In this article first published in The Tablet 14th April 1973 Fr Bede criticises attitudes that non-Christian religions as ‘erroneous’, and the theology that rejects the principles of inter-faith dialogue based on mutual acceptance. The article is followed by correspondence to the editor that shows the difficulties Fr Bede faced at this time from some parts of the Catholic church.
In a recent article in The Tablet (24 February) on the validity of sacraments Bishop Butler referred in passing to ‘followers of false philosophies and non-Christian religions’. And their, ‘adherence to erroneous beliefs and unauthorised rites.’ Later in the same article he spoke specifically of a ‘sincere, though erroneous faith in the Buddha as Saviour.’ This kind of language was common in the past, but it is strange to hear it today from the pen of a theologian of Bishop Buter’s standing.
What I wish to argue is that there is no real theological justification for this attitude of mind. Theologians have long since given up the idea that other religions belong to the sphere of ‘natural religion’ of which man is the author and that only the Jewish and Christians religions can claim to be revealed. It is now generally recognised that there is an element of revelation in all genuine religion, that is to say, the initiative in all genuine religions comes from God and not from man. This applies to all religion from the most primitive African tribal religions or that of that Australian Aborigines to the most advanced and highly developed like Buddhism or Hinduism. If we wish to place this in the perspective of biblical revelation, we can say that all these religions stem from the cosmic revelation which God makes to all men through nature and conscience. In the Old Testament the classic types of this religion are the patriarchs, Abel, Seth, Lot, Melchisedech, Job, and above all Noah, with who, it is recorded that God made a specific covenant. All these people are ‘pagans’ outside the Covenant which God made with Israel, yet all are recognised as holy men with whom God has entered into a relationship involving revelation and grace.
This biblical perspective enables us to see this cosmic revelation and cosmic covenant as extending to all men and to all peoples. Every genuine religion stems from this cosmic covenant and in a way by which God reveals himself and offers himself to man for his salvation. In other words, they are ways of salvation willed by God. The content of this revelation is the knowledge of God which comes from nature and conscience, but this does not mean, as was erroneously held in the past, that it is no more than a ‘natural religion.’ It means that the grace of God is offered to all men through the knowledge which they can have of him through nature and conscience. But for most people in the past the knowledge of God and the moral law has invariably come through their traditional religion. This still holds good for the majority of people in Asia and Africa today. Thus the traditional religions are the normal channel for salvation for man and have been so throughout human history.
This means that the followers of the traditional religions, either the more primitive religions of Africa or Australia or of the American Indians, or the more advanced religions of Asia – Hindus or Buddhists, Taoists or Confucians, Shintoists in Japan – are not outside the plan of salvation. On the contrary, they are all included in the universal covenant of grace. A Christian may believe that it was the plan of God ‘in the fulness of time’ – that is not at the beginning but at the end of time – to ‘bring all things to a head in Christ’. Christ is God’s final and definitive self-revelation and self-giving to man and I fully agree with Bishop Butler when he says that the ‘redemptive dimension’ of existence extending from Calvary goes beyond the limits of time and space, so that we can speak of Christ as the universal redeemer. But does this not mean that the beliefs of other religions are thereby rendered ‘erroneous’ or their rites’ unauthorised’. The divine Truth is present in some measure in every religion and every authentic religious rite has some validity. This may be defective in some respects, as were also the Jewish beliefs and practices of the Old Testament, but they all embody is some measure the truth of divine revelation.
To put it in more general terms, there is one, eternal, infinite, transcendent wisdom or Truth, which has been revealing itself to man from the beginning of history. It is this one Truth which is the source of all genuine religion. But this Truth transcends all words and all thought. It cannot properly be named or expressed. Every religion seeks to express this one Truth by means of signs and symbols in the form of beliefs and rituals and paths of ascetic and moral life. In all alike the divine Wisdom is at work, shaping the evolution of humanity. Each religion through its system of symbols offers a unique insight into the divine mystery, which is the object of all religious belief. Christ did not come to destroy but to fulfil this cosmic covenant. Was he not named in the Bible itself a ‘priest for ever in the line’ (not of Aaron and the Jewish Covenant, but) ‘of Melchisedech’; the priest of the cosmic covenant? It is therefore as misleading to dismiss the beliefs and practices of the cosmic religion as ‘erroneous’ and ‘unauthorised’ as it would be to dismiss the beliefs and practices of Israel in the same way.
