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Why not integrate teachings of other religions with Catholic spirituality?

Dear Father John, the Church has clearly taught that there is truth and good in other religions – so why then is it a problem to integrate the truths found in prayer traditions outside of Christianity with Christian prayer methods?

LuMaxArt_Golden_Family_With_World_Religions_By lumaxart (GEOZ06541_www.lumaxart) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis is a great question, especially for today’s world, in which religious tolerance is spoken about by so many different groups (though not all) as a universal value. Sometimes we can confuse openness and respect for believers in other religious with the sin of religious indifference Religious indifference can consist either in ignoring the authentic demands of religion, or in believing that all religions are the same. This question is also a good one because it shows the connection between doctrine and practice. What we believe about God, ourselves, and the world affects how we behave and the choices we make. So let’s start by clarifying the doctrine a bit, and then finish with some comments on the practical side.

Starting with Some Doctrine

Here is what the Catechism actually says about the “truth and goodness” found in non-Christian religions (#843):

The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.

In other words, human nature is the same for all people, and so all people experience, even in this fallen world, a yearning to reconnect with God, to live in communion with God. And this is why all people also experience the difficulty, the challenge, the obstacles involved in that search: our common human nature is fallen, and we need a savior. These are common elements in every religion. This is why different religions have so many things in common, and why many aspects of non-Christian religious are in harmony with Christianity.

In the very next paragraph, the Catechism makes a clarifying statement (#844):

In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them: [quoting the Second Vatican Council and referencing St Paul’s Letter to the Romans] “Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.

In other words, although our common, fallen human nature universally searches for the way back to God, that same wounded nature creates a tendency for us to get lost and take dangerous and dead-end paths.

The Christian Difference

This is precisely why God himself intervened. His love and mercy moved him to come to our aid, to lead us along a sure path of return to communion with him and the happiness that we were created for. He did this through what is called revelation: God’s own explanation of himself, the world, and how we can attain salvation. Revelation culminated in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Christ’s work and teaching differs essentially from every other religion. It is God’s effort to reach out to man, not just man’s effort to reach up to God.

Getting Practical

Consequently, the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church is unique, qualitatively different from those of other religions. Jesus is our standard, our sure standard, by which we judge the truth, goodness, and utility of all other doctrines and traditions. The spiritual life, in other words, is not a smorgasbord. If we just pick and choose whichever practices we happen to like, we have no guarantee that we will avoid dangerous pitfalls (the “limits and errors” referenced by the Catechism).

Prayer traditions from other religions, therefore, may be able to harmonize with Christianity, but in order to do so they need to be purified and appropriately grafted into the authentic spiritual vine, Christ himself. That can only happen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his chosen instrument, the Church.

A final observation. It is often frustrating to find Catholics searching energetically for exciting new spiritual practices, but searching everywhere except within the incredibly rich and abundant traditions of their own Catholic Church. This is one reason we started this website, to make at least a small effort to expose some of our Catholic treasures to modern Catholics who feel spurred on to a deeper spiritual life, but don’t know where to find tools that can help them respond.

Q: Dear Father John, the Church has clearly taught that there is truth and good in other religions – so why then is it a problem to integrate the truths found in prayer traditions outside of Christianity with Christian prayer methods?

A: This is a great question, especially for today’s world, in which religious tolerance is spoken about by so many different groups (though not all) as a universal value.  Sometimes we can confuse openness and respect for believers in other religious with the sin of religious indifference  Religious indifference can consist either in ignoring the authentic demands of religion, or in believing that all religions are the same.  This question is also a good one because it shows the connection between doctrine and practice.  What we believe about God, ourselves, and the world affects how we behave and the choices we make.  So let’s start by clarifying the doctrine a bit, and then finish with some comments on the practical side.

Starting with Some Doctrine

Here is what the Catechism actually says about the “truth and goodness” found in non-Christian religions (#843):

·The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.

In other words, human nature is the same for all people, and so all people experience, even in this fallen world, a yearning to reconnect with God, to live in communion with God.  And this is why all people also experience the difficulty, the challenge, the obstacles involved in that search: our common human nature is fallen, and we need a savior.  These are common elements in every religion.  This is why different religions have so many things in common, and why many aspects of non-Christian religious are in harmony with Christianity.

In the very next paragraph, the Catechism makes a clarifying statement (#844):

·In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them: [quoting the Second Vatican Council and referencing St Paul’s Letter to the Romans] “Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.”

In other words, although our common, fallen human nature universally searches for the way back to God, that same wounded nature creates a tendency for us to get lost and take dangerous and dead-end paths.

