On September 5, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released the declaration Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. The statement restated and reaffirmed the church’s understanding of the unique revelation of Jesus Christ and the Catholic church’s status as the ultimate guardian of that revelation. In judging other Christian churches inadequate and other religions "gravely deficient," the declaration seemed to revert to a triumphalistic language not used by Rome since before Vatican II. Ecumenical dialogue partners have raised questions about the meaning of Dominus Iesus, while many Catholics worry that it is yet another effort to quash theological exploration, especially among theologians engaged in dialogue with Eastern religions and those writing on the question of religious pluralism generally. Commonweal asked three theologians, two Catholic and one Protestant, to assess Dominus Iesus. Their evaluations follow.
Martin E. Marty
We are the oldest. We are the mother and you are the daughters, daughters who "suffer from defects." So says today’s Rome.
We are the best. When it comes to salvation, you are at best half-safe. Thus the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
We are the only. The rest of you Christians, though individually often our brothers and sisters, are not even members of "churches in the proper sense."
Those claims condensed the document Dominus Iesus in most Catholic and public media, and evidently in public perceptions, after the Vatican announced its position on non-Catholic faith, churches, and religions on September 5.
If the intent was to reclaim absolutes and fight off relativism, whether among Catholic theologians and the faithful or among others who thought they were as old as, as good as, and as faithful in sharing salvific work as Catholics can be, Dominus Iesus is likely to produce ironically opposite outcomes.
The relativizing game of comparison began at once.
No, said the Eastern Orthodox, in some rage: you are the upstarts. We are the bearers of tradition. We are The Tradition.
No, said the Anglicans, in frustrated and aggrieved tones; we are partners in God’s saving work, as you had come to tell us in recent decades.
No, said the Protestants, some of whom, like the Baptists, have always said we were here first, and we are inerrant and best and only.
No, say the other religions, none of whom had ever pretended to be the same as Catholicism, but who had been schooled to think of themselves as benign outsiders and profoundly well-intended dialogue partners by Rome.
Interesting, say the media and the bystanding public: You Christians can fight all you want, but you’ll only amuse and bemuse us in your contests and conflicts over unsettleable issues.
Regrettable, say some of us who see in Dominus Iesus a missed opportunity. Catholic theologians in the East, with Asian spiritual environments in mind, were working to relate the truth in Christ to the light in the East. They were no doubt making some mistakes—how is a non-Catholic to adjudicate?—as they fumbled their way tentatively into new relations, but now they are to cut off efforts. Catholic theologians in the West, many of them trying to formulate "theologies of pluralism" to face urgent and confusing new realities here, were taken to the woodshed and in effect told to cease and desist.
So instead of having an intellectually vibrant encounter among Catholic thinkers and with others, many see a reversion to pre-Vatican II declarations. At Vatican II other Christian churches could be regarded as "brothers" and thus, presumably, also as "sisters," as Pope Paul VI also sometimes called them and as John Paul II indicated in word and gesture. No longer. The other Christians have to be "daughters," and deviating or deviant ones at that.
Of course, ecumenical endeavor will not cease. Of course, dialogue with world religions can continue. But under the sign of regret.
Anyone who cares about the truth in Christ has good reason to fear relativism in an age where in too many minds and mouths "we are all, after all, in different boats heading for the same shore"; a time when "it does not make any difference what you believe, as long as you believe"; a place where "spirituality" gets invented as a do-it-yourself alternative to churchly "religion." Yet Dominus Iesus gives very few clues as to how to reason about the truth. Its claims have to do with authority.
Anyone who cares about spreading the truth in Christ, a.k.a. evangelism, and about dialogue among the religions, has to know that you can "give the store away" in dealings with other faiths on an open market. You can lose the impulse to invite others into the company of Christ. You can settle for cheap universalisms. Yet Dominus Iesus spends its time saying that Catholics cannot look for new formulations in a world wherein they cannot hide and where they do not do well simply to build walls.
Our shrunken world does not permit Rome or Geneva, Athens or Canterbury, Wittenberg or New York, to be sequestered, closed off, from other believers and nonbelievers.
How present is Jesus Christ in such a world? The authors of Dominus Iesus have this correct: Without clear, reflective, and empathic guidance, believers will be at sea, awash in tides of relativism. Or, conversely, they will react as fundamentalists do, building walls, creating barriers, and speaking ill of all who do not belong to their club. It would be unfair to call the new Vatican document simply exclusivist and fundamentalist, but in its polemical swing at Catholics who, Rome thinks, are indeed giving the store away, it has not contributed to clarity.
Since we in sister and brother churches do seek guidance, from Rome and elsewhere, and who hope also to be heard, Dominus Iesus inspires regret, not rage, for the missed opportunity it represents. Back to the drawing board.
