Ethics & Public Policy Center

"We are not a Museum"

Published in The Catholic Difference on March 20, 2002



During the day of prayer for peace in Assisi on January 24, thirteen religious leaders read a “final declaration.” The first “commitment,” read by Dr. Konrad Reiser, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, caught my attention with its reference to the “Spirit of religion.” How, I wondered, did this notion of a “Spirit of religion” square with a Catholic understanding of interreligious dialogue and cooperation?

The phrase “Spirit of religion” is redolent of the 19th century liberal Protestant “history of religions” school, which imagined a generic something called “religion,” of which Christianity is one genus and Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism are different species. It’s not a portrait of religious reality that coheres very well with Jesus’s definition of himself as “the” way, “the” truth, and “the” life, or with the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the Catholic Church embodies the one Church of Christ in a distinctive way. Had this notion of a “Spirit of religion” – which has immense (and usually lethal) implications for Christian mission – worked its way into the Church’s understanding of interreligious activity?

I posed this question recently to Cardinal Francis Arinze, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. His answer was intriguing.

Christ created the Church for evangelization, the Nigerian cardinal insisted. The Church has a universal mission to preach the Good News: God so loved the world that he gave his only son for the world’s salvation. Vatican II teaches that the Church is a “universal sacrament” in two ways. It is the universal sacrament of salvation, and the universal sacrament of the unity of humanity. The two go together. As the sacrament of the world’s destiny, the Church makes real the unity of the human race.

Because the Church has a universal mission, the Church must “meet the human being where he is, and walk with him from where he is to where he could be.” If that human being is open to the Gospel, the Church will evangelize him or her, in the strict sense of proclamation. But suppose, the cardinal continued, someone says, “I am a Muslim (Hindu; follower of a traditional African religion; Buddhist; etc.) and I want to live this sincerely.” What does the Church do? “Does the Church abandon him? No, because the Church would then be abandoning its mission to ‘meet’ the human being, wherever he or she may be.” This commitment to meeting and walking with others is the root of the Church’s commitment to interreligious dialogue (which, the cardinal suggested, might better be called “interreligious cooperation” or “interreligious contacts”).

Cardinal Arinze was not enthusiastic about the “Spirit of religion” formulation: “One God created all of us, with one human nature and one final end.” What was that? The cardinal, who was taught by Irish missionaries and baptized when he was nine, quoted the “Baltimore Catechism” answer: “to know, love, and serve God in this world and be happy with him forever in the next.” The Church witnesses to this truth with everything it does, and although the Church’s action will take different forms in different circumstances, literally everything the Church does in living the mission Christ gave it falls under the broad rubric of “evangelization.”

Whatever is noble and good in other religions comes from the one God. But if others are open, we must, the cardinal insisted, proclaim Jesus Christ to them. “The Church is not a cultural institute creating a world ethnological museum in which religions are preserved in their ‘pure’ form. If we thought this, we’d send professors, not missionaries, into the world, and they’d all work for the Vatican Museum, not the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. We are not a museum.”

Cardinal Arinze flatly rejects the claim, advanced by those influenced by the “Spirit of religion” construct, that missionary work demeans other cultures. If it weren’t for Catholic missionaries, he stressed, there would be few schools and little health care in his country; women might still be chattels. The true missionary lifts up what is good and noble in every culture and gives it a new brilliance in the light of the Gospel.

We are not a museum, preserving artifacts of the “Spirit of religion.” Indeed.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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