World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893-1993, and the Paulists
by Nicholas M. McCreary
July 20, 2014

Ecumenism is part of the Paulist life and mission. This was evident at a recreation of The World Parliament of Religions, held at the Palmer House in downtown Chicago from Aug. 28-Sept. 4, 1993. Chicago Paulists Kevin Munn and Joseph Scott played a significant role in the preparations for the Parliament and provided daily Eucharist at Old St. Mary’s for the Catholics in attendance. Among the delegates were four Paulists: Richard Chilson, who presented a paper on “The Practices of Other Religions and Christian Spirituality”; Michael McGarry, who delivered an address titled “What do Christians and Jews have to Say to Each Other”; Thomas Kane, who presented a video concerning dance and African worship; and Thomas Ryan, who discussed the Riches from Other Faiths.”

Contemporary Paulist ecumenism derived from the work of several Paulists in the 1960s, John Basil Sheerin’s efforts at dialogue among Christians and Jews, John T. McGinn and Eugene Burke’s encouragement of dialogue between Protestant and Catholic theologians, and Thomas Stransky’s work at the Second Vatican Council. Following Vatican II, the Paulist General Chapter of 1968 defined ecumenism as a work of the community. This was reinforced in the 1986 Mission Direction Statement which elevated ecumenism to one of three works to which the Paulists committed themselves until the turn of the century.

The development of ecumenism as a Paulist work was slow in coming. In an earlier period of the church with a far different attitude toward peoples of other faiths, dialogue with Protestants was considered unusual if it were not a polemic response to some slight against Catholics. The early Paulists invited Protestant Americans to dialogue with them, but for the purposes of conversion. Isaac Hecker believed that if he could speak openly and honestly with people of other faiths, he could convince them of the truths of the Catholic Church. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, ecumenical activity was suspect within official church circles, and priests with ecumenical leanings were generally considered personae non gratae. Hecker and the Paulist work of bringing actively practicing Protestants into the Catholic faith, skirted the bounds of acceptability.

Five years after Hecker’s death in 1888, the Paulists were among the first Catholic participants in the first organized endeavor at ecumenism, the World’s Parliament of Religions held at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

On Sept. 11, 1893, amidst great pomp and fanfare, the World’s Parliament of Religions opened in the Memorial Arts Palace near the grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Among the delegates were adherents of various sects of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shintoism and Christianity including, significantly, several Catholic bishops such as Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore; and Archbishop Patrick Feehan of Chicago.

The parliament was held as part of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the new world. The fair’s planners were men of their times – members of the rising professional urban middle class enamored with the growth and spread of industrialization and the technology associated with it. They also believed that Anglo-American urban industrial culture exhibited the pinnacle of humanity’s social achievement and was the wave of the future.

The planners of the exposition also established the World Congress Auxiliary, which organized a series of gatherings held in conjunction with the fair. Most of these congresses convened at the Memorial Art Hall, including the Columbian Catholic Congress, a gathering of some 3,000 American Catholics to demonstrate the influence and presence of the laity in America’s largest single denomination.

Led by Charles Carroll Bonney, most of the members of the auxiliary were liberal Protestants who sought to foster a religious universalism which transcended denominational lines. In their eyes, the parliament represented a united struggle of “all religions against irreligion,” and they to replace what they saw as an anachronistic and severely inadequate sectarianism which characterized American Christianity.

According to Bonney, the parliament sought to reconcile “reason and faith, science and religion, miracle and law, revelation and philosophy … the teachings of Sacred Scripture and the results of modern research.” The planners believed in an inherent equality among religions, and that there were certain fundamentals within every religion by which all might attain salvation. Such beliefs in 1890 seemed to contradict Catholic tradition concerning the unity of the church.

The chairman of the parliament, John Henry Barrows, was a Presbyterian who envisioned the gathering as not a platform for religious debate, but an opportunity for religious leaders to explain their own beliefs to each other “with the greatest frankness (without) employing unfriendly criticisms of other faiths.” Accordingly, the parliament developed a format in which each of the 17 days was dedicated to a specific issue, allowing representatives form each of the religious groups present to present their viewpoints. This particular clarification allowed several religious bodies – most notably Roman Catholics – to participate in the parliament “without conceding any claims to supremacy among the world’s religions.”

