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A Theological Introduction to Catholicism


by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

Chapter 14: Catholicism and Other Religions

The guiding text of Catholic reflection on the topic of other religions must now be
Nostra aetate, the declaration on this subject by the Second Vatican Council. For while statements of this relationship are to be found scattered among individual Church Fathers and theologians, it has not previously come to expression at a theological "place" so important as an ecumenical council. The text in question limits rightly, to pointing out features of the complex and mysterious relation between the Church and other religious traditions. While faith in Jesus Christ involves belief that he is the pre-existent Logos and the ultimate Lord of history, it does not entail the claim to know the consequences for every aspect of created reality of this immanent presence and lordship. That would be to anticipate illicitly God's own discriminating judgment, which is either salvation or condemnation for creatures.

In the opening chapter of the document, the council Fathers teach that all people have a single origin and one ultimate end, namely, God himself. His "providence," the "witness of his goodness," and "counsels of his salvation" extend to all human beings. His salvific will is universal (the document refers to a chain of scriptural texts), but this means that he owes it to himself to offer all human beings whatever means are necessary and sufficient to attain salvation.

Does this mean that other world religions should be thought of as such "means of salvation"? The text does not say so. Scripture speaks of the Noachic covenant, made with all the peoples of the earth. But this is little more than a promise of God's fidelity to his own created, work. It has no obvious bearing on the providential character of the ~ particular religious traditions with which the Christian missionary or theologian must deal. These religions are historical creations With debts to a conditioning society and culture. The Noachic covenant may be illuminating for Jean Daniélou's "holy pagans" of the Old Testament, but it cannot be taken to legitimize, without more ado, all existing world religions. Yet it may be relevant to them.

On the one hand, Scripture has it that it is God's will that "
all should be saved, and be led to recognize the truth" (1 Tim 2:3), while, on the other hand, the same biblical revelation insists that "Nobody reaches God's presence until he has learned to believe that God exists and that he rewards those who try to find him" (Heb 11:6). Yet the latter conditions are realized, it would seem, among a rather sizeable human constituency. Not only such heterodox Christian communities as Unitarians but Judaism and Islam too propose this minimum material object of faith to their adherents. The same may hold for segments of those religions which can claim no connection with the main stem of historic revelation, and can boast only some distant echo of "primitive" revelation. Paul's address to the Athenians assembled on the Areopagus in the Acts of the Apostles, with its citation from the pagan Greek poet Aratos, refers to the Creator Lord of the biblical tradition: "In him we live and move and have our being, for we are his off-spring" (Acts 17:28), a text written in praise of Zeus, father of gods and humans. The Pauline critique of human religions in the Letter to the Romans presupposes, as did the Hellenistic-Jewish author of the Book of Wisdom, that the goyim grasped well enough the one divine Creator (Rom 1:20); the reproach that they mistook the creature for the Creator in abusive worship of the former would be meaningless otherwise.

If the same mystery is approached less by way of the material object of faith, and more by way of its subjective condition, a still more generous conclusion is possible. The "intention of faith," in Catholic theology, consists in the good disposition of the person to his or her last (supernatural) end, and, consequently, to the necessary means for attaining that end. Those necessary means are of course the regime of grace, while the subjective disposition required is faith. In the normal scheme of things, it is through the apostolic preaching that this intention of faith encounters the object adequate to it, namely God's redemptive and reconciling work in Jesus Christ and his Spirit. Failing that, at least it finds the "minimum material object," as it were the minimal sacrament of salvation.

