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!