Robert P. Imbelli
On November 18, 1965, Dei verbum was promulgated by the Second Vatican Council. A remarkable, indeed, revolutionary document, it secured the church’s acceptance of modern historical-critical methods of biblical exegesis. The rejection of the "traditionalist" preliminary draft of the constitution three years before had marked the effective beginning of Pope John’s council and the beginning of the end of Tridentine Catholicism, with its undeniable beauties and banalities. Dei verbum was justly celebrated for recovering a more vibrant, personalist understanding of God’s revelation, whose fullness is given in the person of Jesus Christ.
Yet, the robust Christocentrism of Dei verbum—indeed, of all the council’s documents—now seems to evoke embarrassment in certain "progressive" theological and missionary circles. In the thirty-five years since Vatican II, there has been frequent appeal to the "hierarchy of truths." At one time or other the claim is put forward that birth control or even papal infallibility does not "rank high" in that hierarchy. Fair enough. But if the doctrine of the unique Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity that flows from that confession of faith do not form the apex of the hierarchy of truths, then there is no such thing.
It seems to me that a concern for securing that definitive article of faith forms the context in which to understand Dominus Iesus, the recent controversial declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Though the tone of the document is peremptory and its ecclesiological teaching raises legitimate questions, I shall limit myself to the Christological teaching because the profession of faith in Jesus Christ constitutes the heart of the matter. In that light, it is important to note that the declaration is directed not to ecumenical dialogue partners, nor to all people of good will, but to the bishops of the Catholic church, to be communicated especially to theological faculties and missionary congregations, as well as to the Catholic faithful. It intends to recapitulate the church’s faith in the uniqueness and universal salvific significance of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God: the article of faith upon which the church itself stands or falls. What is crucially important about this document is that this article of faith, everywhere professed and presumed by Vatican II, can no longer be taken for granted.
Put bluntly: There is abroad a measure of innocent and sometimes quite intentional apostasy. Among some Catholic theologians, there is advanced the idea of "multiple incarnations" of the Christ, or that Jesus is Savior only for Christians, or that the salvific role of the Spirit is more universal than that of Jesus Christ, or that Trinity is but one "model" for speaking of the incomprehensible mystery of God. Such "unitarianism of the Spirit" is no figment of some overheated Roman imagination. It appears in print, both at popular and more sophisticated theological levels. If the church’s magisterium cannot authoritatively declare that such is not "the faith delivered once and for all to the saints" (Jude 3), then there is no legitimate role for the magisterium. It is simply otiose.
The CDF document does not mount a theological argument but sets forth a profession of faith, drawing in particular upon the New Testament, the documents of Vatican II, and the papal magisterium of John Paul II. It is of utmost significance that the first citation is taken from the creed of the Council of Constantinople in its original articulation (without the later Western addition of the "filioque"): the common Trinitarian faith of the undivided church. Thus the declaration is "dogmatic," not in the invidious sense of arbitrary or unenlightened; but in the precise sense of what ultimately binds believers and constitutes their identity as Catholic Christians.
Also significant is that Dei verbum is often quoted and everywhere presupposed. Dominus Iesus’ ample citations from Vatican II do not represent an exercise in proof-texting, but an exercise of spiritual discernment, re-echoing the Christo-logic of the council in a new context in which it can no longer, alas, be taken for granted. The declaration’s much criticized insistence on the universal significance of the salvation offered through Christ is not a retreat from ecumenical dialogue or tolerance. It only reiterates the very first words of Lumen gentium, which confesses that Christ is "the light of all peoples" and that all are called to union with Christ. Hence the council’s recognition that God’s grace is operative outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic church in no way lessens the missionary imperative to "preach the gospel to every creature."
Similarly, the council’s epoch-making Nostra aetate explicitly professes both respect and evangelical responsibility-both mandated by its Christocentric vision. It states (in a passage several times referred to by the recent declaration): "The Catholic church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions....Yet she proclaims, and is duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor 5:18-19), men and women find the fullness of religious life."
Moreover, the equally celebrated Dignitatis humanae (also quoted by the declaration) affirms this same tensive both/and. It certainly acknowledges the right of men and women to be free from coercion in fulfilling their duty to worship God. At the same time, Dignitatis humanae "professes its belief that God himself has made known to the human race the way in which men and women are to serve him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness." Gaudium et spes, which many believe to be the most distinctively original of the council’s documents, also proclaims, as it must, this Christological vision and faith.
Clearly, Christological normativity, the uniqueness and salvific universality of Jesus Christ, was not invented by the current CDF. It is simply the doctrine of the faith. Dominus Iesus’ reaffirmation of this faith does not preclude further theological investigation. Indeed, the declaration several times encourages precisely such reflection (see numbers 14 and 21). But such theological exploration must be faithful to the dogmatic content of revelation, if it is truly to be theology: faith seeking understanding.
In the statement, "Called to Be Catholic," that launched Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative, we read: "Jesus Christ, present in Scripture and sacrament, is central to all that we do; he must always be the measure and not what is measured." Dominus Iesus could not have said it better.