But does this mean that the religions of the cosmic covenant are to be regarded only as preparations for Christianity like Judaism, and destined to pass away? Here a distinction must be made. We believe that Christ is the ultimate fulfilment of all religion, the final and definitive Word of God but the same cannot be said of Christianity. Christianity, as an organised religion seeking to express the mystery of Christ, the divine Word, in human terms, suffers from the same defects as other religions. Though always preserving the essential faith of its message, it is conditioned in its expression of it by time, space and history, and subject to the same vicissitudes of human language, culture and philosophy. The original message was given in terms of Jewish religion and of the Aramaic language. Very soon it was translated into Greek and subjected to the cultural influences of Greece and Rome. As it has developed in history it is a predominantly western religion, lacking many of the deeper insights of eastern religion. We have to face the fact that, in the concrete, Hinduism and Buddhism are in many respects better religions that our current Catholicism or any form of Western Christianity. For a devout and educated Hindu or Buddhist to become a Christian would often mean a descent and not an ascent in the scale of spiritual life. He would often meet with a philosophy less profound, a spirituality less demanding, a piety less intense, a morality less pure. In most cases it would mean the loss of all the treasures of wisdom and grace which he has known in his own religious tradition.
I do not think, therefore, that we can say without reserve, as Bishop Butler does, that God wills that ‘all men should recognise this objective redemption (in Christ) by an act of explicit faith in it.’ Until the mystery of Christ has been presented to them in terms which are meaningful to them in the light of their own religious tradition (which is scarcely ever done), there is no reason to suppose that God wills the conversion of people of other religions. The purpose of God is ‘to bring all things to a head in Christ.’ This means that all the treasures of wisdom and grace and charity which are to be found in other religions have to be brought into the fullness of Christ, and merely to convert them to our present very imperfect system of religion would serve very little purpose at all. What we have to envisage is not so much a conversion from one religion to another as a meeting of religions in which each religion will bring its own unique insights into the divine mystery and its own understanding of the way of salvation, and Christ will finally be revealed as the supreme Wisdom of God embracing all truth and bring all men to salvation. But this may well not take place till the end of time. Certainly, for us, the first need is to recognise the grace and wisdom and holiness which God has manifested in other religions, and to be willing to learn from them a deeper understanding of the mystery of Christ.
Correspondence in The Tablet following the publication of this article. This correspondence is interesting as it illustrates the opposition to Fr Bede’s views from conservative Catholic clergy.
The Tablet 12 May 1973 Letter from the Reverend Patrick O’Connor
Sir, Dom Bede Griffiths although laudably anxious to recognise the good elements in non-Christian religions (14 April) seems to lean over backwards and lose balance.
Of course he is correct in saying that the ‘followers of the traditional religions are not outside the plan of salvation.’ No human being, during his earthly pilgrimage, is outside that plan or excluded from God’s grace.
It is quite a different proposition, however, to say, as Dom Bede does, that non-Christian religions, ‘genuine’ or ‘traditional’ (what are the criteria?), are ‘ways of salvation willed by God’ and that they ‘are normal channels for salvation for man.’ This idea, in circulation for some years, cannot be sound. There must be errors somewhere in religions that contradict each other and contradict the Christian revelation. God cannot be said to ‘will’ error. The fact that people in error may also be in good faith does not turn their error into divinely endorsed doctrine. Furthermore, there are practices in some religions that cannot be reconciled with Judaeo-Christian morality. God cannot be said to authorise these.
