e-mail us


Dominus Iesus hits the heartland

Editor’s note: We are taking the unusual step of printing a reader’s opinion piece in the space normally reserved for NCR editorials. This is our way of saying we believe that Paige Byrne Shortal’s experience speaks more eloquently than anything we could write about the effect of a Vatican document on those who minister daily in the real world of Catholic parishes in the United States.

On Monday evening I read my Sept. 15 issue of NCR, cringing as I read the cover story about the recent Vatican document Dominus Iesus.

On Tuesday morning our pastor received a letter from a man, raised Baptist, whose wife and daughter are members of the parish. I wonder if Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger realizes that when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith publishes something from Rome one week, by the following week a pastor of a relatively insignificant parish in rural Missouri receives a letter like this:

Recently I considered the opportunity of joining the RCIA program to build a greater understanding of Catholicism. However, I am deeply hurt by what your church considers deficiencies in my faith and beliefs. It is unfortunate that, in your eyes, my nonbelief in the primacy of a man, elected by men, to lead your church places me in such a “gravely deficient situation” that I fail to receive the “fullness of the means of salvation.” I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection offers me salvation, not the pope or your church.
I welcome a response to this letter and the opportunity to discuss it in more detail. I do not mean to sound disrespectful, but the words delivered in this article are offensive to me and conflict with my deepest personal convictions. As such, I will no longer attend Mass with my family and hope that someday every Christian can unite around our faith in Jesus Christ and what he has offered us in salvation.

Our pastor brought the letter to our Tuesday morning staff meeting and asked for advice. We all agreed he should call the letter-writer and ask to meet and pray with him.

On Wednesday, I met with a group of young mothers who have asked me to lead them in a monthly scripture study. These bright, committed, stay-at-home moms are hungry for more knowledge of their faith. One of them said she feels embarrassed that her Christian friends of other denominations seem to know so much more about the Bible, and when they ask her questions she can’t answer.

In the course of our discussion, one of the women asked, “I know it’s off the subject, but can you talk a little about this document that came from Rome?” She said that her husband is not Catholic and a bit hostile about the church and often points out inconsistencies to her. As they listened to the report on the evening news, she didn’t know how to respond to his “I told you so” stare.

I assured her that many Catholics would be as disturbed as other Christians, and that we should pray together. All the while, I kept thinking about the passage in Corinthians where St. Paul cautions: “Through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother or sister for whom Christ died. When you sin in this way against your brothers and sisters and wound their consciences you are sinning against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:11-12). The issue in Corinth was food offered to idols, but the lesson seems applicable today.

On Thursday I got a call from a parishioner, a woman who was in tears. She is married “outside the church,” and I’ve been working with her husband to prepare a case for the annulment of his former marriage, which ended over 20 years ago. Her husband is a faithful member of another Christian denomination and is already suspicious of the process, but willing to go through it for her because she longs for the sacraments. It’s a clear-enough case, but laborious for a not-so-self-reflective man who finds it difficult to write.

This woman was upset because her husband saw the story of the Vatican document on the Internet and was furious. He doesn’t want to continue working on the annulment. She’s wondering if she should just go to his church, but that’s not comfortable either. We talked for a while and made an appointment for next week. She’s going to try to get her husband to come with her.

On Friday I participated in an interdenominational gathering of women, an annual event in our town and this year hosted for the first time by a Catholic church. I direct the Combined Christian Choirs, formed three years ago and composed of singers from most of the Christian communities in our small town. We’ve grown to over 100 singers and offer two concerts a year to standing-room-only crowds, as well as appearing at a number of civic events.

After our first concert I had talked with a man from our parish -- middle 60s, hardworking, regulation crew cut -- not your typical softie. His eyes filled with tears as he told me how moved he was to watch his Lutheran wife and his Catholic daughter singing side-by-side in the alto section. Never before had they sung together in a church choir.

This time, however, I was afraid that folks might not show up to sing, that their pastors might forbid their participation. But they did come and they sang their hearts out. One piece we sing is Robert Ray’s rousing gospel version of the Apostles’ Creed. Before I introduced it, I asked all the church representatives if there was any conflict for them. They all responded, “It’s the Apostles’ Creed -- of course not!” And when they sing “We Believe!” over and over again with full-throated conviction, unity seems not only possible but inevitable.

On Saturday, a friend sent me a column by Martin Marty of the University of Chicago Divinity School. His observations resonated with my experience Friday night. He wrote: “Do your own poll taking and you will find that however exclusivist and absolutist Catholics or members of other communions are, most clergy and lay people think something bigger is also going on in, through, around, and beyond each. No statement from the headquarters of any group will tidy up such contradictions, which are so close to the center of American public religion. And private, too. They will work together, as before.”


Sunday arrives, and it’s the beginning of a new week. Our church was filled four times this morning. And at all the Masses we prayed: “For Christian communities gathered all over the world on this day; for the healing of the wound of division among the churches and for respectful dialogue among those who disagree; for those charged with the responsibility of leadership; and for those who long for the day when all may meet at the table of the Lord … we pray. Lord, hear our prayer!”

Paige Byrne Shortal is a pastoral associate in a parish in rural Missouri. Her e-mail address is pbs@fidnet.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000