e-mail us
Missionary strategy

NCR Staff

Like any multinational corporation concerned with market share, the Roman Catholic church occasionally calls its sales force back to headquarters for a strategy session. What emerged at the latest such meeting in mid-October was, in effect, a vigorous debate over how to market the church’s product line.

The International Missiological Congress, held at Rome’s Urbaniana University, where seminarians from missionary countries come to study, brought together more than 1,000 missionaries and scholars from five continents. The Oct. 17-20 event took on special significance in light of the Vatican’s controversial recent document Dominus Iesus. Released Sept. 5, the document demanded that theologians reassert the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the superiority of the Catholic church.

What emerged at the congress was not a challenge to the doctrine in Dominus Iesus. None of the speakers at this gathering advocated radical new theological ideas. Rather, they offered widely differing reactions to the document’s tone and style.

In effect, the divisions pivoted less on what the church’s message should be and more on how to sell it.

Some argued that absolutist language, such as the claim that followers of other religions suffer from “grave deficiencies” in comparison to Catholics, creates enormous problems in presenting the Christian message. Others, however, accused those seeking to downplay the hard language in Dominus Iesus of soft-pedaling the truth.

A few participants suggested that the congress itself reflected practices that don’t make the church very attractive. For example, Sr. Teresa Okure of Nigeria, speaking from the floor, noted that not a single woman was among the 22 speakers on the program. The omission was especially glaring given that some 65 percent of participants were women.

When Dominus Iesus was issued, many observers felt it was aimed at India where missionaries and scholars are searching for new ways to present Jesus in a culture that prizes religious tolerance. It was no surprise that at the congress many of the strongest criticisms of absolutist language came from Indian speakers.

“The language of uniqueness is bound to be misunderstood, because it appears to be exclusive, negative and intolerant,” said Fr. George Karakunnel of the Pontifical Institute of Alwaye, India, referring to insistence in Dominus Iesus on Christ as the lone savior. “The Christian message has to be expressed in terms and expressions other than those that sound like exclusive claims.”

Salesian Fr. Sebastian Karotemprel, an Indian who teaches at the Urbaniana University, urged that local churches be consulted before doctrinal statements such as Dominus Iesus are issued. “Otherwise we will be setting fire to the context and expect others to put out the fires of controversy and fundamentalism,” he said.

Karotemprel distanced himself from many of the new theologies associated with India and criticized by the Vatican, such as the theologies advanced by Fr. Raimundo Panikkar and Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, seeing in them a “tendency to relativization of the Christian faith.” Dupuis is a Belgian who spent more than 30 years teaching in India. Panikkar, a Spaniard with a Hindu father, is best known for his argument that Christ is active in all the religious traditions of the world.

Several Indian speakers advocated an approach that emphasizes love and service rather than strong doctrinal statements. Such a “kenotic Christology,” named after the Greek word that refers to the “self-emptying Christ” in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, is better suited to spread the faith in Asia, they said.

“Jesus is our Lord and Master, not simply because of his equality with God, but because he washed our feet,” said Fr. Anto Karokaran, editor of a theological journal in Bhopal, India.

The “love and service” approach does not impress everyone. Fr. John Egbulefu, a Nigerian who teaches at the Urbaniana University, told NCR that he “pounced” on several of the Indian speakers after their presentations.

“Divine revelation dwindled into oblivion” in these presentations, Egbulefu said in an interview. He said the Indians emphasized the suffering of Christ while forgetting the point of his suffering -- to save all humanity, making him the lone savior of the entire world. “They have forgotten half the theology they ever learned,” he said.

Egbolefu also challenged Bishop Walter Kasper, secretary of the Vatican’s council for Christian unity, who recently gave an interview in Germany in which he criticized both the timing and tone of Dominus Iesus. During the congress Kasper seemed sympathetic to the concerns expressed in Dominus Iesus, though he used more moderate language to make the same points.

“He goes to Germany and he is against the pope, but here he whitewashes the whole thing,” Egbloefu said. “This double tongue is what I don’t like. It’s a symptom of a deep problem in the church. We can’t build a mission on the basis of insincerity.”

In raising the problem of the lack of women on the program, Okure, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, said, “We have to get to the heart of Jesus’ message, a message of liberation.” She suggested that if the church is having trouble reaching the people, it may be in part because it marginalizes women, offering the all-male program as a case in point.

Okure is chair of the department of Biblical Theology at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Nigeria.

The meeting was held in conjunction with the Oct. 22 Jubilee of Missionaries, when Pope John Paul II planted a small olive tree in a pot containing soil from each of the 112 nations represented at the event. The tree is a symbol of the church’s hope for success in spreading its message.

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000