A question is raised by Catholic writers in the modern period, conscious, inevitably, of the massive cultural facts of paganism and atheism of which the Fathers and medievals were either unaware or which they happily escaped: If the intention of faith does not encounter even this minimum object, and the person remains invincibly ignorant of God - for many doubt or ignore the existence of a personal absolute - may it not be said to find an outlet in adhering to some substitute for God, like devotion to a great cause (e.g., justice, truth, brotherhood peace; one might add, in the postmodernist context, reverencing "other"), treated as though that mighty preoccupation were an absolute? Objectively, these values could be considered the idols - the alternatives to God - of the contemporary world. But on the subject level, may they not function instead as so many "species" (really, propriating instruments) whereby, tacitly and unconsciously, human conscience seeks and honors the true God? Some Catholic theologians would answer, mindful of the Hebrews text already quoted, no: there must always be explicit knowledge of the object of salvific faith, albeit granted "by God himself or through an angel," as Augustine puts it, in the moment of death. The pars gravior of Scripture favors this view. In the Bible, whenever the field of salvation is extended beyond the limits of the people of God (with, say, the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah, or the "queen of the South" in our Lord's reference in Matthew 12), it presupposes not only explicit faith in the exis~ tence of God but also some reference to the positive economy of the Judaeo-Christian revelation. Yet there is a second strain as well in Scripture: that catena of texts which opens up wide possibilities of, at any rate, non-damnation (for some commentators would speak of those who cannot reach theistic assent as moral infants, destined for. "limbo"), on the principle that God will render to each according to his or her work. For Paul, persons who, lacking the law of Moses, have for law their own conscience will be assessed on that basis before the judgment seat of God. Although performing good works for fallen humanity is impossible without the help of grace and entering into the orbit of the sovereign plan of Christ (cf. Eph 1:19-23; Col 1:15; 2:9), Paul nonetheless envisages a reward at the end of time to which no other name than "salvation" seems appropriate for those who, on the basis of conscience, carry out such deeds. By extension, presumably, for followers of various religions (or anti-religions), bound to travesties of God, the unum necessarium would be to maintain such an attitude in their works - humility of heart and openness to the promptings of the light - as would not deprive God's ultimate plan of efficacy. In such persons of good will, the intention of faith would be present, though it would only reach its proper term eschatologically.

None of this affects the basic grounding of Catholic missionary activity. The latter is dogmatically based in two claims: first, that grace cannot take its birth except through our mother the Church, the second Eve and spouse of Jesus Christ; second, that God has commissioned the Catholic Church, and her alone, to be the institution that provides salvation for all human beings in Christ. Whatever grace is found in other religions, then, has its source in the incarnation of the Word in Mary's womb, and the atoning work of the Logos enfleshed through the paschal mystery. The yearning of the Church for the entry into her of nations whose cultures flow from other religions is founded, therefore, on the desire to recuperate aspects of her own being: for her own corporate consciousness - the
sensus Ecclesiae - will have an increase of light as revelation becomes more luminous to us through its expression by way of all the nations of the earth. As Abbé Jules Monchanin put it, referring to the example of India:

What Justin and Clement said of Greece may equally well be said of India. The Logos was mysteriously preparing the way for his coming and the Holy Spirit stimulated spiritually the gropings of the purest minds among the Greeks. The Logos and the Holy Spirit are again at work and in a similar maimer in the depths of the Indian soul. Unfortunately, Indian philosophy is spotted with error and does not appear to have found its proper equilibrium. And neither did the Greek until the message of the risen Christ had been humbly received by Greece. Outside the unique revelation and the one Church, man everywhere and always is incapable of filtering the good through the evil, truth through error. But once christianized, Greece rejected the errors of her ancestors - especially their too cosmic perspective and their forgetfulness of the transcendental aspect of the Absolute-and having been baptized in the blood of her martyrs, she became mistress of the world in philosophy, theology, and mysticism. So, in the same maimer, with confidence in the unwavering direction of the Gospel, it is our hope that India, once baptized in the depth of her "quest for Brahman" which has endured for centuries, will reject her pantheistic tendencies; and, discovering in the Holy Spirit the true mysticism, will engender, for the good of humanity and the Church, and for the glory of God, dazzling galaxies of saints and doctors. [1]

How, then, does the Catholic Church see other religions? We must begin with Judaism, the Church's own root and mother. Not only does our New Testament still contain a letter to the Hebrews - Hebrew Christians, Jewish Christians - but its whole canon bears witness to the pangs of birth as the Church emerges from Judaism. We may be tempted to think of this as the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, but this would be to ignore the tragic sense of loss, breathed by so many pages of the New Testament, at Israel's failure to recognize the Christ. There is nothing tragic about the metamorphosis of a caterpillar.

It is true that many Christians understand the Old Testament better than some Jews. It is also true that the Church's own understanding, as the englobing subject of revealed faith, surpasses in range what Judaism can say of its own Scriptures. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that there must be a special inwardness or intimacy in the way that Jews live with the Hebrew Bible and the other literature that made, or reflects, the world of the Gospels. No Gentile can, for instance, feel the devotion to the Torah that a Jew feels. No Gentile Christian can grasp the implications of Jesus' identification of himself as the Torah in person in the way that a Jew might. In this perspective it is extremely unfortunate that the church of the Hebrew Christian failed to survive within the Catholica. Had it done so, the universal Church would have included within the unity of the same faith, sacraments, and governance communities especially devoted to the memory and observances of the Jewish ancestors of the Christian way - a living witness not only to non-Christian Jews but to Gentile Catholicism also.

