Church Faith and Religious Belief: A Reading of Dominus Iesus

By Haas, Peter | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Church Faith and Religious Belief: A Reading of Dominus Iesus


Haas, Peter, Shofar


Dominus Iesus has sparked a wave of criticism for its exclusivistic message that salvation is available only through the Church. Although many Catholic theologians downplay the meaning or importance of the document and stress its inclusivistic language, a close reading shows that the text is in fact much less inclusivistic than it appears on the surface. Although there are various rhetorical nods toward inclusivism, the text not only undercuts inclusivism in its detail, but in substance reverts back to pre-Vatican II Catholic exclusivism. This dual nature of the text reflects the deep struggle within the Church as it tries to position itself in the twenty-first century.

When the Vatican document Dominus Iesus was published in summer 2000, it came as quite a shock. The document itself claims merely to be reminding Catholic theologians about to engage in interreligious dialogue of certain basic Church doctrines. As such, one approaches the text expecting to find a theological statement more or less in line with post-Vatican II theology especially as regards relationships with "world religions." What a careful reading reveals, instead, is another agenda altogether. As we shall see below, there is in much on the surface of the text that sounds compatible with contemporary Catholic doctrine of inclusivity and even pluralism. But invariably that opening is blocked off by language that marks a clear retreat back to pre-Vatican II exclusivity. The shock, of course, lies in the fact that for nearly the forty years since Vatican Council II, the Church has not only moved toward a recognition of the spiritual gifts of other religions and made gestures toward reconciliation with the Orthodox churches, but has come to accept Judaism, in particular, as an equal, sister, religion. These developments, if anything, have picked up momentum and speed under the current Pope. It is against the background of this steadily increasing openness of the Church to other faith communities that the doctrine set forth in Dominus Iesus appears so unexpected and startling.

Needless to say, the publication of Dominus Iesus has sparked a wave of criticism and disappointment, especially from Jews but from others as well. In the months that followed, there have been various attempts on the part of various Church officials, especially those engaged in interreligious dialogue, to downplay the importance of the document as a whole or to explain its language as theological language that does not really mean in context what it might sound like it means to the uninitiated. Walter Cardinal Kasper, for example, the President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said the following at the 17(th) meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, which met in New York on 1 May, 2001,

The highly technical language of this document for the instruction of Catholic theologians...raised misunderstandings on the very meaning and intention of the text among people who are not very familiar with Catholic theological "jargon" and with the rules of its correct interpretation.

But does a close, theologically sensitive, reading in fact reveal a declaration that is supportive of real interreligious dialogue and more in line with current developments as regards the Church's relation to world religions? As I shall show below, a close reading of its rhetoric does not bear out Cardinal Kasper's benign interpretation. To the contrary, Dominus Iesus, read closely, really does reach back to a pre-Vatican notion of how other "mere" religions of the world relate to the true faith of the Roman Catholic Church. There is of course still room to argue that the document itself is not all that important, that it addresses a limited audience, or that it represents one voice among many within the rapidly changing Church. All these claims have more or less merit. But, as I shall show with a few illustrations below, the document itself, albeit carefully and diplomatically worded, does revert to older doctrines. …

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