“Dialogue is at the heart of the Christian mystery”
Full transcript of my interview with Fr. Darren Dias,
a Canadian Dominican priest and expert in inter-religious dialogue.
What exactly is
your involvement in inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue?
I am primarily involved in inter-religious dialogue. I
am on the Hindu-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada, it's the first type of
dialogue the Canadian Bishops have sponsored outside of the monotheistic
faiths. There was already dialogue with Jews, a very old dialogue of the
Church, and Muslims, and now Hindus.
I also teach at the University of St. Michaels College,
in the faculty of Theology, where my area of interest and research is religious
pluralism, that is, what is the significance of the simultaneous presence of
multiple religious traditions in the World.
Does your Indian
background have anything to do with being on that commission?
It may do. I am not a specialist in Hinduism, there
are those on the dialogue who are more so, but certainly culturally, because my
grand-parents are from Goa, I can relate to Hindus that would come from India
also. So that may be one of the reasons. The other reason also is my area of
Because of course
that would be very specific and very different from dialogue with Muslims and
That's right. The first, Ecumenical, would be dialogue
with just Christians, and there we have a common faith in the One Lord Jesus
Christ, so there is a basis already for Dialogue. With Jews, of course, because
Christianity grew out of Judaism, we have a common Scripture, what we call the
Old Testament, common notions around God and the divine. We also have a basis
for dialogue which is Theological.
Likewise with Muslims we share faith in the One God,
we are monotheists, so we have at least that type of basis. What does
monotheism call us to live ethically, morally, so there is a basis there.
When you move outside of Christianity and the
monotheistic religions, into dialogues with Hindus and Buddhists, its
different, because we have less in common theologically, we have less of a
shared European and Middle Eastern tradition. So that makes the dialogue a
different kind of dialogue. It may start on Human questions, anthropological
questions, social challenges. So I think it's true that the non-Christian and
non-monotheistic dialogues present a new way of dialogue with the Church.
In terms of the
Canadian society, are relations between Hindu and Christian communities
generally peaceful and fruitful?
Yes. Canada is a fairly multicultural and multi-religious
society, it is predominantly still Christian, at least nominally, and people
practice their faith without any sort of problem. It’s a peaceful coexistence.
Religious dialogue with Hindus is very new. We have
often gotten together, people of different faiths, on social or political
issues, but the religious factor wasn't really entering into the discussion, so
it is a new thing. Having said that, there are always, and this is unfortunate
and its a problem around the world, incidents of intolerance. We have certainly
had an increase of intolerance towards Muslims in the past months, we have had anti-Semitic
actions in the country, now they are rare, but still significant. So it still
shows that we have a lot of work to do, and that although some might say that
tolerance is the lowest common denominator, we still have work to do in the
area of tolerance, even a country as open and tolerant and diverse as Canada.
I've heard that it’s
not clear cut that Hinduism is a polytheistic faith, that it might not be as
simple as that. How would you describe it?
I think that one thing that Christians and certainly
Roman Catholics have an advantage with is that when we enter into dialogue we
are appointed by the bishops and we can say that we speak from a certain
position and we have a shared understanding on these things. To say the same
about other religions like Hinduism, and it is the same for Judaism or Islam,
there is no central authority, there is no central body to say this is what we
believe and this is how we understand ourselves. So our dialogue with Hindus is
different because we dialogue with different expressions of Hinduism, and
within Hinduism there is such a great diversity of belief, there is such great
diversity in the way Hindus would articulate their beliefs, that it would be
hard to answer your question, certainly as a Christian, but also within the
Hindu tradition there would be many ways of expressing it. Some might say that
in fact there is one source of being, and therefore they are not actually
polytheists. Even the categories of polytheism and monotheism might be Western,
Judeo-Christian categories that Hinduism does not fit into. That is part of the
work of dialogue, to reach across those boundaries that make categories
difficult to discuss.
outside the Church? What does this mean exactly?
No Salvation outside the Church is a common adage. It
was certainly in the literature of the Roman Catholic Church before the Second
Vatican Council, but it hadn't been used, even in the 19th Century, very often.
