The Declaration, “Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” recently released by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has given rise to much hysterical reaction. One news-paper columnist penned a vitriolic hateful piece, “The Pope’s latest idiocy.”
Another writer had no temerity in proffering his enlightened position with the words: “I have been a student of Catholic theology for over 40 years. I have not yet read the Dominus Iesus declaration... at best it sounds like more of the silly ecclesiastical posturing that is so typical of Vatican declarations in recent years.” In this latter case, I would have thought that a period after the admission that he had not read the document might have been a more enlightened approach, but alas there is no substitute for brains.
The declaration was occasioned by widespread adherence to a number of erroneous philosophical and theo-logical views, e.g. the conviction of the total elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth; relativistic attitudes towards truth itself, which would hold that what was true for some would not be true for others; the radical opposition posited between the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East; the subjectivism which regards reason as the only source of knowledge; the metaphysical emptying of the mystery of the incarnation, etc.
In its declaration, the Congregation reiterates, mainly by recalling the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, that Jesus Christ - the Word made flesh and Son of the Father - has an absolutely unique role in the salvation of the world. Similarly the Church of Christ uniquely contains the means of continuing Christ’s saving mission. The Church of Christ is one, and subsists, or is found, in the Catholic Church where the fullness of the means of grace and salvation are present. The document is clearly a statement of Catholic teaching. It deals with how the Catholic Church sees itself in relation to other faith groups and other Christian Churches. It does not say anything about how these other faith groups or Christian Churches see themselves.
Beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, Christ’s Church is also operative in those Churches which have maintained a valid episcopate, in succession to the apostles, and sacraments, above all, the Eucharist. Elements which go together to build up the life of the Church - such as Baptism, the Word of God, the virtues of faith, hope, charity - are present as well in other churches and ecclesial communities of Christians. These endowments form bonds which inspire in us a deep love and respect for them and a commitment to work with them to overcome what separates us and to achieve full communion.
While acknowledging the religious value and fruitfulness of other sacred writings, it notes, however, that the Catholic Church considers the Old and New Testaments to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wishes to see confided to Sacred Scripture.
The salvation offered through Jesus Christ and his Church is a gift to all humanity. We believe that Christ invites every human being to find in him “the way, the truth, and the life.” Having been blessed with faith in Christ through no merit of our own, the members of the Church humbly seek to give as a gift the faith we received as a gift. Our belief in this regard in no way diminishes the sincere respect we have for the religions of the human family or our conviction that their followers can receive divine grace.
The declaration is clear about the importance of dialogue and about the possibility of salvation in Christ for all people. Nevertheless, it points out that equality, which is a presupposition of interreligious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to the doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ - who is God himself made man - in relation to the founders of the other religions.
With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God - which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church - comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself.”
Respecting the seriousness of the questions surfaced by the interreligious encounters of our time, the Congregation does not rest with pointing out the faulty answers sometimes proposed. It also invites Catholic theologians to a continuing exploration in depth and reflection on the existence of other religious experiences, on other religious traditions which also contain elements that come from God, and on their meaning in God’s salvific plan.
Rather than being vilified, I believe that the Congregation should be acknowledged as once again having performed a valuable service in summarizing and clarifying the teaching of the Church.
☩ Frederick Henry