Problem with Dominus Iesus is one of tone, not substance

 — Sept. 20, 200020 sept. 2000
By Rev. Tom Ryan, CSP, Prairie Messenger. Ryan is co-ordinator of ecumenical and inter-religious relations in North America for his community, the Paulists.

The declaration entitled Dominus Iesus released on Sept. 5 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has given rise to a firestorm of mixed reaction. Its context is the relatively new situation of religious pluralism that now marks the western world.

A lively debate has been under way among Christian theologians; it was inevitable that Christians in general, and not just theologians, stop and reflect on what this new awareness of religious diversity means for their own religion.

The Vatican declaration has provided that occasion. At issue in this debate is nothing less than what we as Christian believers should think about other world religions and their adherents, our new neighbours. The question at the bottom of it is an old one: “Who do you say that I am?”

In responding to this question in the new societal context of religious pluralism, theologians have essentially been working with three models of understanding during the past 15 – 20 years: exclusivist, inclusivist and pluralist.

“Exclusivists” are those who argue that all salvation requires an explicit faith in Jesus Christ.

“Inclusivists” are those who believe that all salvation is through Jesus Christ, the only saviour of the world, but the saving grace of Christ touches human beings who are not baptized Christians, reaching them through other religions like Buddhism and Islam.

Those who espouse a “pluralist” approach agree that within the universe of faiths, there are many ways to salvation. The way of Christ is one path; the way of the Buddha another.

The pluralistic theology of religions differs from exclusivism in its claim that non-Christians can be saved. This approach differs from inclusivism in its claim that not all salvation is through Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church’s formal theological documents since Vatican II have been clearly and consistently characterized by the inclusivist approach. The declaration Dominus Iesus neither alters that line of development nor breaks new ground.

All the statements in it are drawn from previous conciliar, papal, or curial documents, and put together in what is the Catholic Church’s most systematic statement on the subject to date. What is affirmed is contained in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which is professed by every Catholic at every Sunday mass as the faith of the church. So why all the fuss?

Several reasons might be cited. Theological understandings that before were implicit have been made explicit. The cumulative effect of bringing all these statements together in one place has more impact than when various statements are spread about in different documents. Certain points, especially those touching upon other Christian communions, could have borne a more generous and sensitive expression. And last, but certainly not least, shrill, distorted reporting in the news media.

Philip Stephens, for example, writing in the Financial Times two days after the declaration’s appearance, said, “In lay language, salvation is reserved for those Christians who pay due homage to his vicar in Rome. As for those beyond the Christian faith, they are lost completely.”

Lay language notwithstanding, this is a very faulty translation of what the declaration actually says: God “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals but to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors.’ ”

The declaration recognizes that the sacred books of other religions “in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers.” Dominus Iesus states plainly: “Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements which come from God.” Inter-religious dialogue, the text notes, “requires an attitude of understanding and a relationship of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment (emphasis added).”

Consistent with its inclusivist approach, the document states that the salvific action of Jesus Christ takes place with and through the Holy Spirit and “extends beyond the visible boundaries of the church to all humanity.” All this holds true “not only for Christians but also for all people of goodwill in whose hearts grace is active invisibly.”

For those who are not formally and visibly members of the church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the church, does not make them formally part of the church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation.”

How does this happen? “God bestows it in ways known to himself.” Theologians are encouraged to try to understand this question more fully.

What is missing in the document and surely to be of concern to some inter-religious partners is Vatican II’s more nuanced approach to other religions, especially those with a covenantal relationship with God (Judaism, Islam).

In another example of distorted reporting, Paul Wilkes wrote in the Boston Globe: “It (the declaration) not only assigns other believers — including Protestant Christian ones — second-class citizenship, but bars them from the gates of heaven, despite their most sincere intentions and their good lives.”

What is actually said in Dominus Iesus is quite different: “These separated churches and communities as such … have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation.”

It further asserts that outside of the structure of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the divisions that exist among Christians, “many elements can be found of sanctification and truth.”

Although the document pertains primarily to the inter-religious relations of the Roman Catholic Church in the wide framework of the world’s religions, the most reactive fallout has come from the two churches with which the Catholic Church has journeyed the longest in dialogue and grown the closest.