We know that in around 1949 there was a famous case with a Boston priest named
father Leonard Feeney who interpreted that quite literally. And both the bishop
of Boston and also, eventually, the Holy See. The CDF and the Pope were
involved with this discussion, which is to say that even in 1949 we did not take
So after the Second Vatican Council that phrase
"Outside the Church, no Salvation", has disappeared from all official
literature because, in fact, the Church teaches that there is goodness and
truth outside of Christianity, there are seeds of the Word, there is the Divine
presence in other religions, so there is indeed salvation outside of the
There are still
those in the Church who would say that inter-religious or ecumenical dialogue
should essentially be about trying to convert non-Christians and bring the
separated Christians back to Rome…
But then it would cease to be dialogue, it would
become evangelization, it would become mission, and they are strains in
Christianity, which is an evangelizing religion, but even in that evangelizing
mission, John Paul II wrote that dialogue is a part of the evangelizing mission
of the Church, so that as much as we are called to evangelize, in the sense of
explicitly making others Christian, we are also called to dialogue, that is to
learn not only about people of other religions, but in our dialogue we learn
about God and about who we are.
With all the
emphasis on dialogue, however, is there not a crisis in the Church view of
evangelization? Certainly some in the Protestant world decry the fact that the
Catholic Church seems to have given up on active missions to evangelize
That might be a misperception. Certainly the Church
has gone through various phases of its evangelizing mission, the first
generation, that is, the Jewish Church that evangelized the gentile world, is
different than it was in medieval time when the Church sought to Evangelize
Europe, and it is different with the sixteenth Century, with the so-called
discoveries, when missionaries would evangelize, along with the colonization,
so you have a mission which is linked to colonisation, and that lasted right up
until the 18 hundreds and early 19 hundreds. So every era there are exigencies
which make Missionary activity different. Today the situation is such that we
would not evangelize in the same way that we did in a previous generation, that
would be suicide for the Church. However, it doesn't mean that the Church
ignores its evangelizing mission, but it probably does it and understands it in
There is no such thing as a forced conversion these
days, but there was in the past.
So I think that our Evangelical brothers and sisters
would remind us that we still are constituted by a Mission, the reason that
there is a church is for the mission. The Gospel mission. There is no doubt.
How we witness to the Gospel is different in every era, and I think part of our
witnessing today is to enter into dialogue with those who are different from
us, and I think that is actually at the heart of what the Gospel is about. So
that in the incarnation of Jesus Christ there is a divine and human dialogue,
the Word becomes flesh, so that at the very heart of the Christian mystery
there is dialogue and for us to be performative of dialogue really behoves us,
then. Dialogue helps us to discover the fundamental attributes of what it means
to witness to the Gospel.
Again, this might
be a misperception, but the idea we have over here is that Canada is an
extremely liberal country. In that issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc.,
which are contentious in the USA, seem to be settled in Canada. Is Canada
Well, everyone is in need of mission, in a different
way. Everyone is in need of witness to the Gospel.
While the United States professes a separation of
Church and State, I think they're religion and State are still fairly linked.
Canada does have a pretty healthy separation of Church and State, and there is
a real separation.
I think Canada is socially conscious on many issues.
So, whether it is socialized medicine, or education which is a public system of
post-secondary education, or even refugees, immigration laws, compared to the
US, where they have a private medical system and very expensive post-secondary
education, so in that sense it is a very socially conscious and collective
country, compared to a more individualist consumerist society, in the US. But
certainly there is always work to be done in every society.
I think Canada might be a little bit different,
because how the Church, or religious groups, would seek to influence public
policy, would be through society and the promotion of values, and in the
promotion of human or Christian values, people can buy into them even if they
are not, lets say, Christian. I think in the USA it is often about influencing
law-makers. Its really about the state and how the State controls things. The
distinction I am making then is how to evangelize a society through society
itself, through culture, or how you might evangelize society through the
mechanisms of a state, and I think those are two very different approaches.
Vatican commission for religious dialogue with the Jews published a document
giving weight to the idea that there is no need to evangelize the Jews because
they already live in a salvific covenant with God. This is in no way a
consolidated idea within the Church, what is your take on this?
That document which came out in December 2015 is an
important document. It is a reflection on the past 50 years of relationships
with the Jews and in some ways it enumerates the great strides that have been
made. It addresses some of the areas which are of ongoing concern and one of
the things that it did address is that it said quite explicitly that the Roman
Catholic Church no longer has any institutional mission to converting the Jews,
and that is based on a scriptural, Pauline notion that God does not take away
his promises, and so the promise that he made to the Jewish people remains.
