Dominus Iesus 10 Years Later: Part II

Cambridge, MA. In part one of this three-part blog I reflected simply on the fact of the September 5, 2000 Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus. I suggested that this influential document, despite its flaws and annoying tone, is an important marker of the unity and boundaries of Catholic teaching with respect to mission and dialogue. In this second blog, I ask simply what kind of theologizing is possible after Dominus Iesus: how do we think usefully about our faith in a diverse world, if it seems that the answer to or against religious diversity has already been given?

Theology seems in some way to be possible, even to the authors of the declaration. Even as it stresses the integrity of Catholic teaching and gives the impression that there is nothing more to be said, it also insists that there is room for theological reflection: “The expository language of the Declaration corresponds to its purpose, which is not to treat in a systematic manner the question of the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Church, nor to propose solutions to questions that are matters of free theological debate, but rather to set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith in these areas, pointing out some fundamental questions that remain open to further development, and refuting specific positions that are erroneous or ambiguous.” The subsequent and rather candid “Commentary on the Notification of the CDF regarding the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by Jacques Dupuis” admits again the importance of theology: “Theology is proving even more important in times of great cultural and spiritual change like ours which, in raising new problems and questions concerning the Church’s consciousness of her faith, require new answers and solutions, even daring ones. One cannot deny that today the presence of religious pluralism obliges Christians to look with a renewed awareness at the place of other religions in the saving plan of the Triune God.”


So this is good news, in theory, but the practical import is less clear. What value is there in learning of other religions and thinking about our faith in light of them, if Dominus Iesus rules out most answers? We can ask ourselves whether there is room for theology — not just for professional theologians doing their work, but for intelligent and reflective believers exploring their faith — after Dominus Iesus’ many answers to questions we've asked or not even thought of. We need of course to avoid easy alternatives, on the one hand a dismissal of the declaration due to a rejection of its authority or an insistence that no doctrine is fixed and true over time — history keeps changing everything, all the time — or on the other, a surrender of intelligence by simply insisting, out of a political loyalty, that Dominus Iesus was the last word, the silencing of opposition. In fact, for the Catholic, it was neither merely one more opinion, nor merely a superior truth. 

Better, we might agree that it was and is rather a guide, a set of limits that leave very much room for debate, even more than its authors would allow. We who read the document and who also pay attention to the world in which we live — we are not fixed, settled, determined, and passive in asking only questions to which the answers are already given. Dominus Iesus answers some questions very clearly; but it seems not even to imagine how true interreligious learning might change — not the Creed — but how we hear and profess the Creed, which we are likely to keep reciting, in the same words, into the far future. Thinking may upset us, but does not diminish our faith. The declaration seems not to consider how a clear and honest affirmation of Christ is not less vigorous and firm, even if we have noticed religious diversity as a fact of life that is not about to go away any time soon, even as we live in a world where claims about truth do not substitute for the work of actually showing to seekers what is true. Even if we suppose, in faith, that Jesus is Lord, we who live among people of many faiths are the ones who need to show what that Lordship means, among people who respect each other’s religions deeply. Dominus Iesus is a help, a boundary-marker, but not itself the meaning of Christ amidst diversity.

Since we keep changing in a changing world, then questions about our faith will keep arising, even after Dominus Iesus. Even with great respect for its teaching, we have questions that did not motivate its authors, questions that need answers ten years later. Yes to Jesus the Christ, the Word of God, revealed in the Church in a magnificent way — but what about thinking through seriously how Muslims and Hindus have thought about Jesus? (Or even learning from Protestants?) What about being deeply moved by a Jewish Sabbath prayer or Buddhist chanting, and unable to be satisfied simply by seeing these as “rites” and not “sacraments”? And what about being deeply impressed by Lord Krishna or the Buddha and, while not ranking them as equal to Jesus, deciding instead that it is actually a bad idea to rank superiors and inferiors? Such questions, and many others, are hard and stubborn; even if they do not threaten to change the Creed, neither does Dominus Iesus silence such questions. So people of faith who are also intelligent still have a lot to think about.

But even if we can keep thinking after Dominus Iesus — we can still ask, Is interreligious dialogue possible, when the declaration seemed to indicate that we have all the answers, before the dialogue starts? Is dialogue possible when people of other faith traditions too have already read Dominus Iesus before they come to our dialogue meetings? Why should we, and they, learn across religious boundaries? Isn’t the declaration on the side of those who say, let’s talk about politics and culture, but not about what we believe? I will try to say something on this topic in my third and final entry on Dominus Iesus.  Comments and criticisms welcome!

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Bill Collier
8 years 4 months ago
Thanks, Fr. Clooney, for revisiting Dominus Iesus in a 3-part blog. As a Catholic  who has been married to a non-Christian for almost 30 years, I am especially looking forward to part 3 and your thoughts about the questions you posed in the last paragraph of this installment. (No pressure intended, however. :) ) Though our children have been raised as Catholics, they are also conversant with the beliefs and rites of my wife's faith tradition, and I think they are the better for it. I can also personally attest to how hurtful Dominus Iesus was, from my wife's perspective, when it was released 10 years ago. Luckily, my wife has always had a great admiration for Mother Teresa, whose unselfishness, charitable deeds, and respect for others knew no religious boundaries. I'm not a theologian, but to the extent that Dominus Iesus has created any boundaries that impinge on respect for other faiths and on dialogue among all believers of good will, then I think our Church is the worse for it. 
PJ Johnston
8 years 4 months ago
I like this in general, but I'm not (yet?) convinced about the advisability of going the distance with it.

