Catholic Higher Education and Inter-Religious Dialogue

[Graduation Address: Asian Social Institute, PICC, 5/31/14]

It is a distinct honor for me to have been invited by Dr. Mina Ramirez to address you, this year’s graduates of the Asian Social Institute – known as the Graduate School of Transformative Praxis towards Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation. You are scholars and professionals who come not only from the Philippines, but from different countries of Asia: Bangla Desh, Cambodia, East Timor, India, Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam, countries of diverse religious beliefs, traditions and cultures. Nevertheless, I understand the theme of your graduation is: “The Role of Catholic Higher Education in Inter-Religious Dialogue.” I am not sure why I have been given the honor to speak with you on this topic. But it is a topic I have readily agreed to speak on out of a personal conviction that Catholic Higher Education does have a role to play in inter-religious dialogue.


Part of this may be because I am involved in higher education as a Catholic and as a Jesuit. I do not believe that the Catholic University is an oxymoron. The Catholic university is first a university – a community of scholars and teachers who come together in academic freedom to search for truth – however uncomfortable the truth may be. In the view of the Catholic Church, the Catholic university has the privilege of, on the one hand, knowing Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life, but, on the other hand, being missioned in guaranteed academic freedom to use reason, scientific method, critical reflection on experience, and the like, to search for the truth.[1] The search is a genuine struggle for truth that does not fear raising questions about God, human society and nature, in the conviction that human reason, created by God, will bring us to truth.

Furthermore, Jesuit universities are Catholic universities that appropriate to themselves the mission of the Jesuits, which is the service of the faith, the promotion of justice, sensitivity to cultures, inter-religious dialogue, and reconciliation with Creation, that is, the protection and preservation of the environment. The mission of the Jesuits further specifies the higher education search for truth in today’s burning issues of faith vs. non-faith, of justice vs. injustice, of globalized culture vs. particular cultures, including cultures of indigenous peoples, of religious traditions, of sectors of society, and the like, of inter-religious vs. intra-faith dialogue, of the duty to protect the environment vs. the insatiable need of people to satisfy needs and generate wealth mindless of the environment, where the satisfaction of needs only creates more needs, and the generation of wealth inevitably generates poverty.

Your Asian Social Institute prides itself in being “a Graduate School of Transformative Praxis Towards Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.” You will understand: that is a higher educational self-determination with which a Jesuit like myself can resonate. You are not just about teaching and transmitting knowledge that is banked and preserved in cobwebbed archives in perpetuum; you are not just about socially-neutral sterile teaching; you are not just about filling the learner’s head with concepts, old and new. You are about transformative praxis, entering the reformational or revolutionary fray, and engendering the human activities which transform human society. These include finding the knowledge that critiques what in society needs critique, identifying what needs transformation, then reaching out, acting, setting into appropriate practical activity what indeed transforms society.

For this transformative praxis, a Catholic higher education institution would frame mission targets such as justice, peace and integrity of creation foursquarely in the faith, on the one hand, in the communal and personal encounter with the God the Father who intervenes in history through the Son in the Holy Sprit, and, on the other hand, in transformative activities impelled not only on by dictates of theoretical and practical reason, but by mandates of conscience and discernment of God’s will. In the current understanding of transformative education within the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines, the Catholic HEI initiates transformative activity based not only on empirical social analysis, but on on-the-ground faith-based discernment within the Catholic Community as to where God calls for transformative engagement. Recently, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), participated in this process of HEI discernment on the ground by suggesting that Catholic Education in the Philippines must engage itself in issues pertinent to: contemporary man’s search for meaning (issues of faith/non faith), the urgent articulation of the call of the common good today (issues pertinent to social justice), the issues pertinent to the diversity of cultures in a global world, the need for inter-faith and intra-faith dialogue, and the need for environmental stewardship.[2] Abp. Villegas, I believe, had only refocused CEAP’s longstanding commitment to Justice and Peace, Engaged Citizenship, Environmental Responsibility, Poverty Alleviation and Youth Empowerment onto the contemporary scene. Action on such discernment would then transform the Catholic HEI from just a neutral, disinterested podium of different strains of knowledge, an esoteric “marketplace of ideas,” to a center of prophetic intervention, where appropriate transformative action is no longer a mere option but a moral imperative.

