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Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council launched a new Catholic commitment to interreligious dialogue, work continues to clarify the church’s attitudes toward other religions. While some Catholics still look on other religions with disdain, other Catholics seem to believe Vatican II taught that all religions are equally valid paths to God and to the fullness of truth. The new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently said both extremes are wrong.

Proposing that all religions are basically similar means “negating or doubting the possibility of real communication between God and human beings,” because the truths of Judeo-Christian faith are not human inventions, but the result of God’s revelation, said Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, in a speech at Assisi on Oct. 29. Not believing that Christ’s death and resurrection make Christianity unique among religions is, in essence, the equivalent of denying that God became human in Christ or of saying that Christ’s divinity is “a poetic metaphor, beautiful but unreal,” the archbishop said.

For decades, popes and Vatican officials have taught that the aim of interreligious dialogue is not to come to some sort of agreement on religious or even moral principles that everyone in the world can accept. For Catholic leaders, the goal of such dialogue is for people firmly rooted in different faith traditions to explain their beliefs to one another, grow in knowledge of and respect for one another and help one another move closer to the truth about God and what it means to be human.

A societal consequence of such a dialogue should be respect for each individual’s conscience, more social peace and joint efforts to defend human dignity and help those in need. Among church leaders, concerns for dialogue are not simply academic. Several members of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization, held at the Vatican in October, described on-the-ground Catholic-Muslim relations in terms that ranged from true friendship and collaboration to efforts to restrict the freedom of Christian minorities or to exert strong pressure on people from Muslim families not to convert to Christianity. Synod members responded with a formal resolution asking Christians “to persevere and to intensify their relations with Muslims according to the teaching of the declaration ‘Nostra Aetate,’” the council document that expressed “esteem” for Muslims, particularly because of their belief in the one God and their devotion to submitting themselves completely to God’s will.

The Catholic Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and its affirmation of things that are good and holy in other religions does not mean the church looks upon the world’s religions with rose-colored glasses. In an essay published on Oct. 11, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the ongoing importance of “Nostra Aetate” for Catholics in increasingly multireligious societies: “A weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: It speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance.”

“In a religion that gives prevalence, in an unquestioning way, to the letter of its texts and does not leave room” for questions that seek deeper understanding, the value of the individual conscience is diminished, Benedict said. And where a religion is imposed, violently or not, personal dignity is wounded.