It is sound and ancient doctrine that ‘to him who does what in him lies. God does not deny grace.’ Thus anyone sincerely following any religion will be offered divine aid towards his salvation. But because his sincerity is divinely rewarded, his religion is not therefore divinely instituted or willed. Elements in it may indeed be helpful to him, even though the religion is erroneous or deficient in other respects.
One may well say, as Dom Bede does, that ‘the divine Truth is present in some measure (my italics) in every religion.’ That presence, however, does not exclude erroneous beliefs or unauthorised rites, nor could it suffice to make a non-Christian religion as salutary as Christianity.
Certainly those who believe in Christianity suffer from human defects and often fail to correspond with the great graces offered to them. Some Christians may thus be less virtuous than some Hindus or Buddhists. That does not warrant such statements as: ‘Christianity as an organised religion, seeking to express the mystery of Christ, the divine Word, suffers from the same defects as other religions…In the concrete, Hinduism and Buddhism are in many respects better religions that our current Catholicism or any form of Western Christianity’. Probably the writer does not intend all that those sentences would mean for the ordinary reader.
The teachings of Vatican II are clear. For instance: ‘The Catholic Church rejects none of the elements that are true and holy in these religions’ (Nostra Aetate, 2). ‘It is through Christ’s Church alone, which is the general aid to salvation, that all the fullness of the means of salvation can be attained’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). ‘This pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation. For Christ, made present to us in his Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and way of salvation” (Lumen Gentium, 14). ‘The Church includes within herself the totality or fullness of the means of salvation” (Ad Gentes, 6).
Those inculpably unaware of the credentials of the Church can and do belong to it by implied desire and intention, when they truly wish to conform to God’s will. But in this association with the Church they do not have the same degree of spiritual security that they would have in full membership, since they do not profit by many of the spiritual treasures at the disposal of those inside the Church. This doctrine was authoritatively expounded by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Mystici Corporis (1943). It was reasserted in a letter issued by the Holy Office on 8 August 1949. Citing Mystici Corporis, the Holy Office said that in it the Pope disapproves both of ‘those who excluded from eternal salvation all who adhere to the Church only by implied desire, and also for those who falsely assert that men have equal possibility of salvation in every religion.’ The letter continued: “Nor must it be thought that any desire of entering the Church suffices for a man’s salvation. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be formed by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire have this effect unless the person has supernatural faith.’
It is clear, then, that one can do a grave disservice to a non-Christian by encouraging him to remain outside the Church. And, as Pope Pius XI taught in his mission encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae (1926), the greatest of all acts of charity is to help someone to embrace the Christian faith.
Navan, Ireland Patrick O’Connor
Letter from Bede Griffiths
The Tablet 2 June 1973
Sir, In his letter to the Tablet (12 May) Fr Patrick O’Connor in criticising my article speaks of the Church in the terms of an abstract and essentialist theology, which I would have thought belongs rather to the period before the Second Vatican Council, whereas I was thinking in terms of a concrete and existential theology. If you think of a religion as a system of abstract statements about God and man expressed in logical terms, then it may be meaningful to label one religion as ‘false’ and another as ‘true.’ But if, as I suggested, you think of a religion as a system of symbols, through which the divine mystery (which is also the mystery of human existence), itself beyond language and thought, discloses itself to man, then the question of ‘error’ is less important. In Christianity itself it is not abstract statements about God, Christ and the Church which are of primary importance, but the words and the actions of Christ, all of them deeply symbolic – above all the great symbol of his death and resurrection represented in the symbolic action of the Eucharist.
Of course, there are ‘errors’ and also immoral practices in all religions, but this applies also to Judaism and Christianity. No one questions that there were grave defects both in the faith and the practice of the religion of Israel, yet we do not question that it was a channel of revelation and grace. The Church in the Middle Ages believed that the world was created in the year 5005 BC – a fact which was solemnly proclaimed every year until recently in the Roman Martyrology – and that man was created at the same time from the ‘dust of the earth.’ These were ‘erroneous beliefs’, which were to have a very damaging effect on the Church in modern times. The medieval Church was also guilty of grave immorality in the persecution of Jews, ‘pagans’ and heretics by the Inquisition, and if one wants a modern instance, one has only to think of what is happening in Northern Ireland at the present time as an example of Christian immorality, which is especially shocking to the Hindu-Buddhist mind.
