recognizes the salvific value of other religions. The Church does not reject any thing found as holy and true in these religions. Indeed the practices, lifestyle, laws and theories in these religions are different from that of what the church believes and teaches. Yet the Church looks at them with sincere respect, because in all of them there is the reflection of the rays of that truth which enlightens all (NA 2).

Since all are the children of the same God, illumined by the rays of the same truth, Christians are asked to live in good relationship with people of other religions. So the Church encourages her children to engage in dialogue and cooperation with other religions, with prudence and love while witnessing to Christian faith and life. Church also teaches to recognize, protect and promote the spiritual and moral goodness and the social and cultural values found in them (NA 2).

Man is created in the image of God. So if we are not able to treat as brother or sister any other human being, we will not be able to address God as the Father of all. The relationship that man has towards God and other human beings is inseparable as the scripture testifies (1Jn 4:8). The Church also condemns showing discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, colour, and the standard of life. She asks Christians to establish a friendly relationship with people of other religions (1Pet 2:22). They should try to live in peace with every person. It is only then will the Christians really become the children of the heavenly Father (NA, 5).

The Church also invites all especially the Jews and Muslims to return back from the way of past class-enmity and crusades to the way of peace and brotherliness of tomorrow. It was an invitation by the council to the three biblical religions to work together for the good of the world based on mutual trust and collaboration.

The council condemned the circumstances and attitude that led to depict Jews as the murderers of the Son of God and give silent consent to the Jewish persecutions. It is by showing the primary place of Jews as the chosen people of God, and the co-responsibility in the salvific plan of God that the council tries to strengthen the relationship with the Jews. The Church of Christ agrees that fitting to the salvific plan of God, it is in relation to Moses and the prophets that its faith and call originated (NA, 4).

The council also speaks with respect about the relationship with Islam. The council Fathers accepts that though Muslims do not accept Christ as God, they do revere him as a prophet of God and prays to the Virgin Mary. The Christians and Muslims who believe in one God, last judgement and resurrection can forget their enmity and work together. The council invites to forget all the past numerous disputes, wars and enmity between the Christians and Muslims. Both group should work together to build up mutual trust and confidence and should stand together to protect and promote social justice, moral values and peace for the sake of the humanity (NA-3).

1.2 Lumen Gentium

The council’s view on other religions can be also seen in the document on the Church and her duties in this world called Lumen Gentium. If it is established that Church is the only means of salvation, the other religious beliefs and traditions will become irrelevant. That may be the reason why the council reminds us that as an earthly reality Church is relative.

Even when affirming that it is in the Church instituted by Christ that his presence is specially found and so becoming a member of the church is imperative, the council also reminds us that just by becoming the member of the body of Christ alone one will not be saved. The council points out based on the Holy Scriptures and tradition that the pilgrim Church is necessary for eternal salvation. The reason is that there is only one mediator and one way to salvation. That is Christ. He is present amidst us through his body the church. Those who do not exist in love and those who are present in the church externally alone will not be saved just because they are members of the church but will be liable to severe judgment (LG, 14).

In this document the openness of the church to other religions is expressed in its description about the people of God. “.. those who have not accepted the good news are related to the people of God in various ways. Those who proclaim God the creator are also included in his plan of salvation. God is not far from those who search him in his shadows and images. Because it is he who gives life and energy and everything that they require. The God of salvation wants that all men be saved. Those who have not known the gospel of Christ and his church by no fault of theirs, but searches for God with a sincere heart and tries to fulfill the will of God revealed through their conscience by the grace of God, can certainly attain salvation” (LG 16).

By including, those who do good and fear God, among the people of God, Besides those who become the members of the Church through baptism, the council was making it clear that the criterion of salvation is beyond the external boundaries of the religion. The fact that the council was able to include those who live submissive to the will of God according to the promptings of one’s conscience, and those who seek the Lord through images and symbols, gives the possibility for the Church to work together for the salvation of mankind not only with the people of other religions but also with all people of good will. For ‘beyond the visible boundaries of the church too, many elements of truth and holiness can be found’ (LG 8).