The principal Jewish objection to the Church where doctrine is concerned is her affirmation of the divinity of Christ. However, it can be noted that in the first centuries of the Christian era, the same theological principle guided a process of internal clarification among both Jews and Christians: the infinite qualitative distinction between the uncreated and the created, ruling out as this does any suggestion of intermediate beings or conditions. Just as Judaism pruned away its more extravagant apocalyptic imagery, and a tendency to angelolatry, so the Church shunned the homoiousion ("like in being [to the Father]") of the semi-Arians and clove to the view that either Christ is consubstantial with God or he is of no transcendent significance whatever. It is possible that it was an initial encounter with an implicitly heretical Christianity rather than direct confrontation with the orthodox tradition of the Nicene faith that accounts for the vehemence of rabbinic Judaism's rejection of patristic Christianity.

The main Jewish objection to Catholicism in the realm of practice must be the Church's mixed record of treatment of the Jews in her midst. There were indeed numerous verbal and physical attacks on Jews carried out more or less under Christian auspices. Yet on the whole, and this is not so often adverted to, higher ecclesiastical authority tended to moderate negative action towards the Jews either by the populace or by secular princes. It can be suggested that hatred for Jews on the part of European Christians was fundamentally a reaction of the residual pagan - the "
old Adam" - against the originators of "bondage" to pure worship and high ethical norms. In this sense, violence against Jews was a rebellion against Christianity itself, under the figure of a less powerful proxy. By the time of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, we are dealing not so much with a Christian civilization but with a European civilization which a century-and-a-half previously had embarked on a rapid process of de-Christianization.

Judaism's distinctive continuing light can add to the Church an orthopractic concern with the mitzvoth, the divine precepts, whose actualization is a sign that makes present the Creator's reign and a celebration of a total liturgy, referring the creation to the Creator and so consecrating it to God through human agency.

Since Judaism is not in the fullest sense a different religion from Christianity, there can be and are such a thing as "
Hebrew Catholics," Jews who have entered the Church but with every intention of maintaining their Jewish heritage intact. They insist with Paul that "God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew," for "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29). A Catholic Christian, contemplating the mystery of Israel, can be, accordingly, only a qualified supersessionist. Inasmuch as Israel's Messiah has come, and fashioned his new community, the call of Israel is indeed superseded. Yet the vocation of Israel, to witness that the One who has come is truly her long-expected Savior and that the salvation he wrought is the genuine fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Bible, remains intact. For the Paul of Romans, the prospect of this perduring election of Israel reaching full term is a cause of eschatological joy: "If their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (11:12). Hebrew Catholics, meanwhile, have a special place within the Church; their association enables them to experience a common identity as the prototype of the Israel of the end, and not merely a random collection of assimilated Jews.

We can now turn to the case of Islam. The genius of Mohammed was to provide a rationale for the Arabs in their self-involvement in Jewish messianism. Proclaiming the descent of the Arabs from Ishmael, brother of the patriarch Jacob (Israel), Mohammed gave his people both a claim to the inheritance of the Holy Land (Palestine), and, more importantly, a monotheistic genealogy. The Second Vatican Council declared of Muslims:

They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit whole-heartedly even to his inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honour Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her too, with devotion. In addition they await the day of judgement when God will give each man his due after raising him up. Consequently, they prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. [2]

But the declaration also refers to the "many quarrels and hostilities" between Christians and Muslims in the course of the centuries. It is natural that there would be some hostility toward a distinct religion originating from the Abrahamic root at a time when salvation through faith in Christ had already been available to humankind for six hundred years - a cult, moreover, that proceeded, largely by force of arms, to displace Christianity as the dominant religion throughout the Near East and much of the Mediterranean world, including the Holy Land itself. In the last century or so, Catholic scholars have made a great effort of sympathetic understanding in the study of Islam, but there have been few signs of reciprocation by Muslim scholars. The 1985 invitation from the king of Morocco, who claims descent from Mohammed and the title "Commander of the Faithful," to Pope John Paul II to address an audience of young Muslims from a number of countries was a rare (and eagerly accepted) opportunity for dialogue. Muslims know Jesus only via polemics, of which, among more gracious materials, the Koran provides the earliest example: the idea that Jesus is the Son of God appears there as absurd and indeed blasphemous.