It is true that the Church ‘contains within herself the totality or fulness of the means of salvation’, as Fr O’Connor quotes from the Constitution on the Church, but this is true of the Church in principle and essence. The Church as the mystical body of Christ is the ‘sacrament’ of Christ, the efficacious sign of God’s saving purpose for mankind in Christ and is therefore essentially holy. But the Church as a sociological reality, the Church today in Ireland, South America, South Africa or India, is conditioned, as I said, by time, space and history. When I said that ‘in the concrete’ Hinduism and Buddhism may be better forms of religion than Christianity, I meant that in a given human situation the faith and practice of a Hindu or Buddhist community may be of a higher standard of religion and morality than that of a given Christian community. To give a concrete example, in an Indian village where there is a Brahmin community and a community of Hindu devotees (bhaktas) and a Christian community, it may well be (and often is so in fact) that the moral and religious standards – that is the actual faith and practice – of the Christian community may be much lower than that of the Hindu communities. Fr O’Connor says that one may do a great disservice to a non-Christian by encouraging him to remain outside the Church, but he does not seem to realise that for a Hindu to become a Christian, that is to pass from his own community with its own standards of religion and morality, to a Christian community might be a disaster, both morally and spiritually.
The quotations which Fr O’Connor gives from Popes Pius XI and XII seem to me to be expressed in terms of a theology which the Church has now outgrown and to be largely irrelevant. The Second Vatican Council has given us a new understanding of the relation of the Church to other religions. The full theology of revelation and grace in other religions has still to be developed, but I would think that the lines which I suggested would be accepted by many theologians today. This is not merely a matter of speculative theology, but of practical concern. If the Church is ever to enter into a genuine dialogue with other religions, it must be on the basis of an adequate theology, whereas the theology which Fr O’Connor outlined, and that which I criticised in Bishop Butler’s article, seems to be to be totally inadequate. I would suggest that the books published by the Secretariat for non-Christians on Religions, and on ‘Dialogue with Hinduism’ and the ‘Meeting with Buddhism’ express very well the mind of the Church on this subject today.
India Bede Griffiths
The Tablet 16 June 1973
Sir, In the view of Dom Bede Griffiths (2 June) I speak ‘in the terms of an abstract and essentialist theology’. Whether one uses abstract or concrete terminology, doctrinal truth and divine credentials are of paramount importance in regard to the Church, before or after Vatican II. It is indeed true that ‘the divine mystery’ cannot be adequately expressed in human language or thought – not even in Beatific vision. But inadequacy is not inaccuracy. The Incarnation means not only redemption but also a divine revelation adapted to grace-aided human capacity.
Dom Bede gives examples of erroneous beliefs and wrong doings in ‘The Church’. Such errors and misdeeds of Christians, clerical and lay, are not part of the Christian religion, or intrinsic to the Church. An estimate of the date of creation in the Roman Martyrology or elsewhere can only be an exercise in chronology, not theology. That man was made from ‘the dust of the earth’ is a biblical statement in ordinary, accepted parlance. Neither the Bible nor the Church pretends to teach biochemistry.
One could go on interminably contrasting the virtues and vices of people in this or that Asian village. But theology and experience point clearly to the fact that the doctrines, the sacrifice, the sacraments and the moral discipline inculcated in the church offer far greater spiritual aid that is ordinarily accessible in other religions. Nobody can be well provided for, spiritually, outside Christ’s Church as he would be inside it. Whatever the faults of delinquent Christians, the visible fruits of those Christians who live up to their religion are unequalled. The charitable, social and educational contribution – especially in self-sacrificing personal service – of Christianity in Asia and Africa is a massive example, ‘in the concrete’ of a ‘higher standard’.