1.3 Gaudium et Spes

In this document, the council takes the approach of including in the salvific plan, not only those who do religious research, but those who through the material branches of knowledge become the seekers of truth. The reason for it is the realization that God is the source of both science and faith and the conviction that it is the same spirit of God that is reflected in the created things and in the human beings who also is his creation. Anybody who enters into the depth of truth with courage and humility, even if he is not aware of it, is being led by God, who has given existence to all. Hence the attitude of some that science and faith are contradictory is a deplorable approach. Even when many reasons are being pointed out for the good and just persons and communities working  in material and spiritual areas besides the visible church,  would be saved, it is still not clear for the council how those who  have not received baptism would be saved. But this does not lead them to take a negative approach. The council fathers preferred to take a positive and imaginative approach for the way God and the work of his Spirit is not always conceivable to the human reason. Christ died for all. The inner call of every human person is one and divine. Hence we have to believe that the possibility of everybody participating in the paschal mystery is given by the Holy Spirit in a way that is conceivable only to God (GS 22).

1.4 Ad Gentes:

In this document, while the council considers evangelization as the fundamental obligation of the Church, it also acknowledges that in other religions and cultures there is the presence of God, his touch of grace and the rays of light. ‘The universal plan of God for salvation of mankind is not carried out solely in a secret manner, as it were, in the minds of men, nor by the efforts even religious, through which they in many ways seek God in an attempt to touch him and find him, though God is not far from any of us.  Their efforts need to be enlightened and corrected, although in the loving providence of God, they may lead one to the true God and be a preparation for the gospels’ (AG 3).

The council exhorts Christians to deal with others in mutual respect and love to give effective witness to Christ. They have to consider themselves as genuine members of the society in which they live. They have to know closely their national, cultural and religious traditions and search with respect and joy the hidden seeds of the word of God inherent in them (AG 11).

Differing from the old concept that there is no salvation outside the church, council here reiterates that in other religions there is the salvific presence God, and that there are seeds of the word in them and that they are the pointers to the true God. This has opened a door to a new realization in the church. The council has put an end to the thinking that the church has the exclusive right over the salvific grace of God. The teaching of the council makes it clear that God according to his will makes the salvific grace available to the people living in different cultures, traditions and religions.

While maintaining this broad attitude, church does not teach that the other religions and their cultures and traditions are full in themselves and self salvific. Neither does the council say that Christ and his Church are not necessary any longer. Council sees salvific values in other religions only in those which are not contrary to the gospel values. The source of them is Christ himself. When people of other religions listen to their conscience and live according to the good and just values in their religions, they without their knowledge receive grace from Christ in a hidden way. This grace is being given through the church in a way known to God alone. The uniqueness of Christ and the oneness of Church together with the openness to other religions are in a balanced way blended in the teachings of the council.


The broad theological approach of the Vat II council towards other religions, continued in the church documents published thereafter. I am giving a summary of the theological ideas of all the important documents starting from “Ecclesiam suam” of Pope Paul VI, published in 1964, to “Dominus Iesus” of Pope John Paul II. However to avoid repetition, I am only mentioning the ideas different from what is mentioned in the Vat II documents.

2.1 Ecclesiam Suam

This is the first encyclical written by Pope Paul VI. The basic attitude that Church should have towards other religions is mentioned here. The pope encourages an approach based on friendly dialogue with other religions. The Pope presents it not as a need of diplomatic relationship but as an expression of the broad an all embracing heart of God who is inviting all mankind to salvation. Within the limits of dialogue the Pope includes the dialogue that has to take place within the Catholic Church too. He aims at a creative and fruitful dialogue based on mutual love and respect that will lead to renewal and progress within the Church.

The Pope speaks here of different levels of dialogue (Nos. 155-159). In the limits of the first level of dialogue is a broad one that includes the whole mankind. Here the subject of dialogue could be anything that touches man. We can have dialogue with anyone including rationalists, atheists and scientists. Hence the dialogue need not be Theo-centric. The aim is the progress and development of the world.

