The Interreligious Imperative

In a radio address given in September 1962 shortly before the Second Vatican Council opened, Pope John XXIII expressed the hope that the council would present the Church as “the Church of all, and especially of the poor.” Though there was considerable opposition to his vision from the beginning, many bishops rallied to support the Pope and eventually helped the gathering of some 2,500 bishops realize much of what the Pope had dreamed. One of the council’s most enthusiastically received documents was its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, titled in Latin Gaudium et spes (joy and hope). From its beginning, the constitution left behind the defensive “fortress” mentality that for so long had characterized the post-Reformation Catholic Church, turning the church outward to embrace the men and women of the contemporary world. Its opening sentence read: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (GS 1).

In the years after the council, local churches, episcopal conferences and religious orders sought to reinterpret their own lives and missions in light of Council documents. In 1974, representatives of worldwide Jesuit provinces assembled in Rome for the Thirty-Second General Congregation under the leadership of Father General Pedro Arrupe for that purpose. That General Congregation translated their understanding of the Jesuit mission into language more reflective of the society’s post-Conciliar self-understanding. In its Decree 4, the fathers wrote: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another” (no. 2). The emphasis on faith and justice is now familiar to those associated with Jesuit institutions and ministries throughout the world.

Twenty-one years later, another General Congregation gathered in Rome, this time under Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, to revise the Society of Jesus’ law in light of its revised mission. Among its decrees, including “Our Mission and Justice,” “Our Mission and Culture,” and “Cooperation with the Laity in Mission,” was one on “Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue” (Decree 5). The latter noted that the society’s “service of faith” was now taking place in a world that was religiously pluralistic, and it encouraged Jesuits to recognize that “these religions are graced with an authentic experience of the self-communication of the divine Word and of the saving presence of the divine Spirit” (no. 6). Encouraging dialogue with other religions, it said, “To be religious today is to be interreligious in the sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement in a world of religious pluralism” (no. 3).

Loyola Marymount has tried to embody this vision in the programs it offers students and in the service of its faculty. The Department of Theological Studies, in addition to offering courses in Catholic theology, teaches courses in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and other Indian religions. Faculty members are engaged in ecumenical and interreligious dialogues on local and national levels, with the Orthodox, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Hindus and Buddhists. Another faculty member is now editor of the prestigious Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and the department recently hired a Jewish scholar to teach Judaica.

The Malatesta Program, sponsored by the California Province of Jesuits, seeks to develop person-to-person relationships between faculty members of California Jesuit schools and professors at prestigious Chinese universities as these universities develop their own religious studies departments. It has brought Chinese professors and graduate students to California for semester-long research projects and given them opportunities to visit and lecture at our institutions. Representatives from our California Jesuit schools have visited China for symposia, lectures and consultations. In spring 2009, I taught a two-month seminar on Christology at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. This summer, a philosophy course will bring together 15 LMU students and an equal number of Chinese students to study worship and ritual, East and West. The students will live together and visit various religious sites in China. These interfaith initiatives, we hope, will bring about great understanding in our religiously pluralistic world, so important in this 21st century.

Thomas P. Rausch, S.J., is professor of theological studies and T. Marie Chilton Professor of Catholic Theology in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.