Let’s go back this week to pre-history – that is, the 1950s, before Vatican II.
At that time, I was a junior member of a large, international, financial company, and I had been asked to say grace at a company dinner. I was nervous about this because it involved praying with non-Catholics. So I consulted my (Jesuit) parish priest. He said: “No problem; you are not praying with them, they are praying with you.” Thank God for Jesuits!
You may think, even with hindsight, that I had been over scrupulous. But, perhaps not. Father Henry Davis’s Moral and Pastoral Theology, last edition 1958, taught that “It is not as a general rule permitted to Catholic nurses in hospitals to send for non-Catholic minsters to attend to non-Catholic patients.” She could of course arrange a table with flowers (since this was not per se a religious act) but she must not join in any prayers.
Against this background we can understand why The Vatican II documents on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) and religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) caused such a fuss. Indeed it was claimed by some, incorrectly, that Archbishop Lefebvre had chosen not to sign the latter.
A phrase that was often repeated in controversy was “error has no rights.” (Leo XIII’s phrase was, to be precise, “it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.”) It followed, ran the argument, that the Catholic Church, secure in possession of the truth, was entitled to political favour and protection, but that other religions were not. This was reflected, for example in the concordats arranged with Franco’s Spain. It may be worth remembering here that neither error nor truth are subjects of rights: only human beings can be.
Dignitatis Humanae stated however that, by virtue of human dignity, everyone had an equal right to religion and religious practice. While Unitatis Redintegratio not only referred to the Orthodox religions and the Reformation religions with (an unfamiliar) courtesy, but suggested what we had in common and how we might learn from the emphases in these religions. It was a call for respectful, loving, dialogue. (Both documents are quite short, so worth re-reading, via Google.)
As you may imagine, the cry of “religious indifferentism” went up from certain quarters. It was seen that the Church was presenting itself as one form of Christianity amongst others, and that it was possible that the other denominations had a greater grasp of some aspects of religious truths than we did. This was a betrayal of tradition.
In fact an unprejudiced reading of these documents shows that the Church remains limpidly clear about its authority, derived from Christ’s foundation, and its apostolic origins. But there is no doubt that its understanding of human dignity, always at least implicit in tradition, was now being brought into the light of day. No wonder some people blinked.
And there were indeed precedents. The Council of Florence (1439) invited Orthodox attendance, and invited joint prayer. Trent (1545 to 1563) invited everyone whomsoever to attend and discuss the issues, and granted safe passage to those who wished to do so.
I have the impression – although it may be no more than the company I keep – that many Catholics have in fact been tempted by religious indifferentism. I encounter a feeling that we should not be emphasising the Church’s unique role, that perhaps precise denominations are more of a matter of personal choice than any objective truth. There is a nervousness about explaining where and why we differ from other Christians – no matter how kindly this may be done. Am I right in my suspicions? And, if so, is it a healthy or a dangerous development?