The National Catholic Review

Dominus Iesus, the declaration of Aug. 6, 2000, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has received myriad interpretive responses. This article is not an attempt to add to these. Rather, I shall consider Dominus Iesus as more than a document. I propose to consider it, along with various responses to it, as an event or, more properly, as a series of events in the ecumenical development of the Christian churches. Documents are important, but the personal reactions and interrelationships they generate constitute events that inevitably give documents additional meaning.

Perhaps a contrast drawn from the Second Vatican Council will clarify what I mean. Vatican II can be considered as the producer of a series of documents. In that case, to study the council means to interpret its texts. But one can also consider the council as a vast series of interactions of persons. In that case, to study the council is to seek out the significant changes in people and structures which were brought on by the entire conciliar experience. All these taken together constitute the council as event.

To be more concrete and specific, we might consider the doctrinal understanding of the relationships among the Christian churches as taught in the council’s Decree on Ecumenism, its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the other pertinent conciliar documents. However, we also might consider the council as ecumenism-in-process. Then we would study such matters as how the various Christian churches and ecclesiastical communities were regarded by the pope and the Catholic bishops, how the views of the observers of those churches were respected and how friendships were developed among leaders of diverse communions. This would be to study Vatican II as an ecumenical event in itself.

In the light of the above, I shall view the proclamation of Dominus Iesus and the various responses to that document as a series of related events that advance the ecumenical venture and shed light on what is going on now. My remarks will center around three sets of responses to the document: the response of the media, the response of bishops in full communion with Rome and the response of the leadership of churches engaged with Catholics in the ecumenical movement.

The aim of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s congregation in issuing this declaration was to articulate traditional Roman Catholic belief on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church. But a sampling of the various responses to the declaration indicates that much more went on than an agreement or disagreement with this doctrinal aim.

The quickest response, as usual, came from the media. In many cases, in its headlines and sound bites the media concentrated on a few unfortunate phrases to convey a negative view of the document as arrogant. Let me list a few: Churches and communities [separated from Rome] suffer from defects; Followers of other religions are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the [Catholic] Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation; Rituals (of other religions) insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors constitute an obstacle to salvation.

Against the direct assertion of Dominus Iesus, some of the media actually featured headlines like that of The Los Angeles Times on Sept. 6, 2000: Vatican Declares Catholicism Sole Path to Salvation.

One cannot overestimate the negative influence of the media in this case. They made a first strike and thereby raised a pre-judgment against the declaration in the minds of the vast majority who would never read it. (I imagine my experience in speaking about Dominus Iesus reflects that of many. I addressed about 600 educated Christians, many with graduate degrees. At one point I asked how many had read the declaration. One hand went up.)

Despite the large contribution of the media to the negative reaction to Dominus Iesus, Pope John Paul and Cardinal Ratzinger obviously believe that the document properly expresses the Christian belief in the unicity and salvific universality of salvation in Christ and the church. I emphasize the word properly because neither the pope nor Cardinal Ratzinger, in responding to the negative reactions to the document, comments on the propriety of its style, organization or tone.

I, on the other hand, believe that the document was written the way it would have been written 60 years ago. It assumes a select audience of theologically competent Catholics familiar with the curial style. It fails to take into account a new situation. Today documents coming from Rome are not purely church documents. They are also news and will be refracted through the media. In this new situation it is not enough for the pope or the Curia to issue documents that have a clear meaning for those in the know. Rather, the document must also take into account, as far as possible, the fact that it will inevitably be interpreted by the media in their own way. This at least should prompt the avoidance of phrases that lend themselves to unfortunate sound bites or to misleading interpretations. In view of this, would it not be wise for the pope and the curia to have on call persons with an understanding of the modern media culture who can detect troublesome phrases in documents and suggest other phrases that would be more suitable?