On the one hand, it seems like a productive approach to avoid over-theorizing and over-systematizing practical acts of interreligious dialogue or reading so that one may avoid explicitly committing to approaches that have already been ruled out by Dominus Iesus, choosing instead to explore unanticipated questions and theoretical approaches around the edges of the document.

On the other hand, Dominus Iesus explicitly rules out a great deal - so much that one may wonder if one's own ideal approach (possibly not yet arrived upon) might be lurking somewhere therein.  What if a young theologian wakes up one fine morning and discovers the CDF's caricature or parody of Jacques Dupuis' position is actually his or her own?  That seems more than likely given the number of positions explicitly ruled out, so your initial 'just say 'no' to Dominus Iesus' rhetoric appears more congenial.

I haven't read Dominus Iesus closely lately and I believe I've changed a bit since the last time I read it - so, I'll ask you, do you believe it is meant to rule out phenomena such as multiple religious belonging or the valorization of what is sometimes called 'syncretism' (something of a misnomer, since I would argue there are really no 'pure' or 'mixed' religions or permanent religious boundaries, only moments in a continual process of appropriation/differentiation from other idealized groups)?
Response: PJ: Good question, but it is best not to allow the declaration to rule out what it did not consider; nor can people whose lives engage them in multiple belonging merely stop, as if the declaration makes impossible what is happening. But for Catholics and others who take the declaration seriously, the issue is rather: how do I, who have a complex religious identity and "know" across religious boundaries, make Dominus Iesus an intrinsic component of how I think through the meaning of my identity? Or, to move in another direction: Fr Panikkar was a very real part of the Church's engagement with pluralism these past ten years since the declaration. The Church is better off for having both Dominus Iesus and Fr Panikkar. FXC
Eugene Pagano
8 years 4 months ago
Why not combine all three blog postings on this topic into one article for the print edition or the web site's online-only content?
Response: Mr Pagano - excellent idea - let me write the third part — not done yet! — and then see what all three look like together! FXC
we vnornm
8 years 4 months ago
Fr. Frank:

Thanks for these challenging ideas.

As a starting point for dialog it would seem to me that each party in the dialog needs to understand their own tradition as well as everyone else's. So Dominus Iesus (and there must, I'd think, be similar "position statements" in other faiths for Catholics to study) gives everyone parameters of Catholicism. What similar "documents" exist for Jewish, Moslem, Eastern, Native American, etc. etc. faiths and belief systems? Or perhaps we have done something "unique" and as you say this comes across as annoying?

Just off the cuff, would these be areas open to dialog where Dominus Iesus would not stifle comparative Theology:

*Interfaith dialog on "Genesis" and caring for the environment
*Meaning of Psalms when addressing God as Father
*What is going to happen in the last Days
*What is the meaning of "love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself"

If one views dialog as a process where two or more parties meet together and try to learn about each other so that each walks away with more understanding (and hopefully respect, although the opposite can and will happen at times), then Dominus Iesus would not appear to preclude dialog.

However, if "dialog" is meant, as it sometimes is, as a way to blend ideas, engage in self-criticism, convince others of one's point of view or vice-versa, then this document might indeed not be welcome in many places.

Tim's blog on Ex Corde Ecclesia, it seems to me, raises the same kind of questions within Catholic colleges, as theologians there are being asked to specify "what the Church teaches" as a starting point. Another idea for an article, perhaps you and Tim together, or for a theme issue of the magazine. 


Thomas Nolan
8 years 4 months ago
Fr. Clooney's two blogs are especially helpful to one with little background in either inter-religious dialogue or the relationship between Roman Catholicism and other Christian/non-Christian religions.  But as I watch the new immigrant families whose children attend  the four NativityMiguel schools I work with here in St. Louis, their piety and fidelity challenge my own and urge me to explore the common as well as the unique in our beliefs.  Having pursued some Vatican documents on other touchy subjects, for example the ordination of women, I've been apprehensive about dipping into Dominus Jesus.  Clooney's balanced approach gives me the strength to give it a go.  Thanks for such helpful thinking and for the wisdom behind it.
Tom Craig
8 years 4 months ago
Your post brings to mind Chapter 65 of the Tao, which says (in broad paraprhase) that the first thing a teacher must give his students is the gift of not knowing, because students that believe they have all the answers cannot learn anything.  I think we Catholics have to be careful that we do not inadvertently prevent the Spirit from teaching us by presuming that we know the answers already.  That is not to say that each student must begin anew from nothing, but each must acknowledge that he or she truly knows nothing.  That humility is the prerequisite to all learning.  As valuable as Domineus Iesus is, the absence of that sense of humility is a serious flaw.
Julius-Kei Kato
8 years 4 months ago
The more I ponder about and experience interreligious dialogue and comparative theology, the more convinced I become that: since "theology" is ultimately "'God-talk' done by humans" (in short, it is a human activity of seeking to understand), then, the right approach to any theologizing should be anthropological. I take that to mean: comparative theology should start from the factors that are common among humans (life and love, foremost among them), then move on to consider how humans have grappled with "ultimate questions" and the "symbols" they have utilized to project their quest for ultimacy. In such an approach, "God," "Christ," "Church" become "second-order" matters compared to "life" "love" "the search for meaning" and the like, which are "first order" matters. Dominus Iesus (and much of traditional Christian theology) kind of reverses the scheme. It's sort of saying: "Christ" and "Church" should dictate what life and love are all about. Well, in a Christendom (one empire, one faith), that would work. But in the global village, that would not. Rome still has a Constantinian mentality and presumes to impose that mentality on the much-changed global village. Comparative theology should be based on a forum in which people from different faith traditions are present as equals, having a respectful and, hopefully, mutually enlightening conversation. So I ask: Is Dominus Iesus really a good base for comparative theology?


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