Elsewhere Dom Bede has written that modern Hinduism, having ‘reacted’ against various abuses listed by him, today presents, ‘the most profound praeparati Evangelica’ (New Catholic Encyclopaedia, VI, p. 1136). Surely one most infer that the Evangelium is an advance, an improvement, on the praeparatio. Regarding Buddhism, one must remember that it is not theist. It does not affirm or deny the existence of God – though the rank and file have deified Buddha, who never claimed to be God or to know anything about him.
To Dom Bede it appears that my quotations from Popes Pius XI and CII express a ‘theology which the Church has outgrown’. The metaphor is hardly appropriate. Teaching of the magisterium may be developed, may unfold more amply. They are not outgrown like garments that are discarded. ‘The Second Vatican Council has given us a new understanding of the relation of the Church to other religions’, Dom Bede remarks. I should prefer to say, ‘a clearer understanding.’ And Vatican II also called attention, in official footnotes, to the documents I quoted from Popes Pius XI and XII, and it repeatedly echoed the teachings of these and earlier Popes.
Navan Patrick O’Connor
The Tablet 7 July 1973
Sir: I don’t want to prolong this correspondence unnecessarily, but perhaps I may be allowed to answer the points raised by Fr O’Connor in his letter (The Tablet 16 June), as they seem to be of some importance.
(1) I don’t think that it is fair to say that the beliefs of the medieval Church which I mentioned, on the creation of the world and of man are ‘not theology. They were held to be of divine authority, because they were derived from the Bible, and it was this conviction which was the cause of the intense opposition to the theory of evolution in the 19th century. In the same way the Inquisition was an organ of the Church acting with the full authority of the Pope and the bishops and from the conviction that heresy was a danger to society and must therefore be suppressed.
(2) That the ‘charitable, social and educational contribution’ of Christianity in Asia and Africa is a ‘massive example’ of the value of Christian religion, I fully agree, but this is also problematic. Most Hindus look upon the Church as essentially a charitable organisation. They regard Christianity as a religion of ‘works’ (karma). But in the sphere of devotion and the love of God (Bhakti) and wisdom and the knowledge of God (jnana) they think that Hinduism is preeminent. This may not be altogether true, but many Catholics would agree that there is some truth in it as regards the Church in India today.
(3) Fr O’Connor thinks that the attitude of the Church today towards other religions is a case of ‘clearer understanding’ rather than a ‘new understanding’. But until recently Catholics in India were taught that Hinduism was idolatrous and superstitious and the work of the devil. (St Francis Xavier – the patron of Catholic missions – believed that all brahmins were ‘devil-worshippers’). It was considered a ‘mortal sin’ to enter a Hindu temple, to take part in a Hindu ceremony or to read the Hindu scriptures. Can we really say that there has not been a radical change in the attitude of the Church today? This seems to me important, because unless the mistakes of the past are candidly acknowledged, there will never take place that radical change of heart in the Church which is required today.
(4) As regards Buddhism, it is true that the Buddhist does not believe in ‘God’, but he does believe in an infinite, eternal, transcendent Reality, which is characterised by wisdom and compassion, and what else do we mean by ‘God’
Finally, I would say that I believe that the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, the sphere of God’s redemptive activity in Christ is the ‘fulfilment’ of Hinduism and Buddhism, as of all religion; but my point was to distinguish the Church in this sense from the historical and sociological reality of the Church, which may be in some respects actually inferior in its standards of belief and behaviour to other religions.
India Bede Griffiths
The Tablet 28 July 1973
Sir: Dom Bede Griffiths (7 July) does not answer all the points raised in my letters. Whether the answers he does give are conclusive, your readers will judge. But some comments I must make to complete my contribution.