Within the limits of second level is included every person who believes in God. Here dialogue is done with people of different religious traditions. A sharing of the spiritual richness of people of different religions leads them to work together in search of God and for spiritual fulfillment.

In the third level the Pope speaks of an exchange of ideas between different Church groups. The aim of this dialogue is that Christians, who believe in the message of salvation through Jesus Christ, and who is united in Him, be able to examine the depth of their faith and become ardent witnesses to the Faith through unity.

The church besides acknowledging the moral and spiritual values inherent in other religions, desires to work in collaboration with them in various fields such as nation-building, protection of human rights, religious freedom and education (Christian Faith 1030).

Through the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam Pope Paul VI presents a theology of dialogue and collaboration with other religions. In 1964 the Pope, by setting up an office for non Christian religions, affirmed the need and importance of this new approach to other religions.

2.2 Evangelii Nuntiandi:

This Apostolic letter was published in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. Here the theology of other religions is dealt in the background of the apostolic works (evangelization) of the church. While depicting evangelization as an innate duty of the Church, the Pope also exhorts Christians to respect the religious traditions of the people of the place where the church reaches with its apostolic duty and right. The Church greatly respects and values non Christian religions and their traditions, lifestyle and faith. The vibrancies of the search of God that is continued since millions of years can be echoed in those religions. This document upholds a proclamation of faith that is rooted in respect and tolerance (no: 53).

It is very important to note the observance of the Pope on the salvific values found in the scriptures of other religions. The Pope points out that they are preparations for the Gospel and that seeds of the word of God can be found in them (no: 53). This idea is the continuation of the theology of the Vat II council on other religions. Pope John Paul II is one of the modern popes who were very open to diversity. The broad approach of Pope John Paul II, to other religions is seen in all his writing starting from Rdemptor Hominis to Dominus Jesus.

2.3 Redemptor Hominis

This is the first encyclical of Pope John Paul II. Here the Pope aims at presenting Christ as the universal saviour of the humankind. While firmly upholding Christ as the saviour of the world, there is a strong appeal to continue the friendly approach to the people of other religions. The Pope points out the advantage the Christians will have by engaging in inter-religious dialogue. He exhorts Christians to be open to recognize and accept the spiritual richness found in other religions through interaction. The Pope advises the Christians that the universal saviourhood of Christ is to be proclaimed with due respect to other religions. It is the Holy Spirit working in the depths of human heart and ‘blowing where it pleases’ (Jn3:8), who prompts us to approach the humankind and its diverse cultures with sincerity and openness. Evangelization is not eradication but perfecting and building up in a new way (no:12).

2.4 Dialogue and Mission

It was on the Pentecost day of 1984 that the Pontifical Council for Non Christian Religions (Known since 1988 as Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue –  PCID) brought out the document called Dialogue and Mission. The aim of this document was to place inter-religious dialogue within the sphere of Evangelization. Evangelization is presented as a complex process which comprises various elements and inter-religious dialogue is one among those many elements. Life witness, prayerful and contemplative life, works aimed at the development and progress of humankind, fight against poverty and injustice, dialogue with other religions, and proclamation and catechesis are some of the elements of evangelization (no. 13).

Another important thought that this document presents is that, the church is a community, together with other religions, journeying towards the perfection of the kingdom of God. If it is stated that the Church is the fullness of the kingdom of God, there is no relevance in the salvific value of other religions. So quoting Lumen Gentium no. 5, this document establishes that the church is the seed and growth of the kingdom of God.

Because there are the seeds of the human and religious truths and of goodness in other religions, it is the duty of the church to bring about the unity of humankind, in the journey towards the kingdom of God. Though many of them are different from the Christian values, they deserve respect of every Christian. The way that a Christian has in front of him for absorbing these values, is dialogue (no. 26).

2.5 Dominum et Vivificantem

This encyclical was published by Pope John Paul II, on May 18, 1986. The Pope in his encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, had mentioned the universal presence of the Holy Spirit and its functions. In this encyclical, the Pope is dealing with the various and broad spheres of the works of the Holy Spirit.

