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NCR Staff

Aiming to stop a new movement in Catholic theology in its tracks, the Vatican issued a major document this week emphatically denying that other world religions can offer salvation independent of Christianity and insisting that making converts to Catholicism remains an “urgent duty.”

The push within Catholicism to accept other religions as vehicles for divine revelation and saving power is often called the “theology of religious pluralism,” and is most closely linked to theologians and bishops in Asia. One consequence of this view is that dialogue with members of other religions, rather than attempts to convert them, becomes the focus of interreligious exchange.

The new document, titled Dominus Iesus, or “The Lord Jesus,” and presented by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a Sept. 5 news conference, firmly rejects this stance. Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, was joined at the news conference by his top assistant, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, and by two priests who worked on the document: Salesian Fr. Angelo Amato, vice rector of the Pontifical Salesian University in Rome, and Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, vicar general of Opus Dei.

While allowing that followers of other religions can be saved (though only in a mysterious fashion and only through the grace of Christ), Dominus Iesus insists they are nevertheless in a “gravely deficient situation” in comparison to Christians who alone “have the fullness of the means of salvation.” The full name of the document is “Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.”

The document was swiftly branded a “pastoral disaster” by theologians involved in interreligious dialogue. In Asia, some experts predicted it could inflame already tense relations between Catholicism and other religious communities.

Bertone said the teaching in the document touches core matters of the faith and therefore is “definitive and irrevocable.”

In a signal that the Vatican intends to back up its words with action, Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis was summoned to a meeting with Ratzinger Sept. 4, the day before the news conference. Dupuis, an expert on world religions, is regarded as a standard-bearer for many of the views the new document rejects. Officials asked Dupuis for reactions to a document citing errors in his work. He voiced disagreement, leaving the outcome of the case uncertain.

Dupuis declined a request for comment on the meeting.

Coming on the heels of recent investigations and censures of theologians working in the area of world religions, the document has prompted some observers to make comparisons with the Vatican’s anti-liberation theology drive of the 1980s. Like liberation theology, which sought to align Catholicism with movements for social justice in Latin America, the theology of religious pluralism is rooted in the Third World. Further, both theologies draw strong support from the progressive wing of the church in the United States and Europe.

Church officials, on the other hand, said the document contains “nothing new” and predicted that it would assist interreligious dialogue by helping Catholics to be clear about their presuppositions.

Directed at Asia

The document seems primarily directed at Asia and the Catholic encounter with Asian religions. At the news conference, Ratzinger said it had been prompted in part by “a worrisome influence” of “the negative theology of Asia” in the West. Ratzinger has previously expressed concern about the tendency of Asian religions to regard God as infinite and any particular revelation of God as incomplete.

Ratzinger also said the document aims to combat a post-Vatican II “ideology of dialogue,” which has rejected the “urgency of the appeal for conversion.”

Ironically, both sides in the debate appeal to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Progressive theologians whose work is being assaulted argue that it is rooted in the council’s theology. Ratzinger, meanwhile, insists he is upholding the council’s vision. At the Sept. 5 news conference, to bolster his view that the church remains essential for salvation, even of non-Catholics, Ratzinger quoted from two of the council’s documents, Nostrae Aetate (“Of our age”), and Lumen Gentium (“The light of peoples”).

Other points in the new document, Dominus Iesus, include:

  • Revelation in Christ is complete and cannot be complemented by other religions, even though the divine mystery in itself remains “inexhaustible”;
  • Sacred writings of other religions may have elements that “maintain a life-relationship with God,” but only the Old and New Testaments are “inspired texts”;
  • Whatever the Holy Spirit brings about in other religions “serves as a preparation for the gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ”;
  • Non-Catholic Christian churches have “defects,” and Protestant communities are not “churches” at all in the proper sense. To the extent non-Catholic communities lead people to salvation, it is derived “from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic church”;
  • Prayers and rituals of other religions do not have a “divine origin,” and some “superstitions or other errors” represent “an obstacle to salvation”;
  • Catholics must be committed to “announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ.”

Observers say the high-profile fashion in which the document was presented underscores the serious threat Ratzinger perceives.

“We’re talking about a genuine theological reformation that is really significant for our times,” said Diana Eck of Harvard University, a specialist in world religions. She referred to the theology of religious pluralism, which undergirds interreligious dialogue. “In that sense, this document has put its finger on one of the most important issues facing theology today.”

Eck told NCR she was disappointed with the document, which “does not seem to respond to the intelligence of believing Christians, including many Catholics, who have real questions as they encounter people of other faiths.”

For much of Catholic history, popes and theologians have held there was no possibility of salvation outside the church. The position was articulated in the third and fourth centuries by such church fathers as Origen and St. Cyprian of Carthage, and formally declared by the fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and by Pope Boniface VIII in Unum Sanctum in 1302. Yet there was also a strong minority position. As early as 150, St. Justin Martyr argued that virtuous non-Christians such as Socrates could be saved. Over time this came to be the prevailing view. In 1953, a Boston priest named Leonard Feeney was excommunicated by Pius XII for holding that only Catholics could be saved, and a decade later, at Vatican II, the church officially acknowledged that other religions can lead people to eternal life.

