Vatican II: The Catholic Promise to Build Interfaith Relationships

Vatican II, the Nave of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome (Photo courtesy of saintpetersbasilica.org.)

What’s in a name?

This famous question from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet bears special significance whenever one finds themselves given the task of actually naming something—whether devising the moniker of an organization, or even naming one’s own child. Names are important. They’re symbolic, descriptive, representative.

If you click on the “Faith Line Protestant” tab at the top of our page, you can find a description of ours. In it, we make it explicit that, though we may use the term “Protestant” to describe ourselves, we do not intend this to alienate or distance ourselves from the Catholic community. On the contrary, the Catholic Church has much to offer interfaith cooperation embedded in its very theological framework as a result of Vatican II.

So, what is Vatican II, you ask? Well, for those like myself who need a little brushing up on the goings-on of the Catholic Church, here is the Wikipedia article.  Essentially, Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council, was an ecumenical council held in the early 1960s in Rome to discuss the Church’s response to a rapidly changing world and the relation of these changes to their theology. It lasted about three years.

Many things came out of Vatican II, perhaps the most noticeable of which was the alteration of the liturgy. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic mass had to be given in Latin, the official language of the church. Yet after Vatican II, churches encouraged greater participation of the laity in the liturgy of mass. This meant that mass was said in the vernacular instead of Latin (although one can still attend Latin mass in Catholic churches—I have).

But liturgical changes weren’t the only things to come from Vatican II.

In reading through Daniel L. Migliore’s highly accessible introduction to Christian Theology, Faith Seeking Understanding, I came across an interesting chapter entitled “The Finality of Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism.” In this chapter, Migliore spends a section discussing Vatican II’s unprecedented proclamations regarding interfaith relationships. I have to admit, what I learned certainly surprised me.

While still maintaining that the Christian faith contains the ultimate truth, Vatican II upholds the particular identities of other faith traditions, and, as Migliore says, “acknowledges in them ‘a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’” Furthermore, Vatican II calls on Christians to take part in “dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions,” and engage in service projects as a means for establishing common ground (pg. 309).

Thus, the Catholic community has, for the past half a century, already codified interfaith cooperation as a part of their very ethos. I’ve always known Catholics to be willing to participate in interfaith efforts, but now I better understand why. I hadn’t known how explicitly they’re doctrinal declarations extolled interfaith cooperation.

With a history of our own sectarian tensions, perhaps the many branches of the Christian church—both Catholics and Protestants—can come together in agreement on interfaith cooperation and service, encouraging peaceful intra-faith (as much as interfaith) relationships. So, when thinking about planning service projects, don’t forget to include other Christian communities that may differ from your own. Building bridges doesn’t stop with those of other traditions.

(Daniel L. Migliore is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. For his CV and a list of his works, see his page on PTS’s website here.)

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