The Vatican document Dominus Iesus has been poorly received by Christians and non-Christians with whom Catholics have been in dialogue for the last 35 years. Although experts will debate its theological arguments in the months to come, it was the general tone of the document that upset most of our dialogue partners. They felt they were not being treated with respect as equal partners in dialogue. Even Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that neither the timing nor the language of the document were opportune.
While theological precision is an essential part of any ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, so too is courtesy. Civility, kind and considerate behavior toward others, the friendly recognition of one another’s traditionsall of these are essential to human communication. Courtesy goes beyond strict laws and regulations. It transcends any well-planned order; it considers the feelings of the listener before one speaks; it makes encounters pleasant and lifts the spirits of the participants.
Paul the Apostle possessed this social grace or magnanimity. When in Athens, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, and, well aware that the city was full of idols, he did not inform the bystanders that they were deficient in their faith but proclaimed: People of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are religious.... I found an altar with this inscription, To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. His preaching was not in vain: some persons joined him and believed, although others did not when he spoke of the resurrection (Acts 17).
There is in Paul’s approach the model for authentic ecumenical and interreligious exchanges. Paul addressed the Athenians with utter courtesy, openly affirming the good that he found in them. He revealed his love for the Athenians as he talked to them. Paul had experienced the gracious kindness of the Risen One; he could not be but gracious toward those for whom Christ died. Paul listened before he spoke. He recognized the gift of God in the pagans; they have found the Unknown God. Their simple belief in a mystery that had no namePaul knew wellwas the fruit of grace.
Here a lesson for all ages as to what ecumenical discourse ought to be. It must bring forth the charity of the speaker who has known God’s mercy, and it must show an appreciation of God’s gifts in others. This is the law of charity so well described by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians: And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
The document Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last month, can be read as a summary of certain articles of the Catholic faith, but an important question remains: does it communicate to Christians and non-Christians the love and respect exemplified by St. Paul? If not, we may move mountains, and yet, in the ecumenical exchange, we are losing our way.
Perhaps the source of the problem is that, since the beginning of the ecumenical movement, the mind-set of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been: We do not participate in dialogue, we judge it. By not being part of the dialogue, even as observers, the congregation has never quite caught the spirit or tone of the discussions and has treated them as dry, impersonal academic exercises on which it is to pass judgment like a university professor over students.
The congregation has also been excessively concerned about theologians who might confuse the faithful. In fact many of the congregation’s actions, like Dominus Iesus, have confused the faithful far more than the theologians it has attacked. By attempting to micromanage theological discourse and by trying to silence dissident views, the congregation has alienated mainstream theologians and created a breach between theologians and the Vatican that is unhealthy for church life and scholarship. Unlike the prudent farmer in the Gospel parable, it has favored attacking the weeds even if that means damaging the wheat.
Nor can the congregation simply blame the press for miscommunicating its views. As long as documents are produced without listening to other Vatican offices, episcopal conferences, bishops and experts (other than a select few), then communication disasters like Dominus Iesus will continue to occur. Local bishops try to put the best spin possible on these documents, but even they are getting tired of defending documents on which they were not consulted.