Indian Religions in the Roman Catholics’ Gaze: 1920-1965

Enrico Beltramini, Notre Dame de Namur University in California, USA


How contemporary European Roman Catholicism elaborated a representation of Indian religions as spiritual and mystical, or pre-modern, is the theme of this article. After a brief summary of the Catholic Church’s recognition of the Indian religious Other in the context of the Second Vatican Council, and in particular the Church’s watershed document Nostra Aetate, this article addresses the preparatory work of French Catholic theologians and missionaries in the decades before the council, particularly in relation to theological approaches to Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

[Key Words: Roman Catholicism, India, Vatican II, Nostra Aetate]

  1. Introduction

In a personal recollection of his participation in a session of the Second Vatican Council (also “Vatican II”), arguably the most significant event in the modern era of the Catholic Church, Francis Cardinal Arinze argued that “Thanks to Vatican II, the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to meeting other believers” (Madges and Daley 2012, 207). He did not elaborate further about the identity of those categorized as “other believers.” In this article, the notion of “other believers” is understood as a Catholic representation according to Vatican II. The Catholic construction of the religious Other, including the Indian religious Other, at the Vatican II was significant for Catholicism’s self-definition, at a time when the Church struggled to articulate a post-colonial missionary discourse and enter into dialogue with the modern world (Nostra Aetate, Part One and Five)

  1. Nostra Aetate

The “Declaration on the Relation of the Roman Catholic Church to Non-Christian Religions” Nostra Aetate (Latin: In our Time) was a major contribution of the Second Vatican Council. The original draft document was titled “Decree on the Jews.” The decree was devoted to conveying details about the bond between Christians and Jews, while decrying all displays and acts of anti-Semitism—this only twenty years after the horrors of the Shoah. During preparation, the scope of the document was broadened to address the Catholic Church’s relationships with the world’s different faiths. Nostra Aetate mentions only four world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism, arranged in an order indicating increasing closeness to Christianity. On Hinduism and Buddhism, the declaration states that:

In Hinduism people explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love. Buddhism in its various forms testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which people can, with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or with divine help (Nostra Aetate, Part Two).

Nostra Aetate is not apologetic about the truth of the Christian faith. While the declaration does not display a sense of superiority or emphasize the limitations of other religious traditions, going so far as to state that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions,” it also does not indicate that non-Christian religions might be considered as ways of salvation per se.

 While inclusive of only a limited number of statements on Indian religions, Nostra Aetate stands as a document of momentous historical significance: it is the first official recognition in the history of the Catholic Church of the existence and relevance of non-Christian religions as living traditions, on which the declaration shows a convinced option for a paradigm of inclusion. In 1965, when Nostra Aetate was solemnly announced, the Church was probably ready for a substantial, official rethinking of its attitudes about other believers, thanks to the preparatory work of the previous decades in the different fields of historical theology, theology of religions and missiology, including a fundamental encyclical of pope Pius XI in terms of development of autonomous local churches. A deeper look at Nostra Aetate may help identify the issues that the declaration maintains with regard to Indian religions…Access Full Text of the Article

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