This pleased liberals in the American Catholic church who believed it possible to reconcile American culture with Catholic belief. Led by Archbishop John Ireland St. Paul, Minn., and Cardinal Gibbons, the American archbishops approved of Catholic participation in the parliament at their annual meeting in New York in November 1892. They appointed Bishop John J. Keane, the rector of the Catholic University of America, as their liaison with Barrows and the World Congress Auxiliary. Keane, a friend of the Paulists, received the responsibility of recruiting Catholic delegates to present papers concerning various aspects of church teaching. In all, Keane received 20 papers which were presented by 18 delegates, two of whom were Paulists. Father Augustine Hewit, professor of church history at the Catholic University of America and superior general of the Paulist Fathers, wrote a paper titled, “The Rational Demonstration of the Being of God.” Father Walter Elliott, noted missionary to non-Catholics, delivered a paper titled, “The Supreme End and Office of Religion.”

Hewit’s paper explained the Catholic understanding of the existence of God. Presuming monotheism as the “fundamental and cardinal doctrine” of “Christians, Jews, Mohammedans and philosophical theists,” Hewit defined Catholic metaphysics as “a science concerned with the ultimate principles and grounds of existence.” According to Hewit, the metaphysical argument for the existence of God was the apex of all proofs because it is possible to prove God’s existence through the use of “concrete, contingent facts.”

Elliott addressed the ultimate end of religion. Religion directs the aspirations of the soul towards an infinite good, seeking a unity between God the creator and creation itself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate union of the two, and it is through him and his suffering, death and resurrection that we are transformed into a new and divine life by the remission of original sin. Love is the union of the divine and human, stated Elliott, and “church organizations, authorities and discipline, sacraments and worship, are external aids and incitements to love, instituted by the Son of God, as the extension of his own external divine life. Their end is to bring the human soul into “immediate union” with the Father and the Holy Ghost. For Elliott, Christianity constituted the most highly developed form of religion (Catholic Christianity in particular), which elevates humankind to union with God.

Insofar as Bonney and other liberal Protestants intended the parliament to be a cosmopolitan display of religious unity, it proved a resounding failure. As historian Martin Marty wrote, “Designed to show the unity of faiths, it displayed a split within the company of conveners, a set of disparities and disputes among denominations in this world’s fair of faiths. Instead of dialogue, a succession of monologues occurred. While the parliament failed at religious dialogue, it succeeded as the first attempt at non-polemical dialogue held in an age that was dominantly Protestant, culturally imperialistic and where secularism within society was on the rise at the turn of the century.

Hewit remained the polemicist. One result of the parliament, according to Hewit, “was to make clear that either Christianity is the revealed universal religion or “there is none.” “The only object and motive of those (Catholics) who took part in the Parliament of Religions,” he argued, “was to present Catholicism before the representatives of all forms of religion as the genuine and authentic Christianity of Christ and the Apostles: the Catholic Church as the kingdom of God on the Earth.”

Hewit was aware, however, of the value of so large and novel an ecumenical gathering: “The Parliament of Religions was dominated by an irenical spirit, and it was certainly an unprecedented instance of amicable conference rather than controversy, not only of Catholics, Greeks and several Protestant denominations, but also of Jews and pleaders for various heathen religions. It must be admitted that there was something in the attitude of all these different religious toward each other, and in the amicable relations of their representatives. An era of mutual toleration and to a considerable extent of religious liberty has succeeded. It is only by peaceful means that the Gospel of Christ can be propagated, and only by intellectual and moral forces that men and nations can be brought into religious harmony and unity.”

Such possibilities for Catholics were short lived. In September 1895, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to Francesco Satolli, the apostolic delegate, forbidding further Catholic participation in such events. In the same letter, however, he lauded the Paulists for their efforts in the missions to non-Catholics. Dialogue was acceptable if it provided a means to reach non-Catholic America for the purposes of conversion, a clear approval of the earlier means the Paulists had traditionally used with non-Catholics. The door to discussion between American Protestants and Catholics was not entirely closed. While the parliament proved to be a passing moment of 19th century dialogue, the participation of Augustine Hewit and Walter Elliott was a beginning. The fruits of their labors can be seen in the burgeoning work of contemporary Paulist ecumenists such as Thomas Stransky, Michael McGarry and Ronald Roberson. It is such work that carries on a century’s-old tradition of Paulist ecumenism.