The New Covenant, as we Christians call it, with Jesus
Christ, does not abrogate the old covenant with the Jews. So I think that it
affirms what is a common theological principle, or idea, that these two
covenants are related and intertwined, but that the Jews, because they have an
ongoing relationship with God, would not need missionary activity, they would
not need to become Christians, so the Church does not have a missionary
outreach to the Jews in the way that it had had in the past. For example, there
were some religious communities which were founded exclusively for the conversion
I actually think that what is very significant in the
publication of that document is that a group of Orthodox rabbis also published
a document around the same time, I think it came out a few days before, and
this was a first in modern history, for the Orthodox Rabbis to really respond
to the invitation of the Roman Catholic Church to dialogue, and I think that is
really an important step. That our dialogue is a real dialogue, it is not just
the Church producing documents, but we see an effect in other religions, which
respond to the invitation to enter into some kind of deeper relationship with
So in that document, which was a very fine document
issued by the dicastery on religious relations with the Jews, I think the more
significant thing is that Orthodox rabbis, for the first time, have responded.
polemic at Wheaton College about whether Muslims and Christians worship the
same God, how do you see this issue?
I am less familiar with the details of the Wheaton
situation, though I know about it. So I will answer in two ways.
What I think is very troubling about the Wheaton
situation is what is the role of academic freedom? How do theologians have
freedom to make statements and to explore research without being disciplined?
So one thing is a collegial concern for academic freedom.
I think that Pope John Paul II, in Algeria, when he
was on a visit, was quite clear to say to the Muslim Youth that we worship the
same God, and we both, all religions, not just Muslims, but all religions, have
a temptation to make God in their own image. And one of the things that
dialogue does is remind us that we have to avoid the temptation to make out of
God something that we want. We see this with extremists, with so-called
Muslims, some would say they are not even Muslims, the ISIS people, creating God
in their own image. And this leads to intollerance and violence. The
alternative to dialogue is violence. So like when children don't have words to
express themselves, they express themselves physically, violently, and this is
what could happen when we make God into our own image, into something that will
further our own agendas, then there is no more room for dialogue and violence
As a Dominican you
are heir to a long tradition of dialogue…
That's right. The order was founded by St. Dominic in
the early 13th Century, and Dominic, at the time, faced the great Albigensian
heresy in Spain and France, and he observed the way the Cistercians had been
trying to evangelize, to bring back these heretics. Now the heresy was a
problematic heresy because it denied the very goodness of Human creation and it
denied the effect of the resurrection, that is what dualisms do, when they are
too spiritually or non-materially oriented, they negate and they denigrate
creation, so it was a very problematic heresy.
The Cistercians went out to convert the heretics, to
bring them back to the Church, but they were not successful. And one of the
things Dominic realised was that some of the criticisms of the heretics, that
the Church had become too worldly and they were too involved in power and they
were too wealthy and they weren't following the Evangelical precepts, he
realized in his dialogue with them that some of the criticisms were true, so he
adopted a very simple, austere and poor lifestyle, and then began to enter into
conversations with them about theology.
His method was to speak to people, so he spoke
sometimes throughout the night to heretics to try and bring them back. So his
approach was quite dialogical, we would say today, and it was never heavy
handed, and never forced.
An example of how
dialogue can also be mission...
How well do you
know your Goan heritage?
My father was born in Goa, as were my grand-parents,
and they moved to Toronto, so I knew my grand-parents, and obviously I knew my
father. So I would have heard many stories, and certainly culturally we
observed many things, religiously, food, certain customs. But I don't speak the
language, which is Concani, because Salazar did not permit the use of the local
language. So we lost a lot because of the Portuguese colonization, we lost a
lot of the culture, and it was a 450 year colonization. So we have our own Goan
culture, but we also have influences of the Portuguese, but beginning in the
40s many people began to leave Goa, so we are a diaspora people, like the
Jewish people. There were not a lot of opportunities in Goa in the 40s and 50s
and so people began leaving, so there is a culture of the migrant people which
is different from the Goa of today, because with the liberation in 1960, and
the return to India, the culture changed again.
I have only been there once, and it would have been
very different than my parents or my grand-parents' generation, and yet that is
a Goa that I don't actually know, because it doesn't actually exist anymore.
But was there a
big diaspora in Canada?
There is, yes, in Toronto. There is also a diaspora in
London and here in Portugal, of course. I suspect that the Goan population is
larger outside of Goa than in Goa.
So there was a
community aspect to your experience in Canada?
Yes, there was. There were a few clubs and
associations, and there still are. So that is how things are transmitted in
Toronto, Montreal and London.