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Speakers find glimmers of light in Dominus Iesus

NCR Staff

At Rome’s Waldensian Theological University, located just around the corner from the Vatican, an enormous mural dominates the main lecture hall. It shows a single candle burning above the Latin inscription, “A light shining in the darkness.” The irony is rarely lost on visitors to this tiny Protestant island surrounded by a vast Catholic sea.

During an Oct. 27 and 28 conference hosted by the Waldensians in reaction to Dominus Iesus, the recent Vatican document asserting that followers of other religions suffer “grave deficiencies,” the candle seemed an appropriate emblem, both for the smiles it evokes and for the conference’s aim of dispelling interfaith shadows cast by the tough new Vatican line.

The gathering, brought together Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox and even a representative of Christian Science to discuss Dominus Iesus. It was clear that Catholics are not of one mind on the perils and promise of religious pluralism. “This document was an attempt to close doors,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities. “But I know that many other Catholics are working to keep the doors open.”

Recent events here seem to lend support to Luzzatto’s sense of a tug-of-war in the church.

Bologna’s Cardinal Giacomo Biffi created an uproar in mid-September by asking Italian legislators to favor Catholics in immigration policy, because Italy’s “national and cultural history” is based on its Catholic identity. Speaking specifically of Islam, Biffi warned that Europe must either recover its Christian roots or become Muslim.

At the conference, Luzzatto said he found this sort of talk alarming, given that Italian fascists in the 1930s justified anti-Semitic legislation on the basis of protecting the national culture.

The powerful Italian bishops’ conference sent another negative interreligious signal in mid-October with a document warning Catholics against using “alternative medicines,” especially Eastern techniques such as acupuncture, hydrology and shiatsu, which stem from Asian religious and philosophical traditions. The bishops warned that such traditions “are not compatible with the Catholic faith and sometimes are even accompanied by occult practices.”

Since the same theologians often advise both the Italian bishops and the Vatican, the statement carries significance beyond Italy’s borders as an indication of current thinking.

At the same time, however, other Catholics have made a special point of reaching out to other religions in recent days. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan held an interfaith gathering in Milan Oct. 25, marking the anniversary of John Paul’s historic summit of religious leaders in Assisi in 1986. Some 3,000 people gathered in Milan for a ceremony that involved 22 religious leaders in a joint “moment of silence” for peace.

Also in late October, Jesuit Fr. Giovanni Notari of the Gregorian University, Rome’s most prestigious papal academy, announced that the university will offer a new course of study in 2001. It will bring Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists and believers in other religions together with Catholics to analyze possibilities in “interreligious and intercultural relations.”

The fissures in the Catholic world also surfaced at the conference, where Fr. Gianfranco Bottoni, Martini’s expert on ecumenical and interreligious relations in Milan, offered what seemed the most direct criticism of Dominus Iesus. He said the document’s timing was “inopportune” and that it had been a “mistake” to mix ecumenical issues with analysis of Christ and other religions.

A Jewish participant argued from the floor that contradictions in Catholic thought are actually visible in the document itself. She noted that Section 6 calls the divine mystery “transcendent and inexhaustible,” yet insists that the revelation in Christ is complete. “How can both be true?” she asked.

Perhaps the most interesting analysis from the Catholic side came from Fr. Carlo Molari, a well-known Italian theologian and expert on interfaith issues. Molari argued that while the immediate impression created by Dominus Iesus was of a clampdown, in fact the document leaves doors open for further theological development at several key points.

Molari noted that Section 14 of Dominus Iesus invited theologians to ponder “in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation.” Molari insisted that Catholics “have to carry this idea forward,” because if other religions have a role in God’s plan for human salvation, they are “essential,” and hence dialogue becomes “a fundamental component of the mission of the church.”

Molari also argued that Catholics who favor inculturation, or allowing local churches to express the faith in ways appropriate to their culture, should welcome the insistence in Dominus Iesus that Christ is the universal savior of all humanity. “If Christ is universal, then the church cannot take on just one culture, one historical context,” Molari said.

Molari then made a comparison unlikely to cheer the authors of Dominus Iesus, suggesting that it resembles Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reasserting the church’s ban on birth control.

“It created a big controversy for 10 years,” Molari said, “and then people started to pick up on parts of the text that left the way open for further progress.”

Several Muslim and Jewish speakers noted that contradictory attitudes toward interreligious relations also divide their own traditions. In the end, the mood was perhaps best expressed by Mahmoud Salem Elsheikh, a Muslim who teaches at the University of Florence.

“Religions don’t dialogue, people do, day by day,” Elsheikh said. “We need to worry less about what institutions are saying and get on with it.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2000