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Gap between theory, reality

NCR Staff

Though interfaith experts from the world’s major religions appear divided over whether a new Vatican salvo on salvation creates an obstacle to good relations with the Catholic church, they seem united on one point: The Catholics they know don’t talk this way.

The Vatican insisted in a document released Sept. 5 that salvation, even for non-Christians, comes only through Christ.

“Personally, absolutist positions hold no terror for me,” said Arvind Sharma, an Indian Hindu who teaches at Montreal’s McGill University. “I even find something to admire in them. One is being honest about what one believes, and what can be wrong with that?”

On the other hand, Sharma said in his years of experience of interfaith exchange he’s not encountered Catholics who insist their revelation is “complete” and cannot be complemented by other religions.

“I’ve never met a Catholic who begins a dialogue from such a point of view,” Sharma said. “If they did, what would we have to talk about?”

Yet just such a position was at the heart of a new document titled Dominus Iesus, issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, on Sept. 5. While granting that non-Christians may be saved, it asserts they are in a “gravely deficient” situation compared to Catholics, and insists that there is no revelation outside of Christ (NCR, Sept. 15). Non-Christians, the document claims, are saved only through the merit of Christ.

Some observers of church affairs contend that, while many Catholics might assent to the theological principles in Dominus Iesus considered in the abstract, they take a different approach when they encounter members of other religions. Such a gap between theory and practice seems readily apparent to many of the church’s dialogue partners.

“I’ve yet to encounter an English Catholic who takes this position in real life,” said Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Maidenhead synagogue in the United Kingdom. “My sense is that the reaction among Catholics here will be, ‘This is the official line and we have to dredge it up every 25 years or so, but don’t worry, lads, we’ll just carry on.’

“The Catholic bishops with whom I’ve spoken all say they’re extremely embarrassed, extremely sorry,” Romain said. He declined to identify those bishops.

Romain, who recently published a book on religious conversion, said there has been “enormous progress” in interreligious relations in England in the last 30 years and he does not expect that to be affected by the new Vatican declaration.

“We’re cagey enough to realize this is also part of some internal Catholic in-fighting leading up to the next papacy,” Romain said. “People are thinking, ‘Let’s wait and see what the new pope does.’ ”

Other observers were less cheerful in their assessment.

“The document’s position strikes me as extremely arrogant,” said Rita Gross, a former president of the Society for Buddhist-Christian study and a convert to Buddhism who teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire.

“There is a self-contradiction in saying I want dialogue, and using that dialogue to proclaim my absolute truth,” Gross said. “I don’t think you can hold that position and affirm diversity.”

Gross said the Vatican insistence on possessing a “full and complete” revelation worries her on a practical as well as a theological level. “Historically, people who make absolute truth claims in religion behave very badly,” she said. “It doesn’t lead anyplace good.”

Yet Gross, too, agreed that in her experience, Catholics involved in interreligious exchange do not adopt such views.

“My sense is that there is a plurality of opinion with the Catholic church, and the kind of people who are leading the church’s dialogues with other religions would not at all share this perspective,” Gross said.

Kurt Krammer, an Austrian Buddhist from Salzburg and a leader in the European Buddhist Union, said the views expressed in Dominus Iesus could be “a serious obstacle to dialogue.” However, like Gross, he said, “This is not the line I’m hearing from the Catholics I meet in dialogues, who seem to be quite open-minded.”

Krammer predicted the document would have little impact on Catholic-Buddhist exchange: “Since we don’t really believe in an ego, most Buddhists find it very difficult to feel insulted,” he joked.

Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar in South Africa, said he agrees with Gross that the logic of the Vatican document could suffocate dialogue.

“Many Muslims take exactly the same kind of position as the Vatican, that you have to stand under Islam in order to understand truth, that the only way to salvation is through normative Islam,” he said.

“If that’s how we feel, what can dialogue consist of? I give you a Quran. You give me a Bible and some papal documents. We have a cup of tea and that’s it,” Esack said. “To me the point of dialogue is building a better world, and we need to ask if this sort of theological position is consistent with creating a world that has space for all of God’s children.”

Esack too, however, said the Catholics he has met in interfaith dialogues don’t seem to share the Vatican premises.

“Generally in South Africa you are relegated to the backwaters of any social discourse if these are the sort of statements you are making,” he said. “Most Catholics I know see the genuine religious goodness in Muslims on a daily basis and have no wish to talk them out of it.”

The reactions seem to confirm an argument recently made by Paul Knitter, one of the pluralist theologians often criticized by the Vatican, in the academic journal Louvain Studies.

“What we have in the Catholic church today is a real, often painful, but frequently ignored tension between the lex credendi [rule of faith] and what we might call the lex dialogandi,” Knitter wrote.

“The practice of dialogue with other religions, as it is fostered and lived in the Catholic church today, is in tension with the theology of other religions as formulated in official magisterial statements and by many Catholic theologians. Our Catholic community has a problem that needs fixing.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000