The general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Rev. Ishmael Noko, expressed “disappointment that 35 years of ecumenical dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics apparently were not considered” in characterizing Anglican and Protestants as “not churches in the proper sense” because they “have not preserved the valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the eucharistic mystery.”

The declaration made explicit here what was left (perhaps intentionally) implicit in Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism with reference to who is church and who is ecclesial community.

The archbishop of Canterbury responded that this rendering “seems to question the considerable gains that we have made” and expressed his disappointment that Dominus Iesus “does not fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and co-operation during the past 30 years.”

The Anglican communion, he said, “believes itself to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Christ and does not accept that its orders of ministry and eucharist are deficient in any way.”

Noko noted that “the impact of these statements is more painful because they reflect a different spirit than that which we encounter in many other Lutheran-Roman Catholic relationships.”

In general, respondents pick up on a better-than-thou attitude which is experienced as off-putting and demeaning. “Believe it if you must,” their message seems to be, “but kindly carry it more humbly and lightly.”

There are at least two factors which may contribute to the overlooking of the impressive work of the dialogue commissions which have produced agreed statements on a wide range of historically church-dividing questions.

First, the process by which agreed statements are formally “received” and granted an authoritative weight in the life of a church is painstakingly slow and easily stalled.

Yet until an agreement is accepted, such as the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Agreement on Justification by Faith of last October, it does not enter into the magisterial teaching and does not receive consideration in new official documents like Dominus Iesus which tend to be compilations of statements from former official documents.

Second, there does not appear to be close collaboration between Vatican curial offices when a document is issued from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Msgr. John Rodano, a longtime staff member of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, was in Seton Hall, N.J., at the time Dominus Iesus was issued.

When the Bergen Record asked him for his comments, he said he had none because his office “didn’t know it was coming out.”

If the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity didn’t know it was coming out, it would seem likely that the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Relations didn’t know, either.

If such were the case, there is a serious internal problem that needs to be addressed for the good of the Catholic Church’s ecumenical and inter-religious relations in general.

In which case ecumenical and inter-religious partners in dialogue could at least find some cold consolation in knowing that those Vatican offices with which they regularly deal did not have a hand in it. It would help explain why, as one ecumenical colleague put it, “John Paul’s encyclical That All May Be One (1995) longed for unity, but Dominus Iesus does not seem to care!”

In every document there is content and tone. The content in this text is not new. The biggest challenge ecumenical partners find in it is its tone.

Not all the partners in dialogue registered chagrin, however. Rev. Joe Hale, the World Methodist Council‘s chief executive, said Methodists share the Vatican concern that people are interpreting religious pluralism to mean that every religion is of equal significance.

Rev. Geoffrey Wainwright, chair of the Council’s Committee on Ecumenism and Dialogues, stated, “It needed to be said. The WMC in its evangelization efforts insists very strongly on this. With the Vatican we affirm that there are good things in other religions, but we nevertheless hold that Jesus Christ is the one saviour of the world.”

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston sent a copy of the declaration to ecumenical and interfaith partners in his archdiocese with a cover letter containing the kind of statements which were unfortunately missing in the document itself.

“We joyfully recognize and esteem the efficacious life of faith lived by our brothers and sisters in other churches and ecclesial communities. The many elements of truth and life that animate them derive from Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “Catholics recognize that other religious traditions search for God and have found God, though without knowing Jesus Christ.

Dominus Iesus does not signal a lessening of the church’s commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue… (It) is not a proclamation of some human superiority in contrast to any other person or institution.

“It is a reaffirmation of what the church believes and lives with an abiding sense of its own unworthiness as it welcomes all persons of goodwill to reflect on its meaning.”

Posted: Sept. 20, 2000 • Permanent link:
Categories: NewsIn this article: Catholic, Dominus Iesus, ecumenism, interfaith, salvation, Tom Ryan
Transmis : 20 sept. 2000 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : NewsDans cet article : Catholic, Dominus Iesus, ecumenism, interfaith, salvation, Tom Ryan

  Previous post: Ancien article : Joint communiqué: Reformed-Roman Catholic international dialogue
  Newer post: Article récent : Cardinal Ratzinger answers objections to Dominus Iesus