‘Grave Ambiguities’

Jacques Dupuis Faces the Inquisition

This book documents the travails and the courage of the late Jacques Dupuis, the Jesuit priest and theologian whose work on what he called “a Christian theology of religious pluralism” drew scrutiny from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the last decade of his life. Dupuis was known not only for his pioneering work in theology of religions, but also for his detailed knowledge of the history of Catholic doctrine, which bore fruit in multiple editions of a comprehensive compendium of doctrinal statements, The Christian Faith, which he co-edited along with fellow Jesuit Josef Neuner, and which he was updating to include statements of Pope John Paul II at the time his work was being investigated. He was not, in short, a likely suspect for the charge of neglecting or endangering the church’s doctrine. Nevertheless, at the end of his career he found himself ensnared in doctrinal disagreements that took a great personal toll. Jacques Dupuis Faces the Inquisition tells the story of this ordeal.

Born in 1923 in Belgium, Dupuis entered the Society of Jesus during World War II, and in 1948 went to India, where he would remain for the next thirty-six years. There he experienced first-hand the need for a more sophisticated theological understanding of religious pluralism, and devoted his theological career to crafting it—first in India and later in Rome, where in 1984 he went to teach at the Gregorian University. This labor culminated in a series of highly esteemed books: Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions (1991), Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (1997), and Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue (2003). Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, in particular, is a densely argued work marked by careful distinctions that would have made Dupuis’ neo-Scholastic teachers proud. In that book Dupuis attempted to balance two often conflicting concerns. First, he demonstrated a sensitivity born of experience to the negative impact on interreligious dialogue of Christian theological interpretations of other religions that emphasize only their deficiencies and limitations. At the same time, however, he paid exacting attention to the authoritative claims of Christian tradition concerning the relationship of Christianity to the other world religions that emphasize Christ’s uniquely central role in God’s plan for the salvation of all peoples.

Jacques Dupuis Faces the Inquisition presents four documents relating to the CDF’s treatment of Dupuis over a three-year period between 1998 and 2001. As editor William R. Burrows notes in the introduction, Dupuis’ approach to a theology of religious pluralism, while deemed insufficiently radical by many seminarians and theologians in India, was viewed in Rome as going too far. This negative reaction, first signaled by a 1992 book review of Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions in Civiltà Cattolica, culminated in an investigation of Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by the CDF that began in June 1998; three months later, Dupuis received a notification that his book contained “grave errors and doctrinal ambiguities on doctrines of divine and Catholic faith.” He probably knew what was coming, since he had already been removed from the classroom at the Gregorian University—a punishment administered, in effect, before a verdict was rendered, and bringing, in the last year before Dupuis’ looming retirement, a painful end to a distinguished teaching career.

In response to the notification Dupuis composed and submitted almost two-hundred pages of text; seven months later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger responded that Dupuis’ answers were considered inadequate “for preserving the doctrine of Catholic faith free from errors.” More questions were posed, which Dupuis answered with another sixty pages. There followed many months of silence; then, in September 2000, Dupuis was summoned to the offices of the CDF, where he was asked to sign a draft of a notification that asserted propositions to be affirmed and errors to be rejected—errors imputed to his book without quotations or page references. The signed notification would have been published simultaneously with the CDF’s own statement on the relationship between Christianity and other religions, Dominus Iesus (which Burrows includes as Appendix I). The apparent goal was a potent one-two punch intended to warn off theologians, such as Michael Amaladoss, Peter Phan, and Paul Knitter, who went further than Dupuis was willing to go.

Dupuis found himself unable to sign. While he could agree to the positive statements he was required to affirm (noting, however, that they required further interpretation—with the implication that in so doing one could arrive at his theology) he noted that the alleged errors “either misrepresented what I wrote or interpreted it in a way that went against my intention and meaning.” The meeting ended in an impasse. A second draft, sent in December, stated its charges somewhat more temperately, downgrading “grave errors and ambiguities” to “grave ambiguities” and “ambiguous formulations or insufficient explanations” that could lead the reader into “erroneous opinions.” Reluctantly Dupuis agreed to sign, but included an explanation that his signature indicated he would later “have to take into account the text of the declaration Dominus Iesus and of the notification.” The CDF would have none of that, and when the signed notification was published in L’Osservatore Romano it included an additional paragraph that Dupuis never saw, specifying that in signing “the author committed himself to assent to the stated theses, and in his future theological activity and publications, to hold the doctrinal contents indicated in the notification.” Observing the difference between “take into account” and “assent” and “hold,” Dupuis reflected, in typically understated fashion, that this procedure was “of course, questionable.”

His private personal reaction belied this surface equanimity. As Burrows and other friends and colleagues attest, Dupuis was deeply disheartened by the way he had been treated, and slipped into a depression that, compounded by ill health, cast a shadow over the remaining four years of his life. On the page, meanwhile, he defended himself. Following his refusal to sign the first version of the notification, he wrote an analysis of the objections lodged by the CDF against his work, and of the perspective laid out in Dominus Iesus that formed the theological backdrop for those objections. Following the second notification, he wrote a text responding both to the content of the revised Notification and to the process as a whole. He evidently hoped to publish these two essays as appendices to future work. His superiors did not allow him to do this—understandably, perhaps, given the heightened tensions between the Vatican and the Jesuits. Dupuis did pass these two essays on to Burrows, however, with the expressed desire that they see the light of day at some point.

