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Latest bump in contradictory papacy

Roman Catholicism is rooted in one great creed. Its core beliefs are universal among its faithful.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in issuing Dominus Iesus, (see story) believes that Catholicism is more than creed. He assumes that it is also one great culture.

He is wrong.

His assumption is a flaw in a document that -- among its more jarring assertions about other faiths -- denies to other world religions a role in salvation independent of Christianity.

Ratzinger also denies that how one’s faith is received and lived in any place is inexorably and rightly shaped and shaded by that place.

The reality Ratzinger refuses to accept is that faith is translated through a place’s history, a culture’s story, an individual’s life. It is shaped by geography, by its moment of development, its interrelationships with different peoples and their different cultures.

Dominus Iesus is a blow aimed directly at Catholic theologians involved in interreligious dialogue in Asia.

The cardinal, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, uses the document’s contention that Christians alone “have the fullness of the means of salvation,” as a flail to whip those Catholic theologians into place, almost mindless of the corollary lashes he simultaneously lays on every believer in the world who isn’t a Catholic.

As a theologian, Ratzinger may have points to argue. It might even be understandable that men who believe deeply in that vision of church would promulgate a document of this kind. But to be clear -- the document’s purpose is not a matter, as Ratzinger said, of simply “reaffirming” constant church teaching. It is a matter of trying to take control of issues about which the church is profoundly divided and groping toward a solution. It is a matter that has occupied serious and sincere thinkers, lovers of the church, for decades. And it is not a matter to be settled with language that inevitably will be seen as antagonistic toward people who have earnestly believed for decades that they and the church were in dialogue.

What then, beyond subduing more Catholic theologians, is to be gained?

Marco Politi seems to have it right. In an essay in the Sept. 6 issue of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, Politi wrote that everything flowing out of the Vatican this summer is connected.

As Politi sees it, the connection between the Vatican’s scathing response to World Pride, the document on divorce and remarriage, the note on sister churches, the beatification of Pius IX, and now Dominus Iesus, is the looming conclave. Ratzinger and those like him in the curia are doing everything possible to close doors and windows in an effort to make it difficult for John Paul II’s successor to reverse their policies.

Politi ends his essay by asking where the pope stands, and his punchline is powerful: The battle, he says, also runs though Wojtyla’s soul.

NCR readers will readily recall the image of a solitary John Paul II at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last March, deep in prayer, leaving behind a handwritten note apologizing to Jews for the failings of the church. Recall, too, the invitation he sent to leaders of other world religions to meet for prayer at Assisi. The pope asked no one to convert, insisted that no one accept Jesus -- instead he reached out in humility, using the common language of penance and prayer. And in so doing, he dazzled the world.

How do we reconcile that behavior with what is in Dominus Iesus?

The fact is Catholics have a serious gap between our practice of dialogue, as illustrated by the pope himself in his encounters with members of other religions, and the official theology of the church. It is one of the paradoxes of a papacy riddled with contradictions.

We have, however, been given two paths -- a profound show of respect and regard for other religions or a bullying document that demeans the beliefs of others. For those of us who are happy to live day-to-day in increasingly pluralistic circumstances, the choice is simple. Join, if only figuratively, in the prayer at the Western Wall. Stand in awe of the response our Islamic brothers and sisters make to the call to prayer. Rejoice that the Protestant churches across the street, our sister churches indeed, are no longer perceived as sinister and suspect.

And all the while, hold deeply the truths of our Catholic Christianity, expressed in that great creed.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000