Archbishop gives Church’s views in interfaith symposium

How does the Catholic Church relate to people from other religions and to people with no religion?

This and other questions were tackled by Archbishop William Goh during a Jan 20 symposium on how religions can contribute to social harmony and coexistence.

The head of the Singapore Catholic Church was among several religious representatives and academics who spoke at the event titled Common Space: Can Religion Contribute to It?, organised by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

In his keynote lecture, Archbishop Goh explained that the two documents guiding Catholics in relating to non-Christians and those without religion were Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration on the Church’s relations to non-Christian religions, and the 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

“The fundamental guideline given in Nostra Aetate is simply this,” he told the 500-strong crowd.

“Whatever is holy and true, whatever is good and true in [other] religions, the Church does not reject. Not only does the Church not reject, the Church wants to promote and foster what is good and true in these religions,” he said during his talk titled Nostra Aetate as a Religious Resource for Common Space.

Archbishop Goh said the document lists four guiding principles for engaging with non-Christians.

The first is that humanity is “one community”.

“Everyone is a child of God regardless of who they are,” said Archbishop Goh. “Because we have the same origin, we have the same destiny… We all have the same blood, we all have the same aspirations.”

It also means that the Church “does not tolerate discrimination of any sort – race, colour, religion” and exhorts its members to collaborate with members of other faiths for peace and harmony, he said.

The second principle is the need to stress what is common among religions, said Archbishop Goh. “What unites us … is much more than what divides us.”

“Every religion attempts to explain the meaning of life, the purpose of life: What is happiness, why is there suffering, where do I come from, what will happen after death, what is life all about?” he said.

“Therefore all of us have the same aspirations for authenticity, for meaning, for purpose.”

Nostra Aetate stresses that the Church must therefore have “high regard for the practices of other religions”, said Archbishop Goh, adding that the Church is happy when another religion is doing good work.

The third principle is the issue of “distinctiveness”.

“Every religion must be taken on its own terms,” said Archbishop Goh. “No religion can be compared with another.”

He added, “We don’t try to disprove another person’s belief. Rather we accept, we try to see what is good in them and we appreciate.”

The fourth principle is dialogue. The only way to overcome fear of others is through dialogue, said Archbishop Goh. “When there is fear there is no communication … When there is fear, there is no trust. You cannot have a dialogue without trust.”

Dialogue also needs to be done with humility, he said, adding that Nostra Aetate stresses the importance of religious groups forgetting past hurts in order to work for world peace and harmony.

“To forget the past means to surpass the past,” said Archbishop Goh. “What we need to do is surpass the mistakes that others have made, to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Dialogue therefore requires “forgiveness”, he said. “It requires listening, it requires sincerity, trying to learn from each other.”

However, there are different levels of dialogue depending on the comfort levels of participants. The first is that of dialogue of prayer, religious experience and contemplation. “That  is the easiest,” said Archbishop Goh. The second is the “dialogue of life”.

“That means we care for each other, we love each other, we have makan together, we celebrate together,” he said.

The third is the dialogue of action in which people of different religions work together to serve society, such as helping the poor.

The last level is the “dialogue of truth”.

“That is the most difficult area …and  should be handled by theologians”, said Archbishop Goh.

“The whole purpose of dialogue is friendship,” he said. “When there is friendship – suspicion, fear, all these things will be removed.”

Archbishop Goh also spoke of how religious believers can relate to people with no religion.

The only way is through reason, he said, adding that this was why Pope John Paul II wrote the encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

Faith and reason are two ways of “looking and finding the fullness of life”, said Archbishop Goh. “Faith is not against reason and reason is not against faith,” he said. “What is the ultimate goal of faith? Is it truth and love?”

He stressed that faith helps people to “find the fullness of truth and the fullness of love”.

On the other hand, “reason also seeks for truth”, he said. “Therefore, there are two ways to find ultimate truth, ultimate love – faith and reason, they go together… They are not contradictory.”

He added that although faith transcends reason, faith is not against reason.

“Reason can tell you the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – how the world came about,” he said. “Can reason tell you the ‘why’? Why were you born? Why is there existence? Why is there this world? What is life? What is love?”

Said Archbishop Goh, “Science cannot tell you. There is still this divine mystery.”

He concluded by emphasising that religious leaders have to be responsible in how they form their believers and how they deal with people of other faiths. “At the end of the day it is respect, tolerance, appreciation,” he said.

“And this is the way we deal with the state as well,” he said, adding that the state must be impartial to all religions.

He added that people should be thankful that the secular Singapore government sees the importance of religion.

Religious believers are “partners of the government, of the state”, he said. “We are not against the state. Our task is to help the state to promote peace, harmony, prosperity for the country so that we can be one people and truly Singaporean.”

Archbishop Goh’s written speech is at

By Christopher Khoo
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