‘Cultural arrogance’

To Fr. John Prior, an English missionary priest, the new document smacks of “cultural arrogance.” Prior has 27 years of experience in Indonesia.

“Apparently we are allowed to dialogue with members of other faith traditions, although we have nothing to learn doctrinally,” he told NCR. “We might not know the questions but we already know the answer.”

Several observers suggested the document reflected an inadequate knowledge of parts of the world marked by religious diversity.

“Religious pluralism is an existential reality for many of us, and not just a theory or theological concept,” said Edmund Chia, secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, from his office in Bangkok, Thailand. Chia stressed that he was not speaking in an official capacity for the federation.

“Some of us have relatives, parents, spouses or children who are adherents of other religions. We see that these people are good and holy not in spite of but because of the God and religions they believe in. It would therefore be a violation of our conscience to even suggest that baptism is necessary for their salvation.”

At the news conference, Bertone deflected a question about who was consulted in the preparation of the document, saying only that the Vatican has an ongoing dialogue with doctrinal commissions of Asian bishops’ conferences, especially in India.

Some observers point to a gap between the tone of Dominus Iesus and Pope John Paul II’s ongoing efforts to forge ecumenical and interreligious ties. For example, the pope has invited leaders of other world religions to prayer services in Assisi, Italy. Last March, news media broadcast powerful images of the pope at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, deep in prayer, leaving behind a handwritten note apologizing to Jews for the failings of the church. The pope asked no one to convert, but rather used the common language of penance and prayer.

Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati underscored what many see as a contradiction. “Look at the way the pope conducts himself when he meets with members of other religions,” he said. “He makes no reference to Jesus as the lone savior or to Christianity as the fulfillment of every other faith. You cannot sustain that behavior with a theology that says we have absolute and full truth.”

Worry about hostility

Given the volatile religious situation in much of the world, some observers worried that Dominus Iesus will create new hostility.

“The Vatican doesn’t have any sense of how dangerous such a document can be,” Prior said. “They think they’re having a quiet discussion about texts. But when such words are belted out by an Apprentice Boys’ March as a prelude to a riot in Northern Ireland, or by Indonesian Christians before their ethnic cleansing in Ambon and Halmahera earlier this year, exclusivist ‘absolute truth’ language becomes not just offensive but dangerous.”

Other observers, however, felt such dire consequences may be exaggerated.

“I don’t think the other religions we’re talking to follow intra-Catholic theological controversies all that much,” said Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, who heads the Jesuits’ office of interreligious dialogue. “People who are doing things will keep on doing them.”

Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, who was present at the Sept. 5 news conference but did not take part, told reporters afterward that he felt the document posed no obstacle to interreligious dialogue.

“I know one of the leading rabbis in our country has said he expects this of us, that we be true to our faith in Jesus, that we be true to the consistent position of the Catholic church on a number of issues,” he said.

Michel, a long-time adviser to Vatican offices and one of Catholicism’s leading experts on Islam, said his concern is that Dominus Iesus represents “one more club” to intimidate theologians working in this area.

It is such possible uses that prompts the comparisons of the Vatican assault on religious pluralism with the campaign against Latin American liberation theology in the 1980s. That campaign produced two major documents, along with investigations of such well-known theologians as Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff of Brazil and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru.

“There is a definite similarity,” said Knitter. “Liberation theology threatened the centralization of power in the church by working with base communities not under clerical control.

“In the same way, the theology of pluralism poses a threat to centralization,” Knitter said. “As long as you have only one savior, then you have just one religion, one church and one central power. But open the door to pluralism, and the logic of centralization collapses.”

In the struggle against liberation theology, the Vatican worked with conservatives in the various Latin American bishops’ conferences who shared its concerns. Prior, the missionary who served in Indonesia, predicted this strategy will prove less effective against religious pluralism.

“In Asia we believe in consensus. It will be very difficult to split the bishops’ conferences as happened in Latin America,” Prior said. “Even bishops who are very traditional theologically are good, pastoral men.”

Another factor, said Prior, is the Vatican’s lack of familiarity with Asian language and culture. “Many nuncios come in for a few years, speak English and then move on,” he said. Thus it would be more difficult for the Vatican to monitor and intervene effectively in Asia, as happened often during the 1980s in Latin America.

Whatever future conflicts are generated by the document, Eck saw a silver lining in the Vatican’s attention to the encounter among world religions.

“This is the first time the Vatican has decided it had to speak about this in such a dramatic way,” she said. “It shows that these are issues of concern to more than just the theological avant-garde. They should be on the docket of any thinking Christian.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org. The full text of Dominus Iesus may be found at www.natcath.org/ncr_onli.htm under “Documents.” (Click on the Documents button on the lefthand side of the screen.)

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000