Friday, August 19, 2011

Prayer Meeting at Assisi

On Oct. 27 there will be a meeting of many religions at Assisi for a day of prayer and dialogue.  Koreans have little difficulty understanding the importance of what is being attempted at Assisi, but this is not true in some parts of the Catholic world. Korea, however, has been a good model for others to follow in learning how religions can succeed in living together in harmony.

A priest-professor at Sogang University, writing in a Catholic magazine, expressed dismay at some of the problems we have had between religions in recent years. Korea, he says, is a museum of religions. In our history Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and  many other religions peculiar to Korea  have lived together in harmony. To have this religious harmony, he says it's necessary for them to be independent of the government and that the dignity of the individual be respected, since it forms the foundation allowing for our freedom of choice and the practice of religion.

The professor gives us a little history of how the Church in the past has understood freedom of religion. It was thought that in the presence of truth, there is no reasonable choice possible but to choose the truth. That by not choosing truth a person is choosing error. And that this freedom of not choosing the truth results in propagating indifference and relativism, and as opening the way to acknowledging the truth of other religions, diminishing the importance of belief in Jesus. It was thought to be destructive of the Church and, ultimately, of the individual since the truths of the Church were considered crucial to living the good life. To safeguard these truths, and the welfare of the individual, it was thought necessary to stress the error of other religions.

Many years later, the Church found that the best possible solution to adopt in religious matters was to tolerate other religions. This tolerance was not based on human dignity or rights but based on politics and the necessity of having stable societies.  In other words, to prevent greater social evil the Church accepted lesser evil. After much discussion at the Second Vatican Council, the Church fully accepted the right of all people to have freedom of religion, which was promulgated in the  Declaration of Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae--#1): "A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man. And the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty." This was a positive acceptance of freedom of religion as a fundamental right of  all. In the long history of the Church this was a new understanding. The Church was now acknowledging that the freedom that she had been working for in human dignity and fundamental rights includes freedom of religion.

The Church, in accepting this freedom of religion, is not relativizing the truth it teaches, but now sees that God's word can be expressed through other religions. The many beautiful and good things in other religions, the Church acknowledges. God's word makes us free. And it is God's word in all religions that is working, in its various ways, to make us free. Humans who are seeking  freedom should have the freedom to choose their religion. A religion that does not allow this freedom cannot talk about freedom.

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