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[DIALOG KEBERAGAMAN #6] The Dynamics of Diversity in the Catholic Church and Vulnerable Groups During the Pandemic

  June 27th 2022

Written by Jekonia Tarigan


Religious dialogue, both intra-religious and inter-religious, takes place over a historical period and is colored by various dynamics, as well as ups and downs, which by studying them can be found wisdom in building religious dialogue in the future. [i]  This was conveyed by Fr. Dr. Martinus Joko Lelono, at the sixth installment of the Dialogues of Diversity forums organized by the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS). Lelono is an ICRS batch 2016 and currently serves as Chairman of the Commission on Inter-Religious and Trust Relations, East Yogyakarta Vicary. In this forum he delivered a presentation entitled "The Dynamics of Religious Dialogue in the Catholic Church". The second speaker for the forum was Dr. Laila Kholid Alfirdaus, S. IP, MPP, a 2011 ICRS alumna who is now working as the Head of the Political Science Master’s Program at Diponegoro University. Alfirdaus delivered a presentation entitled "COVID-19, Diversity and Access to Public Service: Assessing Support and Challenges".

Lelono, in his presentation, explained that according to Mgr. Francis X. Kriengsak Kovithavanij there are three different periods that can describe the dynamics of dialogue in the Catholic Church: First Period – Early Dialogue Period; Second Period - Period of Silence and Collapse of the Pillars of Dialogue; Third Period: Restarting the Dialogue. Christianity began with a small group of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth who later preached to many places. The movement gained a name as a Christian group in Antioch (Acts 11:26), a Greek city located in Pisidia, in the region of Lake Turkey, which is located on the border of Pisidia and Phrygia. Christianity began to gain influence because of his encounter with various cultures and philosophies. In historical developments, the Church began to assert itself as a separate group from Judaism (Acts 15) and thus took the form of a spiritual institution. Among the processes to define this form are the various efforts to adopt Greek philosophy, ancient religions, and Roman laws.

Sebastian Painadath, SJ, spiritual writer from India, noted, on the one hand, Christianity began to be admired for the mystical inspirations and philosophical thought they took from Greek philosophers. That is why they felt the need to raise the level of their culture by taking over Greek thought and thereby also developing theology by studying the categories generally used in Greek thought. On the other hand, Christianity distanced itself from Greek religion and cult practices because Greek religious mythology meant nothing to Christianity. The fidelity to the message and meaning of Jesus' presence remained the basic norm in early Church teachings. Nevertheless, theology in religion developed in great openness. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus described Jesus as the Logos, an expression of light in Greek thought. Clement of Alexandria portrayed Jesus in terms of fulfillment theory, so that in this way he viewed other religions with more respect, not merely false religions which should be replaced by Christianity. However, the noise about the position of Christianity in the company of others began to be felt in Augustine's thoughts. In his debates with Pelagius, Augustine began to advocate for exclusive ecclesiology. He argued that God's grace had been given in Christ through the means of the Church and her sacraments. Thus, he said, “Embracing Christianity is the safest and surest way of salvation and outside the Church there is no salvation (Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus)” His teachings were developed by his student named Fulgentius, who said that not only the pagans but also the Jews and all the heretics and schismatics who die outside the Church will be sent to the endless fire that God has prepared for Satan and all his angels. This is where suspicion arises towards other religions and beliefs and there is a sense of being right in front of others.

Furthermore, according to Lelono, at the end of the 4th and early 5th centuries, Christianity had changed from a persecuted religion to a religion that was not only accepted, but even became the state religion of the Roman Empire. The church that developed in the catacombs (underground graves located in various cities of the Roman Empire, especially in the City of Rome) became a religion that was practiced in the basilicas. This religion then had authority and dominance, not only in the religious field but also in the fields of politics, economics, and intercultural arenas. Soon, Christian religious leaders became landlords who obtained land because of their special position. Such a position made the Church change from a religion that wants to be a friend of humans, to a religion that feels it has authority. In this case, the hierarchies had more dominance in determining the salvation of souls. Rules were established to impose doctrinal similarities and the abolition of pagan cultures. Attempts to convert people to Christianity in various places occurred more easily because of the principle of Cuius Regio Eius Religio (people must follow the religion of the regional leader). Unfortunately, the church, which sees itself as the visible Kingdom of God in the world, saw Islam spreading its religion in Europe as a threat, ultimately prompting the Crusades.