Catholicism, however, welcomes Islam's grasp of the divine aseity - the terrible distinctness of God from the world - not least in a postChristian epoch in the West where to a vague "
new age" religious sensibility the distinction between what is divine and what is not divine is altogether elided. The God of Islam is indeed adorable, but not lovable. To introduce an account of the God-world relation able to sustain a mysticism of love between God and humanity, the Sufis found themselves rejecting the doctrine of creation and adopting in its place a Neoplatonic monism adapted to the Muslim emphasis on God's word or command. Here the human spirit is treated as a direct emanation of that divine command, and loving devotion to God is misinterpreted as an anticipation of some final obliteration of the finite self and its absorption into eternal reality. The wonderful Sufi literature in praise of God's love and beauty, and its magnetic effect, is thus flawed by the wrong aim of a vanishing away in God - a state of bliss shared in now by either sober abstraction or spiritual intoxication.

Nostra aetate speaks of the way Hindus "contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical enquiry," while also "seeking freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or [through] profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust." [3] This is, evidently, an attempt to seize what is essential in Hinduism's bewildering variety of forms, while at the same time judging their truth and goodness within a Catholic Christian perspective. The conciliar statement is notable for its restraint, for some Catholic authors have seen in certain features of Hinduism a prefiguration of the Christian revelation. The Hindu worship of a supreme deity, whose nature is described as "being, knowledge, and bliss" (the absolute of the Vedanta), but who is also conceived as having a personal form (manifested as Shiva or Vishnu, Rama or Krishna), can lead to an emphasis on the love of the deity, shown to his worshippers by the bestowal of grace. Further, the notion of the avatara bears a resemblance to that of incarnation, while the final human bliss is sometimes presented as union with God in a total surrender to his goodness. Such intimations are from the Church's standpoint engraced intuitions of true eschatology. Unfortunately, this is by no means the only strand in Hinduism. The mythological world, pullulating with gods, symbols of a divine multiplicity, stands over against the critique of both myth and pantheon by the prophetic spirit of Israel. The non-dualist (advaita) monism of the medieval metaphysicians of India, firmly grounded as it is on a majority of the Upanishadic scriptures of Hinduism, is incompatible with the Creator/creation divide which lies at the root of the attitude of adoration in Judaeo-Christianity. In both of these ways, the experience of the divine presence - at the core of both the cosmos and the human heart - has been, to a Catholic Christian sensibility, misinterpreted by Hindus. Yet there remains, hidden within Hindu asceticism, something that Catholic theology can recognize as an impulse of the Holy Spirit. Long before the Word incarnate appeared on earth, before, indeed, the prophets uttered the word spoken to Israel, many in India had already heard from the Holy Spirit speaking within them the call of a life of complete renunciation of worldly things. The sannyasi, living hermit-like in the forests of India, or wandering from place to place with no fixed abode, can also represent the Spirit's call to the Church to deepen the interior life of Christians, to give contemplation primacy in the Church's common life, to re-examine the mystery of God's presence in the depths of the heart, to become as aware of the cosmos as a manifestation of the glory of God as of history as manifestation of his providence.

If it is encouraging to a Christian observer to see how, in the development of Indian religion, a tendency arises to displace impersonal categories in favor of personal, a similar trend can also be noted in Buddhism.

In the same pre-Christian period to which the personalist elements in the Vedanta belong, we find the beginnings of devotion in the austere religion of Buddhism. The cultus of the Bodhisattva, the enlightened one, who in love and compassion for the world refuses to enter Nirvana till all living things have been delivered, is a kind of premonition of the Savior (to be further ratified in the "Amida Buddhism" of Japan). Without any direct influence from Christianity (though some Hindu scholars have speculated about possible Nestorian influence on the rise of devotion to Krishna, frequently portrayed as a babe in his mother's arms), both Hinduism and Buddhism took a personalist turn on the eve of the incarnation. But the task of Christianity in India today is to show how Christ, in the fullness of his divine and human natures, comes to answer the problem posed by the Vedanta itself.