Here is a sobering thought. There is no Christian alive today who agrees with every belief of all other Christians. Contemporary Christianity is marked by a ubiquitous plurality of tenets and customs. It also stands alongside a host of other world religions. Ours is an age of far-reaching devotional multiformity. Manifest religious variety within Christianity and among religions is currently troubling the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To countercheck the view that pluralism is tolerable or inevitable, the CDF published a declaration Dominus Iesus ("The Lord Jesus"). It is a rhetorically somber though theologically questionable document. It is not an irrevocable text for Catholics of the Roman rite because it fails to represent fully the profoundest teaching of Vatican II concerning divine salvation and the religions of the world.
At base, Dominus Iesus struggles with the most taxing of all theological questions: How and where might human beings chance upon a saving God in their world? Its answer is emphatically clear: God is best encountered in the Catholic church founded by Jesus Christ.
This new declaration is a relatively brief text. It rejects the view that the ultimate mystery of God has been revealed to human beings in a variety of historical figures apart from Christ. It insists that the fullness of divine revelation is manifest in Christ. It instructs that God saves in only one way, which is through Christ. It rejects as contrary to Catholic faith theories of God’s saving action beyond the unique mediation of Christ. Having asserted Christianity as superior to other religions, the declaration comments on the Catholic church’s relation to other Christian denominations. It repeats a foundational explanation of Catholic origins deployed in a host of recent Vatican texts concerning ministry and the church. According to that theory, Christ established a church which stands in historical continuity with the current Catholic church. Bishops today are thought to be the successors of the Apostles. Therefore, churches or ecclesial communities that are not currently in communion with apostolically constituted Catholic Christianity are defective.
Dominus Iesus is a forceful text, yet it is far from convincing. It is devoid of humble penitence and fails to acknowledge the sins and defects of the Catholic church that betray the reality and memory of Christ. But the contemporary hierarchically constituted Catholic church is unable to regard itself as directly historically continuous with the ministry of Jesus Christ because he did not establish a church with bishops and diocesan structures to break away from Judaism. Rather, he preached the kingdom of God to rejuvenate Israel’s religious life and enlisted the help of twelve primary Apostles in his mission to Israel. The church evolved over time after his death and in response to him.
Dominus Iesus styles itself as an authoritative teaching of the Catholic church’s relation to other churches and religions. And so it is, but not more so than Vatican II. It defers to the council a full forty-five times. Even so, it fails conspicuously to repeat the council’s single most revolutionary statement concerning divine salvation. That statement is, of course, section 16 of the constitution on the church, Lumen gentium, which solemnly teaches that "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—these too may attain eternal salvation." Dominus Iesus quotes Lumen gentium 15 and 17, but perpexingly overlooks section 16. Its authors, no doubt, have no intention of insisting that salvation is entirely unavailable outside the church, but Lumen gentium 16 is too historically momentous to be passed over in silence.
Section 16 is the most radical turnabout in ecumenical relations for five and one-half centuries. It is a stark counterpoint to the dogmatic teaching of the Council of Florence-Ferrara (1442), which insisted that hell fire is the destiny of those who are not received into the Catholic church before their life’s end.
In short, Dominus Iesus is something of a setback in Catholic teaching rather than an advance. Apart from neglecting Lumen gentium 16, the declaration overlooks that religious pluralism is not a regrettable situation to be overcome, but an unavoidable fact of reality. Dominus Iesus regards religious pluralism as a worrying phenomenon. Yet religious pluralism is unavoidable because of the ineffability or complexity of God. Because God is illimitable, no historical reality can manifest the full richness of God. Jesus Christ is not the complete revelation of God in history, but a partial manifestation of what God may be like. Since Jesus is not the unveiling of the fullness of God in the world, other religions may have their say about God’s salvific nature. Even according to classical dogmatic theology, Jesus Christ is the enfleshment in history of the Second Person of the Trinity. The fullness of the Trinity is not incarnate in Jesus. Consequently, there is more to God, so to speak, than has been shown in Jesus Christ. God remains a Deus absconditus, a God who always escapes human attempts to picture God.
Oddly, Dominus Iesus seems to slight some world religions apart from Christianity. It makes a distinction between theological faith and belief. While theological faith is proper to the church, other religions merely enjoy belief (nos. 4 to 7). Yet Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all Abrahamic religions by definition. Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, the faith of Jews and Muslims is properly theological because it is given to God. While Christians espouse a Trinitarian understanding of God, wherein the Second Person is the incarnation of a passionate Logos unto death, their God nonetheless remains the God of Abraham.
The Catholic church of the Roman rite is one community where God might be espied. It may be better than many other signs of divine redemption. It is unable, however, to control God and is therefore not the only possible nexus for divine-human encounters. There is no place on this planet where God is unable to draw close to human beings, and no situation in which people are incapable of glimpsing God’s reality.