Much in the declaration is clear and helpful, enunciating important rules that can usefully guide the thinking of Catholic Christians: belief in Christ in accord with the creed as a whole and as it is understood in the Catholic tradition; the unique and universal salvific importance of Christ with reference to all theological issues; the unity of the Christ with Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Word and Son of God working in the world and who is known in the church; avoiding responses to pluralism that posit leveling of religious differences; the erroneous presupposition that all paths are equal; instead, the firm conviction that Christ is the way.
The declaration thus ably brings to the fore some key elements of Christian faith in a plausible fashion that will ring true for most Catholics. In doing so, it also echoes what people in other religious traditions often say about themselves and their beliefs. In my years of study of south Indian Hindu theologies, I have found, for instance, that Hindu theologians devoted to the deity Narayana as the supreme Lord have frequently held similarly strict views about Narayana’s supremacy: God is truly and fully known in their tradition and its scriptures; Narayana alone is the one true God and the sole Lord of the universe; he alone saves the world by entering it in forms such as Krishna and Rama; other beliefs and other forms of worship are deficient in light of scripture and faulty in logic too; other gods are inferior and dependent beings, not different names for the same reality. That we Christians also hold similarly strong views and defend them with similarly strong judgments is not surprising, for this is exactly what true believers do. I can rightly claim that my faith is true, unique and even superior, but this claim itself is not unique or even particularly unusual.
But an affirmation of the Creed, as understood in the Catholic Church, and a rejection of relativism are a beginning to useful instruction, not an end. When we look for guidance in the declaration regarding more difficult issues, we can still learn, but less fully. We are correctly reminded, for instance, to avoid positing a radical opposition between the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East (No. 4). This is a sensible point, since there is much in Western thought that is not logical and much in Eastern thought that is not symbolic. In any case, sweeping generalities such as East and West (east of what? west of what?) do not bear scrutiny.
We are also rightly advised (No. 7) to use words carefully and in particular to avoid stretching terms to a one size fits all accommodation of the Christian reality and the reality of other religious traditions. It never helps to use terms indiscriminately as if easily applicable across religious borders. The declaration tells us, for example, to reserve faiththe acceptance in grace of revealed truth...the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune Godto refer to Christians’ act of acceptance of God’s truth. In contrast, we are to use beliefthat sum of experience and thought that constitutes the human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which man in his search for truth has conceived and acted upon in his relationship to God and the Absoluteto name what people in other religious traditions do.
This is a clear distinction, but in practice words have a way of misbehaving; they do not remain neatly fixed, even if we wish it were so. If people of other religious traditions are already acting upon a relationship to God and the Absolute, it seems difficult to separate their belief entirely from the consent to God’s truth that constitutes faith. Moreover, we notice that even in the declaration belief and believe are used at least 25 times to refer to what Christians do. If belief has multiple meanings, is it possible to stipulate that faith, by contrast, has only a single meaning?
Similarly we are instructed (No. 8) that the scriptures of other religious traditions, though sacred, are not inspired by God’s Spirit. Here too, we can respect a stipulation that inspiration is a term descriptive of biblical authority. But we are also told that in actual fact those other sacred texts direct and nourish the existence of their followers, [and] receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain; that there are some elements in these texts which may be de facto instruments by which countless people throughout the centuries have been and still are able today to nourish and maintain their life-relationship with God; and that God does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches... If God works without fail in those sacred scriptures, is this not a gracious work of God’s Spirit and therefore in some way inspired?
In a peculiar way the declaration encourages a kind of indifferentism. Different religious beliefs, acts and communities are treated generically, as if their differences do not matter. Religions are described in the document simply as other religions, the religious traditions, the other religious experiences, the non-Christians. Let us assume that Judaism stands in a distinct category, though the declaration gives no hint of this. Perhaps we are being asked to group all other religions together. If so, the result would be peculiar. Religions devoted to a personal, loving God would be treated the same as religions in which the idea of God is not central; religions deeply interconnected with our own religious roots, such as Islam, would be treated the same as religions with no such common roots, such as Shintoism.
Unfortunately, there is a similar vagueness in the more pointed assertion that all people in other traditions are objectively speaking in a gravely deficient situation (No. 22), which I take to mean that Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam are gravely deficient religions. A sweeping claim that all religions err is not much more helpful than its cousin, a sweeping claim that all religions are nice. The declaration only refers us to other religions’ gaps, insufficiencies and errors (No. 8, echoing a phrase apparently used first by Paul VI in 1963). Since we are not fideists and rightly expect faith and unfaith to have observable effects on how people think and live, it is reasonable to expect that if religious traditions err, they do so in ways that can be observed. It would have been useful, then, had the declaration given some examples of those gaps, insufficiencies and errors that make traditions demonstrably deficient. While it is not proper to dwell on the defects of others, once defectiveness has been boldly asserted, we might as well identify more exactly the problems we are told to notice.
