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Perils of Pluralism


Below are some milestones in the Vatican’s decade-long effort to reassert Catholic belief in the unique saving role of Christ. The Vatican’s clear stance: Members of other religions may be saved through the merit of Christ, but the “fullness of the means of salvation” resides only in the Catholic church.

December 1989: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warns against placing Buddhist concepts on the same level as Christian revelation. The document, titled “Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” calls for caution in incorporating practices based on Eastern spirituality, such as yoga.

March 1993: Ratzinger delivers a speech in Hong Kong warning against “cultural relativism.” He warned specifically against a tendency among certain theologians working in interreligious dialogue to emphasize the reign of God rather than Christ or the church. Ratzinger mentions Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis in a footnote.

May 1996: Ratzinger identifies the “theology of religious pluralism” as the gravest threat facing the church and compares it to liberation theology in the 1980s. Speaking of religious pluralism, Ratzinger said, “In some ways [it] occupies today -- with regard to the force of its problematic aspect and its presence in the different areas of culture -- the place occupied by the theology of liberation in the preceding decade.”

January 1997: Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya is excommunicated after being accused of theological aberrations, including assertions that Christianity is on the same level as other religions. A year later, the excommunication is lifted after Balasuriya signs a statement expressing regret for “perceptions of error” in his work and agrees to submit future writings to bishops for approval before publication.

March 1997: Ratzinger describes Buddhism as “an auto-erotic spirituality” in an interview with a French newspaper. Ratzinger said, “In the 1950s someone said that the undoing of the Catholic church in the 20th century wouldn’t come from Marxism but from Buddhism. They were right.”

February 1998: German theologian Perry Schmidt-Leukel is denied permission by Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich to teach Catholic theology. Schmidt-Leukel holds that “pluralism,” the notion that other religions offer salvation on their own terms, should be kept as an option. Schmidt-Leukel says he believes Ratzinger was consulted on the decision.

April-May 1998: At the Synod for Asia, a stark clash between many Asian bishops’ conferences and the Vatican emerges on questions of Christology and mission. The Japanese bishops, for example, said in their preparatory document: “If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the One and Only Savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions.” In the synod’s final document, formed under the influence of Vatican officials, such ideas are not reflected.

August 1998: Ratzinger’s office censures certain ideas in the work of Indian Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello, who died in 1987. De Mello’s work is accused of uncritically blending ideas from Eastern and Western traditions and of promoting “religious indifferentism.”

October 1998: Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis takes a leave of absence from the Gregorian University in Rome in order to answer charges against him concerning his book, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, in which he argued that Christ as God’s Eternal Word can be active in non-Christian religions. Dupuis’ response runs to some 118 pages, but fails to satisfy Vatican concerns.

November 1999: Pope John Paul II delivers the official concluding document from the Synod for Asia during a visit to New Delhi, India. The document emphasizes Jesus as the unique savior of humanity and calls for a new round of “proclamation” of the gospel, widely seen in Asia as a call for religious conversion.

July 2000: American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight confirms that he is under investigation by Ratzinger’s office for his book Jesus: The Symbol of God. In it, Haight argues that other world religions can offer pathways to God alongside Christianity.

September 2000: The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issues Dominus Iesus. In the same week, Dupuis is brought before Ratzinger and asked to comment on a document citing errors in his work. He voices disagreement, leaving the outcome of the case uncertain.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000