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Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Interreligious Dialogue in Catholic Universities

by Xueying Wang

St. John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae is not a common source to draw on for how to conduct interreligious dialogue in Catholic universities. Indeed, with regard to interreligious interactions among faculty and student bodies of different religious backgrounds, its comments are brief. This, however, should not hinder us from reflecting on Ex Corde in terms of interreligious dialogue, especially dialogue between the Catholic members of the university and members from non-Christian religious traditions. Oftentimes less is more, and scanty remarks may elucidate the barebones of a vision more clearly.

In brief, Ex Corde makes two points regarding Catholic universities as the locus of interreligious dialogue: first, Catholic universities should have a distinct Catholic identity;   second, “the university community of many Catholic institutions includes members of other churches, ecclesial communities and religions…These men and women offer their training and experience in furthering the various academic disciplines and other university tasks.”   Before elaborating on this vision, let me first take a step back and introduce the basic models of interreligious dialogue that are adopted in today’s universities in the United States. Not pretending to be exhaustive, I believe three major models can be identified: the exclusivistic, the pluralistic, and the inclusivistic. 

The first one may be called an “exclusivistic” model, which is adopted primarily by evangelical Christian universities as well as some Catholic universities in the United States today. On the one hand, at such universities there is, to varying degrees, genuine openness and respect shown to students of non-Christian backgrounds. For instance, we can find vibrant Muslim student associations on the campus of Wheaton College and Weslyan University. On the other hand, there is a distinct objective of evangelization associated with the education provided by such universities. Evangelical Christian universities often have mandatory requirements for students to attend Christian services. In this regard, the stance of such universities is similar to that of Christian missionaries, some of whom showed genuine openness and respect to non-Christian cultures and religions, and yet maintain an explicit object of evangelization. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the population of non-Christian students in such universities is relatively small, and the majority of students with non-Christian religious backgrounds has generally enrolled themselves in Catholic or secular universities. This model of interreligious dialogue may be deemed ineffective in the context of modern Christian universities because it might have excluded a significant number of potential students from their campuses. 

The pluralistic model of interreligious dialogue is currently the most common among universities in the United States, including mainline-protestant universities, almost all secular universities, and some Catholic universities. In the case of Christian universities, the theoretical underpinnings for this model were provided by the eminent John Hick and Paul Knitter, among other theologians in the early 20th century. On their view, for Christian universities to become truly pluralistic, Christians must recognize that Christianity is “one of the great world faiths, one of the streams of religious life through which human beings can be related to that Ultimate Reality Christians know as the Heavenly Father.”   Following the logic of Hick and Knitter, since Christianity is “one of the many,” it should not be granted a privileged place in the university. At the beginning of the 20th century, many protestant universities, including the University of Chicago, Harvard University, and Duke University, made their departments of theology into divinity schools and at the same time established departments of religion. While it may still be taught at the periphery of campus or as a pure academic discipline, Christian theology as a salvific discourse was completely severed from campus life. The most direct consequence of this move was that these universities quickly divested themselves of affiliation with Christian groups as well as a Christian identity. As far as interreligious dialogue is concerned, it is encouraged by university administrations and does take place but is primarily conducted for the sake of seeking common ground on practical, ethical issues such as maintaining peace and protecting the environment. Divergences, especially of the doctrinal sort, tend to be carefully avoided. 

One of the problems with this model is that it compartmentalizes religions by allotting to each religion its own space undisturbed by others. The freedom of practicing any religion is respected and guaranteed, but it is also recognized that religious faiths – Christian and non-Christian alike – are relegated into the domain of the private, personal life. Although these universities have faith-based student groups that are united by the same shared faith, such as the Muslim student association or the Hindu student association, the primary goal of these student associations is to support the insiders. For instance, Muslim student associations are for Muslim students, and its influence is minimal outside of its members. Outsiders are generally not encouraged to ask questions about matters pertaining to the inside of the religion, especially the doctrinal dimension, to avoid being “judgmental.” In today’s universities in the US, it is not difficult to imagine a student going to classes together with Muslim students, and in some cases even getting to know them fairly well, while never learning anything about the Islamic faith they practice. In a way, this phenomenon affirms what the Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolás predicted a decade ago: globalization could easily become “globalization of superficiality.”   The ignorance about the doctrinal foundations of religions other than one’s own can easily lead to a superficial understanding of religious ethics, or worse, an indifference to the worldviews of others, which are often shaped by the doctrinal foundation of their religious traditions. Superficial “respect” or “dialogue” without a firm understanding of other religions can be easily crushed when confronted by crises, tensions, or in certain cases, misapprehension or simply curiosity. As a college teacher, it is hard to refrain from citing anecdotes in classrooms. One day, a student, who I presumed to be non-religious, came to me after class and asked, “we have criticized the Catholic Church so much for their position on homosexuality. Why can we not criticize Muslims? They seem to be much harsher toward homosexuals!” To this day, I still ponder over what would be the best answer to this student, but one thing is for sure: to simply say, “we must respect Islam,” would not be a sufficient and satisfactory answer.

