EVANGELIZATION AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: AD GENTES, DIGNITATIS HUMANAE






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Publication: Theological Studies
Author: Reiser, William
Date published: March 1, 2010

EVANGELIZATION AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: AD GENTES, DIGNITATIS HUMANAE. By Stephen B. Bevans, S.V.D., and Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C. Rediscovering Vatican II. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist, 2008. Pp. xii + 259. $21.95.

This study reflects on Ad gentes and Dignitatis humanae in terms of (1) the genesis and history of the decree or declaration, (2) the major points of each document, (3) their implementation and reception or subsequent history, and (4) where the issues of mission and religious freedom stand today. Bevans focuses on Ad gentes, Gros on Dignitatis humanae. Although the background history each provides is straightforward and the document summaries, while sufficient, do not substitute for rereading the conciliar texts, the authors' accounts of the document reception histories and of "the state of the questions" today are welcome and refreshing reminders of the council's theological creativity and valuable analyses of the genuine theological development over four decades. The book reminded me of a comment Edward Kilmartin made shortly after the council. Vatican II, he said, may have adjourned; but the celebration of its pioneering efforts will continue well into the next century.

"Ad gentes," B. writes, "was promulgated when the theological foundations of the church's mission were undergoing a profound reinterpretation and transformation" (85). The extent of this transformation - an enlargement of the church's understanding of mission - can be seen in the two missionary encyclicals Evangelii nuntiandi (1975) and Redemptoris missio (1990) as well as in numerous documents from episcopal conferences on various continents. B. then touches gingerly on Dominus Iesus (2000): missionary activity today has to take into account and respond to, B. argues, the context and concerns of our historical moment, especially religious pluralism, the cries of the poor and marginalized for justice and liberation, and the need for reconciliation among peoples. We also have to live with a creative tension between fidelity to the gospel in terms of both witness and proclamation, and listening carefully to the religious experience of those of other religions. If mission gives rise to church, then the way we worship and our contemplative practice are going to be affected by how we conceive the church's mission. B.'s suggestions for further reading are excellent.

Given the role of John Courtney Murray and the American experience in the genesis and composition of Dignitatis humanae, G.'s treatment of the declaration should be particularly interesting for North American readers. From a theological and philosophical position that viewed the civil establishment of the Catholic Church (as the one true church) to be a political ideal, to one that tolerated the existence of other religions and churches within a pluralist society (toleration being the lesser of two evils), to the council's much fuller understanding of the dignity of the human person and its teaching that religious freedom is a fundamental human right, we have a stunning example of doctrinal development, a development that was "consistent with the natural law tradition and divine revelation" (174). Central to this process of development was the experience of churches beyond Europe. G. quotes from Joseph Ratzinger's Theological Highlights of Vatican II (1966): "in a critical hour, council leadership passed from Europe to the young churches of America and the mission countries" (170).

After tracing various challenges in efforts to implement the conciliar teaching with respect to religious freedom, G. focuses briefly on the tension created for Christians by their consciousness of religious pluralism - a tension that could lead, of course, to further doctrinal development. One thing seems clear, however. The Church's rightful concern for the uniqueness of its truth claims in the face of subjectivism, relativism, and indifference, calls for robust theological reflection and a penetrating understanding of other religions. Speaking of the Church in Latin America, G. writes, "there are still many sectors that wish to resist the inevitable pluralism of the globalized world and rely on popular piety as an adequate safeguard for Catholic identity in a culture presumed to be pervasively Catholic" (231). Religious freedom not only guarantees the right to devotional practice, but it also guarantees the right to search for a deeper understanding of the mystery of God. In terms of background, implementation, and ongoing issues with respect to these two documents, the book should prove a fine resource for courses on the theology of the church.

Author affiliation:

Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass. WILLIAM REISER, SJ.

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