I say this because a teacher is obligated not just to articulate the truth, but to do it in such a way that it has a chance to be understood by the particular audience the teacher is addressing. In today’s world the pope’s audience is increasingly everyone. My hope is that the proclamation of Dominus Iesus and the responses to it will be the events that crystallize for all the need for papal statements to take into account the universality of the papal audience and the approach of the modern media.

A second response to Dominus Iesus came from bishops in communion with John Paul. Many of their responses simply re-expressed the main points of the document (Cardinal Francis George), sometimes defending it against erroneous or narrow interpretations (Cardinal Edward Hickey, Bishop Donald Wuerl). More interesting are the comments of bishops who accept wholeheartedly the central message of the document, but criticize in a gentle yet clear manner certain aspects of it. Thus, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles observes that The tone of Dominus Iesus may not fully reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical and interreligious dialogues over these last thirty years or more.

Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle asserted that those who know well the thinking of Pope John Paul II will recognize that this declaration does not add to the dialogue process. Some perhaps will wonder why it does not reflect the ecumenical sensitivity achieved through thirty years of dialogue and cooperation.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s critical comments on the text are straightforward. Unfortunately, Dominus Iesus does not take into account the enormous progress made after Vatican II in the mutual recognition of each other’s baptisms and the ecclesial significance of such recognition. What is disappointing about this document is that so many of our partners will find its tone heavy, almost arrogant and condescending. To them it is bound to seem out of keeping with the elevated and open tone of the documents of Vatican II. It ignores all of the ecumenical dialogues of these last 35 years, as if they did not exist. None of the agreed statements are cited.

What interests me is not the content of these criticisms of the document by individual bishops, but the event constituted by such criticisms. Until the middle of the 1980’s, bishops almost never raised their public voices in criticism of the Holy See. I recall being astounded at an event that occurred in the fall of 1984, when representatives of the English-speaking countries of the world were assembled in Rome for a meeting. During that meeting, one of the Roman congregations issued a decree that permitted residential bishops to authorize the celebration of the Tridentine Mass. The representatives of the English-speaking countries promptly issued a document objecting to the congregation’s decree, since it opposed the will of 98 percent of the bishops of the world. It was the first time in my memory that a group of modern bishops criticized in a public document a decision of the Holy See. I saw their opposition as an event that marked for many their recognition in action that as bishops they were not vicars of the Holy See but vicars of Christ himself.

Since that time a number of groups of bishops have voiced respectful but still genuine criticisms of the Holy See. But I do not recall a time when a considerable number of bishops acting individually and without the support that comes from a group have voiced criticism of a document of the Holy See. This has now occurred in the critical responses, however gentle, by bishops to Dominus Iesus. This chain of criticism constitutes in my mind a series of events that are changing the relationship of bishops to the Vatican in the direction set out by Vatican II, by Pope John Paul’s 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, and by Reflections on the Primacy of Peter, the 1999 document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. If this trend continues, bishops will more and more act not as vicars or simple repeaters of the pope but as vicars of Christ, who collaborate in the formulation of papal teaching or in the improvement of what has already been formulated by the Vatican.

A third set of responses to Dominus Iesus came from the leaders of other Christian churches. Many of these recognized the validity of the document’s basic message regarding the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ. Their criticisms had to do with the statement’s narrowness of focus, its insensitive terminology, its seemingly arrogant attitude and its failure to take into account the progress in ecumenical understanding since Vatican II. What interests me here is the attitude reflected in many of the responses. The attitude was more one of sadness than of anger. It was more the attitude of an insider, a member of the one Christian community, than of a critical outsider. This insider speaks from within an already achieved partial unity and regrets that the pope now seems to support a position contrary to the one manifested by prior papal teachings and actions.

In summary, I would say that no matter how negatively one views the content and style of Dominus Iesus, a case can be made that the interactions precipitated by that statement lead toward a papacy that communicates effectively in today’s world, toward a Catholic episcopacy that operates collegially with the pope, and toward a situation in which leaders of other Christian churches feel more and more at home with the Catholic Church.

Peter Chirico, S.S., is a Sulpician priest associated with Seattle University’s School of Theology.