The subtlety of the Second Vatican Council’s statement in Nostra Aetate that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in [other] religions” has often been missed by Catholics on both sides of the ecclesial aisle. Some on the right have seen this statement, and the subsequent practices that have resulted from it, both as a departure from the Church’s past teachings and an ingredient for softening Catholic doctrine. Some on the left, by contrast, have perceived this statement as a manifesto for the equality of Catholicism with other religions.
The inaccuracy of these two perspectives stems from their failure to see this statement—and with it, the whole of the council’s approach to other religions and to ecumenism—in light of the entire deposit of faith. Certainly there is truth and holiness present in baptism as practiced by many Protestants and in belief in one God as confessed by Muslims. But at the same time, these other religions lack essential elements that lead to salvation. And so the same council teaches that it is only in Christ and his Church that the fullness of truth resides.
In discussing and studying other religions, therefore, it is necessary “to discern the touches of God’s Spirit in other religions without ignoring or glossing over what is false and unholy in them.” This delicate balance is prudently achieved by Fr. Thomas Kocik in The Fullness of Truth: Catholicism and the World’s Major Religions. Kocik, the author of several books and a number of articles, provides “a Christian and specifically Catholic apologetics within the study of other religious traditions.”
In many Catholic schools and universities, the field of comparative religions since Vatican II has been an exercise in religious syncretism that sees Catholicism as just another manifestation of myths about the creation of the world and mankind’s place in it. The effect, as Monsignor Ronald Knox wryly observed, has been to make people “comparatively religious.” Kocik takes a different approach: “Rather than read the Christian Gospel in the light of the world’s myths, we might interpret myth in light of the Gospel. From this perspective, we discover bits and hints of the truth fully revealed in Jesus Christ.”
Kocik succinctly and lucidly presents the core elements of the religious movements of the East (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism), non-Christian monotheism (Judaism and Islam), Orthodox Christianity, and over a dozen Protestant denominations, including “Christianity’s spin-offs” (Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science). After briefly surveying the history and theology of each, he carefully identifies both the signs that point to Christ and the inherent roadblocks to the truth.
This is the great strength of Kocik’s survey: He clearly delineates the resemblances and the incompatibilities, careful neither to overemphasize latent seeds of the Word nor to minimize the differences that exist with Catholicism. For example, Hinduism’s three forms of Brahman are “intimations of the tri-personal God,” Buddhism offers “a premonition of the Savior,” and “hardly any moral advice of Confucius needs to be discarded when one embraces Christianity.”
But for these eastern religions, the differences are far greater. With Hinduism, “belief in reincarnation is incompatible with revealed truth,” and ultimately “many elements of Hinduism are corrected, and not only fulfilled, by the light of the Gospel.” Regarding Buddhism’s search for enlightenment, Kocik advises that the “Church has been given by her divine Founder the answers to the questions Buddhists have been seeking for more than two and a half millennia.”
Islam, though a monotheistic religion that claims to descend from Abraham, has far more differences with Christianity than similarities, because it “is hard to recognize the God of the Bible in the God of the Qur’an, and two very different concepts of the human person have emerged from the Christian and Muslim understanding of God.”
By contrast, “Christians can know for certain” that they pray to the same God as the Jews, the God of Israel. Kocik stresses the role of Israel as the chosen people who “would be the means of bringing salvation to the rest of the world.” He also considers in some detail the status of the covenant with Israel after Christ. While cautioning that “we should not give the impression that there are two parallel covenants equally pleasing to God,” he also recognizes that “fulfillment is not abandonment,” as “the mysterious connection between the old and new covenants engages a still-unfolding story.”
Kocik begins his survey of the Christian communities outside the Catholic Church by recognizing a seldom-noted fact: “The division among Christians, while sad and scandalous, are at times unavoidable. Truth obliges, and sometimes truth divides.” Throughout his survey he identifies “the ways in which Catholicism complements and enriches authentically Christian elements present in those separated churches and communities.”
Most noteworthy is his assessment of Orthodoxy, which lacks only two elements of the fullness of truth that the Catholic Church possesses: the papacy and an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s continuous guidance of the Church. In his most keen and provocative assessment in the book, Kocik argues that Orthodoxy’s reduction of the papacy to a “primacy of honor” contradicts the authoritative status that the East once recognized in the bishop of Rome in the first millennium. He also offers the collegiality expressed at the Second Vatican Council as a possible model for the East and West should they reunite.
Kocik presents the historical background of the Protestant movement before summarizing the core beliefs of its major branches and how they compare and contrast with Catholicism. Following Louis Bouyer, he also outlines a Catholic understanding of the Protestant “solas” that properly balances them “within the full stream of Tradition that is Catholicism.”
Discussions of what is true or lacking in other religions can bring shrill accusations or triumphalist declarations. Kocik avoids both of these perils. He assesses each religion fairly in light of Catholic orthodoxy, which he fully upholds and firmly believes; and he has the humility to recognize that even with the fullness of truth Catholics also must ultimately depend on God’s mercy for salvation.
“By discovering something of our own in what is alien, I believe we can better understand ourselves in light of what we have received.” Kocik provides both Catholic insights into all the major religions of the world and a stirring portrait of the beautiful truths of the Catholic faith, a rare combination that makes The Fullness of Truth required reading in courses of fundamental theology, apologetics, and comparative religions. These truths entrusted to the Catholic Church are not the exclusive property of anyone, but the gifts of God that lead us to into the fold “where there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).
David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.