(1) I cannot accept a chronological item in the old Roman Martyrology as a statement of Catholic doctrine. On theories (my plural) of evolution the Church owes no apologies to anyone. Her attitude has been far more judicious than that of some evolutionists. The ‘intense opposition’ of Catholic and Protestant writers in the 19thcentury was provoked by supporters of evolution who inserted atheism and materialism into their biological hypotheses. And whatever the harsh measures taken, heresy, especially in medieval society, was harmful to the common good.
(2) Dom Bede objected first that I used abstract terminology while he was thinking in ‘concrete’ terms. Thereupon I cited the massive example of Christian service to people in Asia and Africa as something concrete. He recognises this but objects that Hindus regard Christianity – unfavourable, he implies – as a religion of ‘works’, and sees the Church as ‘essentially a charitable organisation’. They think that Hinduism is preeminent in devotion and the love of God. (Should love of God not express itself in service to one’s fellow-man?) So after all it is not religion ‘in the concrete’ that would decide the issue.
(3) That Catholics in India were taught to stay aloof from Hindu ceremonies should surprise nobody. I do not see how a Catholic could take part in any specifically non-Catholic religious rites without being guilty of hypocrisy and insincerity in one direction or the other.
On Hinduism let me quote Dom Bede himself: ‘Hinduism’s rootedness in mythology can easily resolute in an unworthy conception of the divine nature and a practical polytheism. The caste system also with its concept of untouchability, child marriage and polygamy, the cult of images which may easily lead to idolatry, and such customs as ritual prostitution and the burning of widows (sati) have in practice often led to degradation. (New Catholic Encyclopaedia vi, p. 1136). True, he adds: ‘Modern Hinduism has reacted against such abuses’ Yes, but one cannot blame those who reacted by teaching India Catholics to go their own way, in charity and neighbourliness but without compromise.
(4) I cherish the thought that my Buddhist friends have an implicit belief in God, but it is not part of their Buddhism. An atheist can be a Buddhist, and a Buddhist an atheist.
(5) While believing that the Church is the mystical body of Christ, Dom Bede would ‘distinguish the Church in this sense from the historical and sociological reality of the Church’. But that reality is the mystical body. It is in history and in human society that this mystical body of Christ lives and acts, by divine authority and with divine aid. One must deplore the lapses of individual members, as the Church itself does (Vatican II, Guadiam et Spes, 43) but this Church, this historical, sociological reality, is ‘indefectibly holy’ (Lumen Gentium, 39). Failure to recognise the unique credentials, salvific resources, manifold holiness and religious achievements of the Church in the world would be failing in the recognition due to her divine founder. This I know, is far from Dom Bede’s intention.
Anything that would deter a non-Christian from entering the Church would be contrary to Christian principles enunciated consistently from the New Testament down to Vatican II. There can be no greater exercise in charity than to lead people to the incomparable benefits of the Christian faith, sacraments and sacrifice.
Navan, Ireland Patrick O’Connor
The Tablet 1 September 1973
Sir: I don’t think that any useful purpose would be served by answering Fr O’Connor’s letter in detail. May I simply say that when I criticised Bishop Butler’s article, it was because, as one concerned with dialogue with Hinduism, I felt that his theology of the relation of the Church to other religions was quite inadequate. The view which I put forward may have been defective in some respects, but it was a serious attempt to formulate a theology of dialogue along the lines followed by others who have the same concern. Fr O’Connor’s attitude to the Church and other religions, on the other hand, seems to me to make all dialogue impossible. Fr O’Connor may reply that he is a missionary and is not concerned with dialogue, but this will hardly be accepted today, since mission and evangelisation are now conceived in terms of dialogue. You cannot expect the Christian message to obtain a hearing, unless you are prepared first to listen to what others have to say, whether they are Hindus or Buddhists or Moslems or atheists or agnostics. Fr O’Connor says that anything that would deter a non-Christian from entering the Church would be contrary to Christian principles. May I say in all sincerity that after 18 years in India I cannot conceive of anything better calculated to deter a non-Christian from entering the Church than the kind of apologetics which Fr O’Connor upholds.
S India Bede Griffiths