The declaration states, for example, that while some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God, other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Cor. 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation (No. 21). But are these latter rituals superstitious and erroneous just because they are Hindu or Jewish or Buddhist, or rather when they are erroneous according to criteria internal to the traditions themselves? For example, are some Confucian rites superstitious and others not? If the congregation’s point is simply that the various traditions are erroneous because their beliefs diverge from Roman Catholic faith and practice, this is simply to reaffirm by other means the necessity of adhering to the Christian Creed, and it leaves little room for the scholarly inquiry praised at the beginning of the declaration.
There is certainly no reason for the congregation to postpone working on the details of its global syllabus of errors until more research has been done. Catholic theologians have known about Islam, for example, for 1,000 years, and Catholic scholars have been studying Hinduism and the religions of China and the Americas for 500 years. There is already a very adequate body of learning available as a resource for more specificand therefore more helpfulclaims about the truth and error of what other people believe.
Nor is it adequate that the congregation should simply restate settled truths and affirm that the traditions are gravely deficient, while leaving the discovery of actual errors to others. The latter task is harder than the former, since it involves theologians in the task of studying traditions carefully and learning about and from them and then devising a workable language to express their findings. Inevitably, positive claims and genuine respect creep in, as theologians discover acutely intelligent, highly moral, deeply theological and profoundly spiritual dimensions in the traditions being dissected to uncover their errors. Some positive or negative conclusions drawn by these scholars invite specific criticisms from learned scholars and from theologians within those other traditions themselves. Other conclusions, nuanced or even positive, inevitably annoy those who have never studied the traditions and have no sympathy. Better to have the congregation involve itself in this more difficult and subtle work.
Finally, we must all wonder about the practicability of dialogue to be carried on after this declaration. As pointed out earlier, the declaration reaffirms the value of a dialogue carried forward with understanding and respect. Near its end, though, the declaration adds another dimension: 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 Christwho is God himself made manin relation to the founders of the other religions (No. 22).
Here too the basic warning is appropriate; uncritical dialogue is not helpful, and one must not dishonor one’s own beliefs in order to honor those of another. There is no reason for Catholics to become diffident or halting in their confession of the Lordship of Jesus.
But it is difficult to understand in the abstract how this dialogueurgent as it is, and exemplifying mutuality, reciprocity and respect for the dignity of all participants, while refusing to respect the doctrines and founders of the other religions and supposing in advance that they are all defectivecan work in practice. The congregation needs to give us some good examples of fruitful dialogue along these lines.
Potential dialogue partners will probably have already read Dominus Iesus when they come for dialogue. (I will certainly make sure that anyone I invite to a dialogue has had a chance to read it beforehand.) One wonders what they will think about the declaration. They will be a tough audience to please or subdue. Centuries of missionary work have not convinced them that their souls are in peril; they are not worried about their lack of union with Rome; they have no reason to revere the document as the work of a flawless magisterium; they will be amused or upset by its characterization of their traditions as gravely deficient; and they will want to know whether there are still good reasons why they should engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics, whatever reasons Catholics themselves might have. It is imperative that this congregation itselfnot theologians who did not write the document, nor officials in other Vatican officesspeak directly to the people of other religious traditions and explain things to them in a plausible fashion, lest the declaration appear persuasive only insofar as it is buttressed by the disciplinary authority of the congregation.
I close with a personal admission that may explain my ambivalence in the preceding paragraphs. I grew up a fairly traditional Catholic, and so I am today. Much in the declaration makes immediate sense to me; its intense focus on Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Savior seems very important, very beautiful, very true. But I have also been visiting India and studying the Hindu religious traditions for over 25 years; it is my form of obedience to Christ, one might say. I know for myself that Pope John Paul II was correct in saying, in India in 1986, When we learn from other traditions we let God be present in our midst; when we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.
I know it is an error to dismiss other people’s beliefs without studying them deeply first. We must see other people’s beliefs and practices only in the light of Christ, but we must also see Christ newly radiant in the light of those other traditions. Learning from other religions does not change the timeless truths of our faith, but it certainly does enrich and deepen our way of following Jesus, driving out not only relativism and indifferentism, but also arrogance and ignorance. Dominus Iesus is in important respects an admirable achievement, but the congregation appears oddly inarticulate when we wonder how specifically to confess the Lord Jesusboldly, but with open eyes and ears tooin this new millennium.