Buddhism is now almost unknown in its Indian birthplace. At its beginning, it appears to have taken the form of an atheism. One might perhaps interpret the state of Nirvana, into which Gautama, the Buddhist founder, is held to have passed by the cessation of all finite cravings, as a negative expression for the life of the Godhead (comparable to the "
cloud of unknowing" of Christian mysticism); apart from this possibility, Buddhism knows no God. On his death, the Buddha became inaccessible: he was not prayed to, but his images were, rather, icons of calmness, wisdom, and enlightenment. In Nirvana, all desires are extinguished, and there is no becoming of any kind. "Conservative" Theravada Buddhism looks on the craving for continued individual existence and personal relationships, and a bond with a more knowable absolute, as thoroughly misplaced. The doctrine of "no-self" entails that there is in the human being, finally, no person who could relate to a God, nor in any case is it possible to think any thought or speak any word about an ultimate reality beyond all conception. The Mahayana tradition, in a spirit of innovation, would come to wax lyrical over the delights of heaven. Unfortunately the fuller doctrines about the absolute gradually developed by more philosophical Buddhists of this persuasion show markedly monistic or theopanist tendencies. Where a God-concept has developed, it is generally some impersonal, omnipresent Buddha-nature. The refusal of the Buddha to answer questions about God or the destiny of the soul (maybe because the Brahmins of his day, like the Athenians of Paul's, exploited argument on these subjects to avoid the demands of repentance) created an epistemological void.

Zen's deliberate inarticulateness points in this direction with peculiar force. The moment of enlightenment,
satori, is an experience of total oneness with what is other. Zen tries to grasp existence, deprived of essence: to seize being in act, abstracting from its content or meaning.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism, therefore, struggling with the mystical problem of how the utterly transcendent can be experienced as immanent, are forced to conclude that the human being must be overwhelmed by, and absorbed into, the absolute, and that this in turn requires the elimination of the ego, either by affirming its oneness with the absolute (Brahman) or by allowing it to pass into the extinction of Nirvana.

Lastly, we must not forget the so-called
traditional (olim: "primitive") religions, so persistent in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa. The myths, rituals, and proverbs of tribal society frequently carry an echo of a "high God," a supreme deity, yet his presence is tenuous, distant. Here the Fall is not so much perceived as humans being driven from paradise but rather as God disappearing from the world. In his place, the religious sense operates centrally with the concept of the human organism-tribe, clan, family - seen as lasting beyond death, and engaged in a complex intercourse with nature. Such African religiosity knows well what it is to be "in" the first ancestor ("in Adam," as Paul expressed it), to live with his destiny and disposition working themselves out in time. Fundamental to that destiny and disposition is the inability to find the face of God, a terror that compels the raising of a hierarchy of intermediaries, and the inhabiting of a microcosm that makes the family unit all in all.

To redeem the world, however, as this study has testified, the All-present himself passed into the closed circle of the human family. Stage by stage he was initiated into it: by birth, by circumcision, by presentation with sacrifice, by instruction, by attendance at the feasts. In the baptism of repentance, he immersed himself in the spiritual reality of our sin and its effects in estrangement from himself. In all this he acted as the new head of the human family. Willingly incorporated into the old Adam for our sake, by the perfection of his obedience he won back all things to what we were meant to be. He reconstituted the whole organism upon himself as the Second Adam - as Irenaeus showed in his great theology of recapitulation. He then offered us a sharing in this humanity, that we might become a new tree from a new stem.

What, in conclusion, is the practical attitude of Catholicism today to other faiths? It was well expressed at the Assisi "world day of prayer for peace" hosted by Pope John Paul II at the shrine of the peace-lover Francis on 27 October 1986. There, in welcoming "representatives of the Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities and World Religions," the Pope drew attention to the fact that "the form and content of our prayers are very different. . . and there can be no question of reducing them to a kind of common denominator," while also insisting that a "common ground" could be found in the "dimension of prayer, which in the very real diversity of religions tries to express communication with a Power above all human forces." The structure of this occasion, at which the Pope presided, gave body to this nuanced position. This took the form of (1) separate prayer, in distinct locations for each religion, (2) common silent meditation on what had been prayed, and (3) a symbolic corporate self-commitment (to peace). At the same time, in his sermon the Pope witnessed to the faith of the Church that Jesus Christ is the universal Savior, the sole divine-human mediator.

Indeed, only Christ, as the Word of God made human, can offer a reasonable explanation as to how a transcendent God, totally Other, can also be experienced from within this world: consciously by mystics, unconsciously by graced individuals, without persons losing their identity and becoming subsumed into God. The principle and instrument of all grace is the hypostatic union, the archetype of a new form of relationship between God and the human being and the foundation for the unsurpassable covenant between them made in Christ's atoning work. Here lies the scandal of particularity: while the mystical practices of the other world religions are designed to facilitate the laying aside of material impedimenta so as to let being be reabsorbed into the world's origin, Christianity alone dares to contradict this program by its assertion of a God who entered into and became a part of history, making his own body, on the cross, the unique bridge between the finite and the infinite realms.
Avatar, even when historicity is claimed (as sometimes for Krishna) is not incarnation in this sense. The figure of Krishna is a symbolic expression of that which cannot be directly expressed: the unique reality of our divine self of which the I, the Thou, and the world itself are only transitory mirrors.

