The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: December 19, 2003
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Prior to early December, Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis last sat on the dais in the aula magna of Romes flagship pontifical university, the Gregorian, in 1997. Whole volumes can and will be written about the water that has flowed under the bridge between then and this Dec. 5, when an all-star panel honored him on his 80th birthday.
Dupuis is today perhaps the best-known and most controversial theologian in the Roman Catholic church because of his groundbreaking, but fiercely disputed, work on how Catholicism understands other religions.
Fellow theological heavyweights such as Australian Jesuit Fr. Gerald OCollins, American Jesuit Fr. Daniel Kendall of the University of San Francisco and American Fr. Peter Phan of Georgetown were on hand Dec. 5, presenting a book of essays in Dupuis honor titled In Many and Diverse Ways (Orbis).
A painstakingly thorough thinker, Dupuis has balanced insights from the core of tradition with an openness to the holy mystery of Gods presence in the world, the book asserts, calling him one of the foremost theologians of our time.
A Belgian who spent 36 years in India before settling at the Gregorian in 1984, Dupuis was last feted there in 1997 for his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. In it, he argued that other religions exist not just de facto but de jure, playing a positive role in Gods plan. He sees the great religions as vehicles of revelation and salvation, although all salvation is ultimately from Christ.
After a fellow Jesuit denounced the book, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith launched an investigation. It eventually produced three different drafts of a critical notification, each approved by Pope John Paul II. Following a Sept. 4, 2000, colloquy between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and his aides, and Dupuis and his advisers, the final (and only official) notice on Feb. 26, 2001, was surprisingly mild, warning of eight potential ambiguities.
The Vaticans chief concerns were safeguarding the uniqueness of Christ as humanitys lone savior, and defending the churchs missionary impulse by insisting that while followers of other religions can be saved, they are oriented to the church and are called to become part of her.
Dupuis denied placing either point in jeopardy.
In the meantime, publicity surrounding the case worked its ironic and inexorable effect, making the previously obscure Dupuis a theological superstar. Today hes widely sought as a writer and speaker. (The day after the Dec. 5 event, for example, he was off to lecture in John Pauls own backyard in Poland.)
A more improbable bête noire could scarcely be imagined, as Dupuis is a soft-spoken, bespectacled academic who for decades was a key adviser to both bishops conferences and the Vatican. In India he edited The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, a multi-volume collection of official church documents, and in Rome he served as a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. He was a primary author of the 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation.
In the end, it is precisely Dupuis credentials as a moderate and man of the church that made him dangerous, since he cannot be dismissed as avant-garde.
Christian debate over other religions is conventionally divided into three camps: exclusivism, meaning that salvation is through Christ, with followers of other religions excluded; inclusivism, that salvation is through Christ, but followers of other religions can be included; and pluralism, that salvation is through other religions alongside Christianity. Dupuis and the Vatican both defend the inclusivist position, albeit in different ways, which has brought Dupuis in for criticism from advocates of the more radical pluralist approach.
Dupuis draws support inside the Catholic hierarchy. Four prelates contributed essays to the volume honoring him: Cardinals Franz Koenig of Vienna and Avery Dulles of the United States, along with Archbishops Henry DSouza of India and Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
OCollins, who acted as Dupuis theological adviser during the Vatican investigation, paid tribute Dec. 5.
Fr. Dupuis suffered much in the years in which his Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism was contested by ecclesiastical authority, OCollins said. Being close to him, I was profoundly edified by his faithfulness to Christ and his obedience to his superiors.
He also said the controversy produced benefits.
Before, Fr. Dupuis was well known in Asia and in Italy, OCollins said. Now he is well-known and sought after in other parts of the world. Many people, including many bishops, want to hear Fr. Dupuis. I have to say: God writes straight with crooked lines.
Terrence Merrigan of the University of Louvain praised what he saw as Dupuis fidelity to Christian tradition.
When I got into the field of the theology of religions, I was dissatisfied with the way the pluralists were setting the pace, Merrigan said. I was not satisfied with their account of the Christian faith, the confession of Jesus Christ as Gods saving Word, who died for all humankind.
Merrigan thanked Dupuis for clearing a theological space where there is room to think without worrying about empty compromise.
In his own remarks, Dupuis said someone had once asked him how we would explain his work to God.
I cannot imagine myself giving to the Lord, on the other side of this life, an account of the work I have done, Dupuis said. Nor do I think such an account would be necessary. The Lord will know my work, even better than I know it myself. I can only hope that his evaluation of it will be more positive than has been that of some censors and, alas, of the churchs central doctrinal authority.
Dupuis thanked several figures for their support, including the general of the Jesuits, Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.
I have no doubt that the softening down of the measures envisaged against my 1997 book have to no small extent been due to his intervention, Dupuis said.
In language that seemed especially poignant, Dupuis said, I may say in all sincerity that Jesus Christ has been the one passion of my life. His comment was an apparent reference to Dominus Iesus, a September 2000 Vatican document condemning errors about Christ -- seen by observers as partially directed at Dupuis.
While the Dec. 5 event for Dupuis may mark a reconciliation, there is no sign that Vatican concern with the issues he raised has abated. An investigation of another Jesuit theologian who writes on the same issues, but who takes a pluralist position, is ongoing. Vatican sources said Dec. 9 that they are awaiting a reply from American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight to their latest observations on his work. One source predicted that the case will not end well, saying Haights controversial 2000 book, Jesus Symbol of God, is certainly heretical.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 2003
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