An example today may be the role that Catholic HEIs are taking pertinent to the ongoing efforts towards peace in Mindanao. This involves relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, Christians and non-Christians, Filipinos and non-Filipinos, indigenous peoples in Mindanao or the Lumad and the non-Lumad, Bangsamoro and non-Bangsamoro. There is no way we can do justice to this issue within the limits of this festive address. Suffice it to say that the role the Catholic universities play here is crucial for society in Mindanao and thereby society in the Philippines. Allow me to mention four general reasons why:

First, with the magisterium of the Church[3], that is, in resonance with official doctrine of the Catholic Church, the Catholic University can promote actual dialogue between Christians and Muslims based immediately on a dialogue of shared life and of shared commitment to the common good within the human community. It can be a promoter of consensus on issues that divide. This can include not only shared experiences of lived faith in diversity, both when faith succeeds and when it fails; it can also involve shared experiences of the effects of war, violence, hatred and prejudice. Such a dialogue can be enhanced by serious higher education studies in the history of conflict from the viewpoint of Mindanao, the anthropology of diverse Mindanao Moro, Lumad and Christian-settler cultures, the economy of Mindanao viewed from Mindanao, the Philippine law, the Shariah law and the Law of God. The view of history from viewpoint of Mindanao can be quite different from the view of the Spanish colonizer, the American conqueror, and the Filipino national leader. An anthropological appreciation of Mindanao cultures can be quite different from the condescending Spanish regard for the natives as indios or Moros ,and the condescending American regard of Filipinos as “little brown brothers” or of Filipinos from Luzon and the Visayas as “true Filipinos” because they were not the “Mohammedan savages” of Mindanao’s Moroland.  An economy of Mindanao can discuss issues of wealth creation and distribution from the viewpoint of their impact on peoples in Mindanao and not merely on the national economy.   Such dialogues can uncover in shared truth strengths and weaknesses in experiences of Mindanao’s multi-cultures, acts of heroism and betrayal, enlightened achievement and dark failure, high optimism and profound discouragement. My university, Catholic and Jesuit, is only one of many Catholic universities promoting such informed dialogue. For me, a graced output of such dialogue is cross-cultural, inter-faith friendship.

With appropriate preparation, the Catholic University can enter into the more technical and challenging inter-religious dialogue of theologies. Clearly, this requires much serious preparation. Through our Al Qalam Institute for Muslim Identities and Inter-Religious Dialogue in Southeast Asia, we have taken a small step in this direction; we are instituting this semester a formal undergraduate course in Islamic studies. We hope that through the assembly of qualified Islamic scholars and teachers we too shall eventually be able as a Catholic University to enter into the dialogue of theologies.

Second, the Catholic University can meanwhile contribute to the understanding of the term Bangsamoro.[4] This is a term whose meaning is not immediately apparent. It combines the word, “Bangsa,” which means nation, with the word “Moro” which at bottom refers to Muslims in the Philippines.   In the current process which we hope will bring lasting peace to Mindanao and to the Philippines as well, Bangsamoro refers to a political entity which shall replace the ARMM as the autonomous region envisioned by the Constitution of the Philippines for Muslim Mindanao. While this is a crucial concept in the Framework Agreement Bangsamoro and the Comprehensive Agreement Bangsamoro and the recently drafted Bangsamoro Basic Law, it is disputed whether the thirteen ethno-linguistic Muslim groups included under the Bangsamoro actually form a “bangsa” with a single consciousness, a single language, a single territory, a single cultural tradition, and disputed whether the term “Moro” – a hate-filled pejorative term the Spaniards used to refer to the 700-year Muslim rulers of Spain – is appropriate for Muslim Filipinos. It is also disputed whether Bangsamoro is appropriate since it includes not only Muslims but Christians and indigenous peoples like the Teduray who feel their right to self-determination is compromised by the way they are subsumed under the Bangsamoro, even though as a people they supported the Bangsamoro. Under the Bangsamoro, the Lumad and the Catholics living within this “political entity” need also recognized entitlement to live in freedom and flourish. “Bangsamoro,” not only as a “political entity,” but as a collection of cultural identities and now – in Pope Francis’ view – as “a reconciled diversity,” is clearly a work in progress. From its resources in the disciplines of history, law, anthropology, philosophy and theology, the Catholic University can contribute to this transforming concept today.