Only in Christ, in whom all apparent opposites are unified without mingling, can the partial insights of the various world religions reach a satisfactory account of the God-world relation, within a narrative that situates their own story of sin and grace between the beginning - the pre-existent Logos - and the end - his glorious parousia as the Word incarnate. This is the context in which the Second Vatican Council proposed to the Catholic Church a dialogue, in the contemporary period, with the other world-religions:

For all peoples comprise a single community, and have a single origin, since God made the whole race of men dwell over the entire face of the earth. One also is their final goal: God, his providence, his manifestations of goodness, and his saving designs extend to all men against the day when the elect will be united in that Holy City ablaze with the splendour of God, where the nations will walk in his light. [4]

It is precisely according to her own revelation that the Church is able to find nuggets of gold in these other religions. "The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many respects from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men." [5] Jesus Christ is totus Dei, "wholly God," but he is not totum Dei, "the whole of God." Without the Son we cannot speak of the Father, yet that speaking is never completely exhausted in history, for the Spirit constantly calls us into a deeper understanding of God in Christ, not least through the challenges of the other religions. Catholicism itself condemned the (Jansenist) position that "outside the Church no grace is granted."

The riches of the mystery of the Father are disclosed by the Holy Spirit, and both measured and discerned by conformity to, and illumination from, Christ, the Son. The basis for a theological understanding of the religions lies in the universality of God's presence and action in the world. These religions are human responses to God's all-encompassing presence and activity, where God works, as in all forms of created being, as the ground of being and meaning, and the source and end of being's fulfillment. However, this universal claim is based on the particularity of the incarnation and atonement in Jesus Christ: it is in the particularity of his unique epiphany that Father, Son, and Spirit are disclosed as interacting with the world as the single source of creation, of reconciliation for an alienated world, and so for the fulfillment of creation itself.

All religions and ideologies have within them spiritualities which are not of God, described in Scripture as forms of darkness or idolatry, or as anti-Christ. The discernment of spirits will sometimes exclude, at other times include, and at still other times accept a degree of pluralism. The Church, so Newman wrote:

began in Chaldea, and then sojourned among the Canaanites, and went down into Egypt, and thence passed into Arabia, till she rested in her own land. Next she encountered the merchants of Tyre, and the wisdom of the East country, and the luxury of Sheba. Then she was carried away to Babylon, and wandered to the schools of Greece. And wherever she was sent, in trouble or triumph, she was still a living spirit, the mind and voice of the Most High. [6]

Newman was thinking of the Church as pre-existent in that community of faith whose father is Abraham. She had garnered the good wheat of truth from fields set in the wilderness of pagan culture, for the better understanding of her own Christ-centered mission, when once it came. "We are not distressed to be told that the doctrine of the angelic host came from Babylon, while we know that they did sing at the Nativity; nor that the vision of a mediator is in Philo, for in very deed He died for us on Calvary."[7]

In the radiance of the Epiphany-light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of God's people, Israel - the Church can see more, not less, even though the historic revelation is completed and we can expect no fresh truths but only the unveiling of truth's own face in the age to come. The Church, en route between Pentecost and the parousia, can continue to find analogues of her own truth in the cultures of the unbaptized; not merely, indeed, echoes of the truth she knows consciously, but instruments for the fuller appropriation of its inexhaustible richness.


1. J. Monchanin,
Ermites du Saccidananda (Tournai and Paris, 1956), cited in H. deLubac, The Church: Paradox and Mystery (Shannon, 1969) 80-81.

Nostra aetate, 3.

3. Ibid., 2.

4. Ibid., 1.

5. Ibid., 2.

6. J. H. Newman, "Milman's View of Christianity," in Essays Critical and Historical(London, 1890) 2:232.

7. Ibid., 2:233.

Copyright © 1996 by The order of St. Benedict , Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota

Epiphany. A Theological Introduction to Catholicism by Aidan Nichols, O.P.

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[This book appears to be now out print. Perhaps you might be able to obtain a copy through this link OUT OF PRINT BOOKS. Mark Alder.]

Version: 18th July 2009

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