The third model, which may be called “inclusivistic,” is what is advocated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In broad strokes, this model consists of two interconnected aspects: a distinct Catholic identity and engagement with faculty and students from non-Catholic religious traditions, who are included as full members in the Catholic universities. St. John Paul II goes into great detail about how to maintain a Catholic identity, which is indispensable in a Catholic University’s dialogue with other religious traditions. Without it, the interreligious dialogue that occurs would not differ from secular universities. At the beginning of the 20th century, leading Catholic universities made the decision of maintaining their departments of theology and philosophy, requiring students to take courses from these two departments as part of a core program. The courses from the departments of philosophy and theology are meant to faithfully introduce the Catholic tradition, which requires students to gain some basic understanding of Catholicism in its doctrinal, ethical and intellectual dimensions; however, these courses, introducing philosophy and theology as academic disciplines, do not aim at doctrinal assent. For Catholic students, these courses could contribute to the deepening of their faith, and for non-Catholic students, they open a window of intellectual exploration in the Catholic tradition. 

True inclusion of members of non-Catholic backgrounds in the community of Catholic universities necessarily entails true engagement with their religions, which are often at the center of their worldview. Courses on other major religious traditions of the world, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and indigenous American religions should be offered as options to fulfill core requirements. Introducing religions at the doctrinal level does not exclude the discussion of moral issues. On the contrary, in the process of underscoring authentic points of divergences and convergences with colleagues from religious traditions other than their own, Catholic and non-Catholic members of Catholic universities are given the opportunity to reflect on, modify and refine their moral positions, for individual moral development and for the pursuit of common good. 

Let me end this essay with a positive anecdote. In my Global Religious Ethics class, I introduce the basic ideas and moral concepts of six different religions—among them Islam is the religious tradition I am least familiar with and is also the section for which I receive the most positive feedback from students. Thankfully I have always had Muslim students who enthusiastically volunteer to share their beliefs about God, prayers, vigilance, almsgiving, Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca and much more. Some students have shared pictures they took on their journey to Mecca or their personal experiences of what it is like to live in a Muslim community. Sometimes they are not entirely clear about all of the concepts and issues we touch on during class, and they would do research and look up information, or even ask their imam for answers. Later, some of them have written to me to say how much they enjoyed sharing their religious tradition. Since the content comes directly from the beliefs and experiences of their peers, the rest of the class has always listened to the presentations with great interest. After a few semesters of teaching and reading, I have become much more comfortable with teaching Islam, but I have no plan to replace what I see as genuine interreligious dialogue in the section of Islam with my lectures.

1    According to Ex Corde, a Catholic University is “an academic institution in which Catholicism is vitally present and operative,” John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html, sec. 14. The encyclical letter addresses how to maintain a Catholic identity of Catholic universities in multiple places. For instance, in Section 13, Pope John Paul II maintains that Catholic universities, in an institutional manner, should maintain a “fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us in the Church.” In Section 23, the pope maintains that it is important for Catholic universities to participate in the life of the local Church in which it is situated.

2    Ibid., sec. 26 (my emphasis).

3    I borrowed the names of the three models of interreligious dialogues from Antoine Levy, OP, “Between Charybdis and Scylla: Catholic Theology and Interreligious Dialogue,” New Black Friars 89 (2008): 231-250. The meanings of the titles in this essay differ to a significant extent from the way they are used in Levy’s article, which is on the topic of interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religious groups. In my essay, I focus on interreligious dialogue between Catholic faculty and students and faculty and students who have a non-Christian background. 

4    John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 22.

5    Fr. Adolfo Nicolás spoke to Belgian Jesuits about the “globalization of superficiality” in September 2010, as a result of a surfeit of information: “We have more information than ever but less capacity to think, to digest.” Citation found at: Xaverian Missionaries, “The Globalization of Superficiality,” Catholic Global Encounter and Dialogue (blog),  https://xaverianmissionaries.org/missionblog/the-globalization-of-superficiality/.

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Xueying Wang

Xueying Wang is Lecturer in the Department of Theology. Dr. Wang’s research interests include Christian historical theology, focusing on early Christian and medieval theology, and comparative theology, with a focus on comparing Christian theology with East Asian religions, especially Confucianism, Daoism, and Chinese Buddhism. She has published scholarly works on John Chrysostom, Augustine, and East Asian thinkers. Dr. Wang is also a translator, with the aim of introducing classical theological works in the West to Chinese audience. So far she has translated John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine and two works of G. K. Chesterton: Dumb Ox and St. Francis of Assisi

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