Volume XII:1 January - June 2022
Transforming Interreligious Relations:
Catholic Responses to Religious Pluralism in the United States
Leo D. Lefebure
At 385 pages, Transforming Interreligious Relations would not be considered a massive volume, but it is extraordinarily comprehensive. The author, who is the Matteo Ricci Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and a Berkley Center faculty fellow, recounts the history of Christian responses to religious diversity in the United States from the time of the first explorers and colonialists down to the present day. In addition to providing a detailed and extensively researched account  of how Catholics and other Christians have come to a more positive regard for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, he traces the history of the way Christians have responded to the indigenous religious traditions of the Americas as well as to the spiritual traditions and practices brought to this country by the enslaved peoples of Africa.
For the most part, Christian responses to religious diversity in the United States from the fifteenth to the middle of the twentieth century were marked by overt and often violent hostility to any religious sentiments or practices that were not rooted in Christianity. The first Parliament of the World’s Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, was a major turning point for many Protestants, providing them an opportunity to appreciate the spiritual riches of other religious traditions and to recognize areas of compatibility with Christian beliefs and practices. What brought Catholics on board was the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra ætate, promulgated in 1965, which not only affirmed that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions,” but actually called on Catholics to “recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values” to be found among the followers of other spiritual traditions (2).
Christians encountered religious diversity in the North American continent from the first moment European explorers arrived on these shores and were met by indigenous peoples, whom they categorized as “heathen.” Lefebure devotes as much attention to the way Christians in America related to the religious traditions of the people who were native to this land as he does to their interaction with religious teachings and practices that were brought to the “new world”  by Jews, Muslims, and the followers of the major religious traditions of Asia who also immigrated to this land.
The response of Christians to the way native peoples expressed their relationship to the spiritual world evolved from hostility, to grudging tolerance, and thence to a (by no means yet universal) attitude of respect and even admiration. Looming large in the evolution of a more positive response to indigenous spirituality is the figure of Black Elk (1863-1950), an Oglala Lakota holy man whom Lefebure refers to as “perhaps the most famous American Indian to practice both the Catholic faith and an American Indian religious tradition” (p. 79). In 2016, the diocese of Rapid City in South Dakota initiated the process for his canonization.
The history of the way white American Christians related to the religious traditions of enslaved Africans is especially “complex and conflicted” (p. xv). Some of the West African peoples forcibly brought to this country were Christians, others Muslim, all of them, to some degree, combining traditional African beliefs and practices with their adopted religion. Lefebure’s treatment of this topic is not so much about how white Christians regarded the spiritual practices the enslaved Africans brought with them, but how they relate to the distinctly African expressions of Christian faith and worship that have evolved within the Afro-American community—which, it would have been interesting to point out, were quite different from the way they evolved among the Africans who were enslaved in the Caribbean and in Brazil.
I believe the subtitle, Catholic Responses to Religious Pluralism in the United States, would be more accurate—and more helpful—if it had been expanded to Christian—mainly Catholic—Responses to Religious and Cultural Pluralism in the United States. Although Lefebure’s principal concern is the Catholic response to religious (and cultural) pluralism in the United States, he does not restrict himself to Catholic statements and practices. In fact, the word Catholic does not appear in the opening paragraph of his introduction in which he speaks only of American Christians and their response to religious diversity. While it is true that one cannot speak of an American Catholic response to interreligious diversity without reference to the wider Christian response, an expanded subtitle would have made clear that the book does not solely deal with the Catholic response to religious pluralism in this country.
When I suggest that it would have been good to include the word “culture” in the subtitle, I am raising the vexing question of the relation of religion to culture and the criteria that are used to distinguish one from the other. This issue is, I believe, at the very heart of the relation of American Christians of European descent to the beliefs and rituals of the indigenous people of this continent. Christians who belonged to a tradition that interpreted the Scriptures literally read the Hebrew Scripture as a summons to wipe out idolatry, going so far as to kill idolators without considering the possibility that rituals they interpreted as idolatry might better be interpreted as cultural rather than religious acts.
The issue of the interplay of religion and culture is also germane when speaking about the influence of African religious traditions on the religious sensibility of African Americans. For these reasons, I would have welcomed even a brief excursus on the degree to which their encounter with unfamiliar cultures may have shaped the response of North American Christians to religious traditions other than their own
Transforming Interreligious Relations is, as one reviewer put it, “a virtual encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic interreligious relations.” What makes this book especially valuable is not only the far-reaching research that underlies it, but the fact that Lefebure speaks from his own intense and far-reaching involvement in interreligious dialogue for more than forty years— he participated in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, and his book The Buddha and the Christ was published in the same year. DIM•MID, especially the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, for which he served as an advisor, has benefited greatly from his counsel, his encouragement, and his contributions to this journal. For that and for this masterful and comprehensive overview of the history of interreligious relations in the United States, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
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