Third, through these same resources in multidisciplinarty, the Catholic University can and must contribute to an ongoing reflection on what is demanded by the common good. Social justice calls to the common good, but there is not enough effort coming from our Catholic HEIs, despite a general commitment to justice, to articulate what social justice demands for the common good. The result is the eventual domination of society by private good and private interest based on power, sometimes economic, sometimes military. The pursuit of peace through dialogue among diverse religious groups must be able to appeal to social justice and the imperative of the common good in order to overcome claims which may be private, but advocated with power. For instance, the insistence of a group which advocates education-only-for-men based on religious conviction may need to be relativized by an appeal to the common good. Similarly, the desire of an economically powerful group to exploit such as Liguasan marsh despite disastrous environmental consequences may be discouraged and denied through appeal to the common good. Catholic higher education faculties must enter into the ongoing articulation of what the common good demands.

Fourth, it is imperative that Catholic Higher Education amplify the fruits of inter-religious dialogue in action for peace. While high-level negotiation and dialogue is essential, it must not end with words, words, words. Peace must be forged not only on the high levels of the OPAPP, the Transitory Commission, the Office of the President, and the Congress, but on the ground where after centuries of conflict, discord, suspicion and prejudice finally peoples of different faiths and traditions can come together in peace. It is in this context that the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines (CEAP) and the National Association of Bangsamoro Education, Inc. (NABEi) have approved a CEAP-NABEi Volunteer Program through which graduates of CEAP schools would be invited to live in Muslim communities for one to two years to learn first hand of their culture and language, and where these graduate would then volunteer to teach content courses of the DepEd in Islamic madaris.

It is in this manner that Catholic higher education contributes to inter-religious dialogue in the Philippines today. Perhaps, it can also be said that it is in this manner that Catholic higher education joins the Asian Social Institute in its “transformative praxis towards justice, peace and integrity of creation.” The impact of this transformative praxis may be assessed through the transformative impact of its research on justice and peace, or the transformative impact of its outreach on the environment. We fervently hope that our output is not merely in the realm of sterile concepts, but that the power of our concepts engenders the energies necessary for the transformation of society.

Our higher education output however is not limited to the impacts of our research and outreach programs. It includes emphatically our graduates, whose own personal struggles for knowledge, truth and freedom, is acknowledged and celebrated in such graduation rites as today’s, and who shall be the Asian Social Institutes most profound contribution to “transformative practice towards justice, peace and integrity of creation” in whatever Asian country you practice your profession. On your graduation day I hope you can freely agree with this, and that long after the pomp and circumstance of these rites may have been forgotten, you remain true to the mission of social transformation in justice, peace and integrity of creation for which Asian Social Institute has trained you. Unto this end, may you remain closely bound to your renowned alma mater, and may the friendships you have been blessed with here deepen as you keep contact with one another and bond further in your professional lives. Finally, as you strive with your minds, and perhaps with your lives as well, for justice, peace and the integrity of Creation, no matter the cost, may you be profoundly blessed by the God of Creation who knows how to work with people of integrity like yourselves to combine justice with mercy and struggle with peace.





[1] Cf. John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae: Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities

[2] Cf:

[3] “The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men” (Nostra Aetate, 2).

[4] Bangsamoro: Documents and Materials. 2 vols. Davao: Ateneo de Davao University Publications Office, 2014.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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