We cannot limit our spiritual quest and search within the history of 2000 years from the birth of Christ. We have to travel to the agile and active presence of the Spirit from the beginning of the world especially from the time of the Old covenant. Basing on the teachings of the Vat II the Pope speaks of the working of the Holy Spirit beyond the external and visible boundaries of the church. Since Christ died for all (Rom 8, 32)and because the final end of every man is God, Holy Spirit, in a way conceivable to God alone, enables every person to participate in the paschal mystery of Christ (no.53).

2.6 Pope’s talk to the Roman Curia

Pope John Paul II gave a significant talk on 22nd December, 1986 to the Roman curia on inter-religious dialogue. This was given immediately after the prayer meeting held at Assisi of the representatives of all religions on 27th October, 1986. After this meeting there were some doubts in the minds of some members of the curia whether Christians could pray together with people of other religions. This could be seen as a reply to this question.

The Pope starts speaking of the fundamental unity of mankind. The unity of mankind is evident from the creation. The Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit created humans as man and woman, in his own image and likeness. Since the origin of mankind is from God, the entire mankind is a large family (no.3). All are called to the same goal. Above and beyond all differences and divisions, all men are united together in Christ. All these realities lead us to the great mystery of the basic unity of all mankind. So the children of the church should be ready to react positively and deal creatively with the people of other religions (no. 5).

In this talk the Pope above all upholds the universal presence of the Holy Spirit. The pope points out the presence of the Holy Spirit in every man and in his quest for God. All genuine prayers prompt all people to awaken the presence of the Holy spirit indwelling in them. So when people of different religions pray together, all are awakened into the same spiritual awareness and God experience (no. 11)

2.7 Redemptoris Missio

This encyclical was produced by Pope John Paul II on 7th December 1990. This document aims at removing the doubts that propped up in the area of evangelization, due to the inter-religious dialogue and discussions and to connect inter-religious dialogue with the apostolic mission of the church. The dialogue between different religions is a part of the duty of the church to evangelize. It is not opposed to the duty of evangelization. The intimate relation between dialogue and evangelization and the uniqueness of each of this function is to be undoubtedly maintained. The false thinking that one is to be replaced with the other and the wrong interpretations of them are to be avoided. Besides through the ordinary way instituted by Christ for salvation i.e. the church, the people of other religions can also receive grace and salvation wrought by Christ through other means. However the invitation of God to faith and baptism prepared for all cannot be neglected (no.55).

Even while portraying dialogue and proclamation as two mutually connected forms of evangelization, the encyclical presents the nature and goal of dialogue, by accepting the salvific nature of other religions. God wants to share the fullness of his love and revelation with people of other religions. God does not hesitate to reveal himself in different ways. He can reveal himself not only to individuals but to a people as a whole. He does this through their spiritual richness. The essential means of revelation of the spiritual richness is their religions, though there may be many imperfections and gaps in them (no. 55).

Diplomacy or selfish motives are not the aim of dialogue. The work of the Holy Spirit who blows where it likes (Jn 3:8) is what gives relevance and direction. The Church through dialogue tries to unfold the seeds of the word. It is aimed at enlightening all with the rays of truth.

The Pope encourages the missionaries who had to live being misunderstood in the path of dialogue. He tells them to hold on with faith and love, for dialogue is the way to the kingdom of God. It will certainly bring results, though its time and season is known to God alone (no. 57).

2.8 Dialogue and Proclamation:

The document ‘Dialogue and mission’ produced by the secretariat for non Christian Religions in 1984 had given rise to many doubts and discomforts. So in 1991 the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples jointly produced this document called Dialogue and Proclamation. Explaining the universal character of the Kingdom of God the document states that the reign of God and his Kingdom can be seen throughout the history. Its fulfillment is in eternity. The Church is the seed and growth of this kingdom of God. Even outside the church there is the Kingdom of God and its reign. All those who submit themselves to the workings of the Spirit partake in the Kingdom. So we have to view other religions and faith with respect (35).