The Christian Difference

This is precisely why God himself intervened.  His love and mercy moved him to come to our aid, to lead us along a sure path of return to communion with him and the happiness that we were created for.  He did this through what is called revelation: God’s own explanation of himself, the world, and how we can attain salvation.  Revelation culminated in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ.  Christ’s work and teaching differs essentially from every other religion.  It is God’s effort to reach out to man, not just man’s effort to reach up to God.

Getting Practical

Consequently, the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church is unique, qualitatively different from those of other religions.  Jesus is our standard, our sure standard, by which we judge the truth, goodness, and utility of all other doctrines and traditions.  The spiritual life, in other words, is not a smorgasbord.  If we just pick and choose whichever practices we happen to like, we have no guarantee that we will avoid dangerous pitfalls (the “limits and errors” referenced by the Catechism).

Prayer traditions from other religions, therefore, may be able to harmonize with Christianity, but in order to do so they need to be purified and grafted onto  the authentic spiritual vine, Christ himself.  That can only happen with the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his chosen instrument, the Church.

A final observation.  It is often frustrating to find Catholics searching energetically for exciting new spiritual practices, but searching everywhere except within the incredibly rich and abundant traditions of their own Catholic Church.  This is one reason we started this website, to make at least a small effort to expose some of our Catholic treasures to modern Catholics who feel spurred on to a deeper spiritual life, but don’t know where to find tools that can help them respond.

Thank you again for this question.  God bless you!

Fr John Bartunek, LC, STL

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/P35P2YXUJVFCRZDCDUHEUODZPM Augustine

    Father,

    I'd explicitly add the danger of falling into syncretic practices, if not beliefs. Our faith is too precious a gift to be risked this way, especially when Christianity's mystic tradition is not only more varied but also truer than any other religion's.

    May Sts. Mary and Elizabeth pray for us.

  • JoFlemings

    I wish we could have a q&a in person about this topic. From ” What the heck is 'Christian' yoga?” to whether or not one can in good conscience shop at the local health food store inspite of its new agey spin and product offering, I am trying to find the boundaries between acceptable orthodox lines in the Church. I find it is even a challenge as a Catholic at times, when various groups or practices in the Church seem to be more 'in vogue' than others (MEF vs.OF, for example). Or when our family values are more in line with the local Mormon community than this or that more 'progressive' parish. It's one thing to be a sheep winding your way through this pasture- as one none too bright, but altogether another to be lost, dazed and confused by what is grass, some kind of hybrid?, and what is weeds.

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  • Anonymous

    The very nature of Catholicism excludes any sort of “pick and choose”
    system of belief. As the Catholic Catechism notes: “the word catholic
    means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in
    keeping with the whole’. One word that has entered into American  vocabulary is “cafeteria Catholic.” The very nature of Catholicism excludes any sort of “pick and choose” system of belief.This term is a huge contradiction,
    much like someone saying he is a “democratic dictator.” The very nature
    of Catholicism excludes any sort of “pick and choose” system of belief. The Catholic Faith has always stressed that the Faith and the Church stand in judgment against our personal beliefs, not the other way around. Its “either you are” or “either you’re not”, there’s no in between. As a convert to the Church I find it hard to understand why, with all that the Church has to offer in the way of spiritual growth, would someone go looking for something else to satisfy their spiritual pallet. Its like the elusive butterfly fluttering from one flower to the other. Is this a sign of something deeper, that has failed to be satisfied within us? I suspect so. I don’t doubt that integrating forms of other spiritualities into ones prayer life may be helpful but done unskillfully can be spiritually dangerous. If a person doesn’t know what to do or how to do it one only has to ask, “seek and you shall find”, “knock and it will be opened”. Launching out into the “deep” for what seems to be better and improved, without preparation and guidance is fool hardy at best. If someone wants to get closer to God one only has to turn to the lives of the Saints. What a vast treasure trove! Read their “story”, climb “on board” and try emulating their life style. One might even try to find a spiritual guide (i.e., Priest/confessor, etc.), a helper as it were, to guide one’s journey. One’s search for meaning and purpose and direction doesn’t have to be difficult but we make it difficult at times. You have to live your life from the “inside out”, not the other way around. I will admit though that making the journey is not easy by no means. No cross, no salvation. Again, one only has to look at the Saints lives The pay off is “out of this world”.

  • New Name!

    This is a very reaffirming video, and, for some, very enlightening.  This is the story of a Muslim who converted to Christianity years ago.  Like St. Paul, his conversion story is impressive (note particularly what “Allah” said to him):

    http://www.cbn.com/media/player/index.aspx?s=/vod/AL32v1_WShttp://www.cbn.com/media/player/index.aspx?s=/vod/AL32v1_WS

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  • Dottie

    I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is going to be leading Catholics to other religious practices when the bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for a life of holiness in Jesus Christ.  So discernment is need to know where this idea is coming from, maybe from a different spirit.

  • Anonymous

    Well said Dottie

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