Dominus Iesus 10 Years Later: Part I
Cambridge, MA. It is ten years since the Congregration for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released the Declaration entitled “Dominus Iesus,” with the theme of “the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” (The “release date” was September 5, 2000, although the document itself indicates that it was approved by John Paul II on June 16, while it is officially dated August 6.) It seems appropriate — in the ‘light manner’ of a blog, at least — to reflect on its meaning and impact after a decade, and so I will do in several entries at this site. First, we might recall its basic teaching — and for this, forgive me for a very quick sketch of subtle points that have been debated extensively over the past decade. I do not speak authoritatively here. And, of course, re-read it for yourself.
Dominus Iesus showed its major thrust right in the first paragraph: “The Lord Jesus, before ascending into heaven, commanded his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world and to baptize all nations: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15-16); “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:18-20) It was clearly intended to undergird and defend this missionary nature of the Church.
It placed Christ in the center of the Christian faith, reaffirmed mission, insisted on the unity of Jesus and the Christ, the human Jesus and the transcendent primordial Word of God; it sought to make it clear that the mystery of Jesus Christ is intrinsically connected with the mystery of the kingdom of God, and the kingdom with the Roman Catholic Church. From its opening meditation on the Creed through its web of Biblical and ecclesial documents, including Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate and the teachings of John Paul II, the point of the declaration was to keep straight, authoritatively, the wholeness of what the Church teaches on its basic truths. Its overall teaching also sought to put dialogue in its proper place, as a movement within the larger work of proclamation. In all of these assertions, it stands up comparatively well alongside the robust faith statements one finds in other religious traditions. This is what religious leaders do.
It is also true that the declaration came across as rather rigid and chilly, as a turn away from the warmer pastoral tone of Nostra Aetate, and even from John Paul II’s warmer initiatives, as when he gathered religious leaders of many faith traditions for prayer at Assisi in 1986. The declaration in fact offended a wide range of Christians and members of other faith traditions, who were not willing to treat it as a Catholic “in-house” document, instead taking personally its insistence that other Christian communities are defective embodiments of the Church fully present in the Roman Church, and that even in dialogue, the Christian is not to allow his or her faith to be treated as equal to that of those with whom one is in dialogue. It was recognized as critical even of middle of the road theologians such as Jacques Dupuis, who was at that time under investigation by the CDF for his 1997 book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, a book that was in 1991 exonerated — chastised mainly for subtleties that might be misunderstood by some readers (!). (But that would be the topic of a different blog: our immeasurable and enduring debt to Fr. Dupuis, the leading Catholic theologian of his generation on Christ and religious pluralism.)
Like many another theologian, I wrote about the declaration when it came out, first in the pages of America itself, and then as a contributor of Sic et Non (2001, edited by Charles Hefling, Jr., and Stephen Pope). As I look back on the document ten years later, though, my thinking has evolved a bit. First, Dominus Iesus was and is definitely an important document that has served, in many a discussion since 2000, as a fundamental reminder of our basic beliefs on the issues of which it treats. Thus it is good for us to remember that Jesus + Christ + Word + Kingdom + Church + Mission + Dialogue go together, without any option for selective choice of a few of these elements, to the exclusion of others. The Catholic faith, like that of other faith traditions, has its integrity, and certainly the CDF is not alone in pointing to a necessary integrity in what we believe.
Second, some of its distinctions still seem unhelpful, and hard to maintain neatly in practice — e.g., our theological faith versus the lesser beliefs of other religions, our sacraments versus their rituals; it is still hard to understand how the proposed superstitions and errors of other religions’ rituals are explained by reference to 1 Corinthians 10:20-21, ”No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” Even the important and basic claim about dialogue late in the document seems nearly impossibly distant from a normal vision of how dialogue might actually happen: “Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes. Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to 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.” And again, as I mentioned above, many religious intellectuals in other traditions equally hold to the superiority of their own faiths and are not outdone in such assertions by the CDF; and consequently, after Dominus Iesus, they see little point in dialogue, particularly with Roman Catholics. But perhaps cooling the enthusiasm for interreligious dialogue was part of the point of Dominus Iesus?
Other documents since 2000 are actually more helpful — for example, the 2007 “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization,” but that too builds on Dominus Iesus, which remains the benchmark document. But on this tenth anniversary, several other questions strike me as still important: What is the purpose of interreligious dialogue, after Dominus Iesus? What is the work of theologians with respect to religious diversity, if the declaration sets forth the “straight truth” that is never going to change? I hope to come back to these questions in two more blogs before September 5, so stay tuned; the next will be on theology after Dominus Iesus. In the meantime, read the declaration, and feel free to add your own comments.