This document sees other religions as the part of the universal salvific plan of God.  It also affirms that those who follow the right guidelines given by them and those who obey their conscience will certainly be saved. ‘All people who are being saved participate in the saving mystery of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is by following the good traditions and guidelines of their religion and the voice of one’s own conscience that they receive the invitation of God to salvation’ (no. 29)

It is important to note that even while accepting the salvific value in other religions, the document warns that we have to be able to discern the source of grace in them with prudence and wisdom. When we say that there are elements of grace in them, it does not mean that every element in them is the fruit of grace. Since the entire world is under the grip of sin, there will be elements of sin in the traditions and cultures of religions. So the right attitude to other religions also includes understanding the difference between them and Christianity and recognizing the good in them (no. 31). The document also insists that while inter-religious dialogue is to be encouraged, such a dialogue should be open to evangelization. Dialogue should open the ways to evangelization. The document reminds that just by making attempts of dialogue we should not end the duty of evangelization (no.82).

2.9 Ecclesia in Asia

After the Asian Synod, Pope John Paul II produced this apostolic exhortation called “Ecclesia in Asia.” The Special feature of this document is that while upholding the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, it recognizes the various religious traditions and cultures. It affirms the universal salvation obtained by Christ and the all embracing presence of the Holy Spirit. The duty of Christ was also, to bring about a new relationship between men who were estranged due to sin. Christ gave to the humanity, to live like brothers and sisters, above all divisions, accepting the heavenly father no. 13).

2.10 Dominus Jesus

One more document that I would like to consider on inter-religious dialogue is Dominus Jesus published on August 6, 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Many theologians think this document has many statements that have brought a shadow on the open broadminded attitude of Vat. II and the subsequent developments. They point out as example the words used to point out the difference between the Christian faith and non-Christian faith by placing them in two levels. The document says that theologically faith is the accepting of the revealed truths in grace. It enables us to enter in the mystery and to grasp it integrally. The deposit of faith, of other religions, is the totality of the experience and reflection. It is still searching the simple truth. It does not have the acceptance of God who reveals himself (no. 7).

At the same time there are also the important teachings of Vat II on the need for having friendly relationship with other religions. ‘God desires to call all peoples to himself and to give the fullness of his revelation and love to them. Therefore he is present not only in different persons, but also in different communities. It is through their spiritual richness that he is present in them. Their religion, in spite of the inadequacies and failures, is the important and essential manifestation of this spiritual richness’ (no. 8).

The document emphasizes that ‘those who are not the members of the church officially and visibly can also approach the salvation in Christ. This is the work of grace that mystically joins them with Christ without officially making them members of the church. This saving grace is given from Christ by the effect of his sacrifice on the cross through the Holy Spirit’ (no. 20). Christ died for the entire human race. The spiritual invitation that man has received is one and holy. So we must believe that the Holy Spirit gives to all humans the possibility to share in the paschal mystery, in a way that is known to God alone’ (no. 12).

Some theologians think that it may be due to the eagerness to be the continuation of the Vatican II teaching and at the same the desire to control the new theological developments of Asian, Latin-American and African churches that some anomalies are found in this document. For example first it states in the beginning of paragraph 21 that “In reality various religious traditions have the religious elements coming from God.” But further it states in the same paragraph, “Yet we cannot say that they have their origin from God.” Here the first part is the thinking of Vat II and second that of Trent. Because of such anomalies this document was criticized very much.


We were trying to analyze in a summarized way, the doctrine of the church regarding its approach to other religions starting from Ecclesiam Suam to Dominus Jesus. Except for some statements, it is the continuous growth of the broad approach of the Vat II council towards other religions. The negative statements are to be seen as an attempt to draw a line or limit within the church for its theological thoughts, rather than as a denial of other religions.

[*] Rev. Fr. George Varghese Tothamkara CM is the provincial visitator of the Southern Indian Province of the CM, is currently the Assistant General elect of the CM.


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