Burrows, who was a friend, editor, and strong supporter of Dupuis’, makes his view of the CDF’s conduct clear in his introduction and “personal postscript”—and also by using the former name for the CDF in his title for the book. I suspect that Dupuis himself would not employ the kind of charged language Burrows does. While he thought that the CDF had been “carried away by fear” in its response to his theology, Dupuis concluded his own analysis of the process by promising “once more [to] submit my work to the consideration of my theological peers and the judgment of the church’s doctrinal authority.” Whatever one makes of this difference of tone between editor and author, what this book documents is that Dupuis acquitted himself with greater nobility, and, indeed, theological acumen, than those who rejected his work.

The complexities of this tragic case are partially shrouded by the confidentiality and secrecy that surround all cases passing through the CDF. This secrecy invites endless speculation (Burrows provides some provocative examples), and can lead one to overlook the substance of the debate—namely, how to think about Christianity and the world’s other religions. This would be a mistake, not least because a grasp of this substance sheds light on Dupuis’ unwillingness to sign the Notification.

Consider the question of ambiguity. While the CDF backed away from its initial accusation that Dupuis’ system manifested “grave errors,” it continued to insist on the presence of “grave ambiguities” that might lead the reader into doctrinal error. Yet at what price is disambiguation purchased? Dupuis’ reservations about the notification as well as about the text of Dominus Iesus—and thus his reasons for demurring when Ratzinger asked if he could not simply concede that his book should be read in the light of that document—sprang from his conviction that the price was too high. To give just one example of the many Dupuis raises in his two essays: Is it important to affirm the unsurpassable and definitive character of the revelation of Jesus Christ? No doubt. If, however, in order to overcome a relativistic mentality alleged to lurk behind any affirmation of religious pluralism, the superiority of Christian revelation has to be safeguarded by asserting that a suggestion of limitation of any kind in the language of Christian revelation is “in radical contradiction with the Christian faith,” then the price of disambiguation is too high. What is lost is the equally important insistence (and here Dupuis quotes John Paul II from Fides et ratio) that any truth attained by the church on the basis of the revelation in Jesus Christ “is but a step toward that fullness of truth that will appear with the final Revelation of God.” Also lost is the acknowledgment that the language of Scripture is necessarily limited by the language of the time and culture in which it was framed.

The underlying truth is that ambiguity cannot be fully removed from theology because of the mystery of Christian faith that it attempts to communicate. Regarding these mysteries the First Vatican Council affirmed that “if reason illumined by faith inquires in an earnest, pious and sober manner, it attains by God’s grace, a certain understanding of the mysteries, which is most fruitful.... But it never becomes capable of understanding them in the way it does truths which constitute its proper object.” Dupuis would have known this statement well, since he included it in his compilation of doctrine in The Christian Faith. He understood that human reason, and the language it uses, cannot exhaustively and unambiguously comprehend the Christian mysteries of Incarnation, grace, and Trinity as it can aspire to do for, say, the phenomena investigated by modern science.

All of these mysteries are intimately at play in thinking about other religions. Yet to acknowledge this limitation is not to abandon Christian faith and its doctrines to arbitrariness. One can in different ways give greater clarity to the mysteries of faith, and so bring them to life in and for Christians living in challenging times. One such way, of venerable scholastic provenance, is to weave a complex fabric of distinctions and mutually correcting affirmations that can only succeed if it is read and understood as a whole, not unraveled into separate statements that are then evaluated in isolation from one another. Of this method Dupuis was a master, and his responses to his critics in the CDF make a potent case that they were not up to the task of following this weave, or even that they refused to try, out of an aversion to ambiguity. If it is true, as Dupuis suspected, that Ratzinger left the writing of the initial notification to others, and did not read the two-hundred or so pages of Dupuis’ patient attempt to defend his work, it only deepens the tragedy of the event, since Ratzinger certainly possessed the theological training and the skill to recognize and appreciate what Dupuis was attempting.

One lesson from this sad case is that, without denying the importance of the office of the magisterium in the church (Dupuis certainly never did), we need to find a more open process for its operation, one with greater transparency and a real chance for discussion of a theologian’s work. A second lesson can be taken from the way that, as Burrows observes, Dupuis’ work was read first and foremost with the problem of secularization in Europe and North America in view. Secularization is surely a serious challenge to the church; but so is religious pluralism, and if theologians are going to respond creatively to it, they must be able to explore it on its own terms and in its own context without fear of being condemned at the outset for not addressing the different challenge of secularity.

It is not easy to imagine these lessons being taken up in the current climate of tension between magisterium and theologians, and I fear that further attempts to deal theologically with the real and pressing challenge of religious pluralism will occasion further such episodes. Yet, as Jacques Dupuis often insisted, fear is a poor counselor, so perhaps the most important lesson to take from this book is gratitude for Dupuis’ theological skill, creative fidelity to the church’s tradition, and faithful integrity as a Catholic theologian.

Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.


Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

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