In its development, the spread of the Christian faith was accompanied by support from the colonial powers. Although found in some places as an exception, missionaries do not easily assert the existence of truth and grace in other religions. The mission is an attempt to strengthen the dominance. The dark times in this dialogue ended with the widespread independence of countries that were formerly colonized by Europeans after the end of World War II.

Finally, in the third period, the dialogue resumed again. According to Lelono, in the early to mid-20th century, several theologians and missionaries began to question the assumption of Christianity as the only source of salvation. Furthermore, doubts began to emerge that the victory of Christianity was determined by the increase in the number of people. This change of attitude was stated in the Second Vatican Council, a council initiated by Pope John XXIII, who introduced the Expression Aggiornamento (to celebrate). One of the outcomes of the Council was an attempt to discuss the relationship between the Catholic Church with churches outside the Catholic Church and with other religions. Originally, this Council did not want to talk at all about other religions and the Church as a whole, but only wanted to talk about Judaism, especially after the Holocaust and anti-Semitic attitudes that had lasted for almost 2000 years.

The Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches asked the Council not to say anything about Judaism unless it was about other religions. This refers to the fear that its effect might be seen as an acceptance of the nation of Israel. Moreover, this attitude can be dangerous to the small number of Christians in Arab countries. In the end, the choice was made to talk about Judaism and, at the same time, talk about other religions. At the Second Vatican Council, two documents that spoke of interreligious relations were signed, namely Dignitatis Humanae as a declaration of religious freedom and Nostra Aetate, a statement about the relationship of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions.

The relationship of Christians who are not in union with the Catholic Church is discussed specifically in the document entitled Unitatis Redintegratio. Furthermore, during the leadership of Pope Francis, dialogue has grown, marked by the publication of several documents such as: Laudato Si (2015); Abu Dhabi Document (The Document of Human Fraternity) 2019 plus Visit to Abu Dhabi – February 2019; The Fratelli Tutti Document of 2020 and the visit of Pope Francis to Iraq in March 2021.

Alfirdaus, in her presentation, stated that there have been more than 6 million COVID cases and 137 thousand deaths until May 2022 in Indonesia. Alfirdaus’ research studied knowledge, attitudes, and practices (KAP) in terms of COVID-19 mitigation based on related surveys. The research was facilitated by a project called "LEAN ON (Leave No One Behind)” by INVEST DM (USAID-promoted program in cooperation with Mercy Corps and BNPB) under the coordination of CIRCLE Indonesia. There are three main questions in her research: What are the current levels of knowledge and prevailing attitudes reported by members of the marginalized community related to COVID-19? What are the current practices reported by marginalized community members related to COVID-19? What are the needs of these people to further support them to mitigate the risk of COVID-19?

Alfirdaus argued that not all people have the access and ability to change regarding KAP, especially among those who are marginalized (people with comorbidities, women and children victims of and/or prone to violence, homeless groups, low-income workers, and gender minority groups). Government policy gives special attention to people with comorbidities, such as with HIV/AIDS, diabetes, severe cardiovascular disease, immunodeficiencies, and other communicable and non-communicable diseases.

Through the research, Alfirdaus found that marginalized communities have adequate knowledge about COVID-19, including the transmission of the virus through respiratory droplets of infected people and clinical symptoms of the disease. More than half of the respondents strictly adhered to health protocols. However, the KAP survey shows there is a discrepancy between knowledge that is not fully translated into higher perceived susceptibility, perceived self-efficacy, and perceived benefits, evidenced by lower absolute scores on attitude and practice components compared to the knowledge score. Therefore, she concludes that knowledge is an essential predicator of attitude, mainly perceived susceptibility, and perceived self-efficacy, which might contribute to practice behaviors among marginalized populations. Financial barriers may also disadvantage some communities’ practice of healthy behaviors by some communities. This confirms that the discrepancies in the effects are determined by the socioeconomic status of respondents.


[i] Johannes B Banawiratma, Dialog Antarumat Beragama: Gagasan Dan Praktik Di Indonesia (Kerja Sama Penerbit Mizan Publika Dengan Program Studi Agama Dan Lintas Agama UGM), 2010, p.7-8,