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The Catholic theology of religions: a survey of pre-Vatican II and Conciliar attitudes towards other religions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2014

Loe-Joo Tan*
Affiliation:
Trinity Theological College, 490 Upper Bukit Timah Road, Singapore678093tanlj@ttc.edu.sg

Abstract

This article analyses the Catholic view of religions by examining its beginnings as a theology of salvation for non-believers summarised by the aphorism extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It notes that Catholic attempts to examine the capacity of religions per se in attaining salvation for their followers took place in the period before and during Vatican II when the church began assessing the non-Christian person not just as an isolated individual but also by taking into account her wider affiliations to a religious community. This analysis has revealed there were hermeneutical tensions within the church about whether the Council signified greater continuity or discontinuity with tradition, and consequently, similarly contrasting views about the extent to which it was willing to see other religions as holding salvific function to any extent. The survey has concluded that ultimately the Council chose to leave this question of the salvific function of other faiths open for further investigation, even though it displayed an unprecedented positive appreciation of them, contra some observers who have argued the church recognised the possibility of salvation for non-Christians through their own faiths. Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council did affirm the significance of other religions as a preparation for the Gospel, as well as showed a movement beyond the pre-Conciliar notion of extra ecclesiam by granting the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, particularly those who are invincibly ignorant and who had striven to live an upright life by observing natural law. This implies that the next theological question on the agenda could be on the role and functions of these religions; i.e. are those people who are reckoned to be saved, saved through or despite their religions, and how is this salvation related to the church or to the work of Christ or both? Thus, the analysis provided in this theological-historical survey will serve to provide the backdrop for further discussions on post Conciliar developments within the Catholic theology of religions. Finally, an understanding of Catholic views towards other religions will also be illuminative for Protestantism as it seeks to advance its own theological understanding of world religions.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2014 

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References

1 The ‘theology of religions’ is the usual designation for this field. However, Dupuis titles his book, ‘Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism’ (emphasis added) rather than ‘Religions’ to affirm a raison d’être for pluralism. Dupuis, J., Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), p. 11Google Scholar. Kärkkäinen argues that the previous term is already established. Kärkkäinen, V.-M., An Introduction to the Theology of Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), pp. 20–1Google Scholar. A follow-up survey of post Conciliar developments is planned next.

2 In this article I will employ the abbreviation ‘RCC’ for the Roman Catholic Church, because its catholicity is not universally accepted beyond its ecclesial boundaries, though, for convenience, I will also employ the phrase ‘Catholic Church’.

3 Note that, even if one takes the position that non-Christians cannot be saved, whether apart from Christ or the church, which may lead to the conclusion that their religions are devoid of salvific value, this does not eliminate their theological significance, e.g. religions as praeparatio evangelica.

4 Kärkkäinen, Introduction, p. 22. E.g. Pinnock has acknowledged the influence of the Council in his understanding of other faiths. Pinnock, C. H., ‘Toward an Evangelical Theology of Religions’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990), p. 368Google Scholar.

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8 Cyprian of Carthage, ‘On the Unity of the Church’, in ANF, vol. 5, Fathers of the Third Century, ed. P. Schaff (Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 1995), p. 6.

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11 Fulgentius of Ruspe, ‘Letter to Peter on the Faith’, in Fulgentius: Selected Works (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 38.81; emphasis added.

12 Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros, 1947), p. iiiGoogle Scholar, q. 68, a. 2. This in re–voto distinction will become highly significant for Vatican II.

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17 The Catholic understanding of ignorance is described as invincible ‘when it cannot be dispelled by the reasonable diligence a prudent man would be expected to exercise in a given situation’. Nealy, F. D., ‘Ignorance’, in New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2003)Google Scholar.

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20 Butler describes MC as posing serious problems for ecumenism by establishing a dichotomy between those who do and do not belong to the Catholic communion. Butler, B. C., The Theology of Vatican II, rev. and enl. edn (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1981), pp. 54–5Google Scholar.

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