Protestant Impressions of Catholic Statements

By F, James | Shofar, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Protestant Impressions of Catholic Statements

F, James, Shofar

Some fascinating insights from Derrida

I have been asked to join this group of scholars at this Jewish studies conference as the lone Christian theologian in order to give a Protestant's perspectives on the recent statements from the Catholic church, most particularly Dominus Iesus. Now this invitation is, itself, a wonder since my presence at this conference and on this panel raises basic questions about who it is that does Jewish studies and what it is that constitutes Jewish studies. That we are together responding to statements from the Catholic church enhances those questions even more, for what I do can be construed by many to be Christian studies, and surely the statements of the church are strictly within the realm of the circle of Christians, particularly teachers of Catholic theology. I will return to these questions at the end of my reflections, but the issues remain in my mind as I shape my contribution to this discussion.

I begin my comments on the theological statement Dominus Iesus with an assertion. I believe it is quite clear that the intended audience of this document is the teaching leadership of the Catholic church. The intended audience may be especially the leadership of the Catholic church in America, including a number of people that we all have come to know. Thus, the statement does have a direct personal impact on many of us just in that fact. My claim is that the document is intended to restrict quite directly the scope of what these leading teachers can officially teach as Catholic theology. Of course, such efforts are not new, particularly coming from the particular Vatican congregation that issued this document over the signature of the Pope and mainly through the efforts of Cardinal Ratzinger. In fact, this document is quite dependent upon another fairly recent statement, Redemptoris Missio, and there are many references in this statement to the earlier document. It is also quite clear that this document is an attempt to clarify certain positions expressed in the critical conciliar document issued in the mid-sixties, Nostre Aetate. The point is that those in this Vatican congregation, especially Cardinal Ratzinger, view developments in Catholic teaching to be dangerous for the church, and they are hoping to create standards of judgment that can, in some cases, reverse the tide of development in the church. It is, in fact, an effort to control exactly what can be called "Catholic religious memory."

In that regard, we can suspect that this document is a companion piece to a number of other efforts to create an impression of the Catholic past. Why is it so important for the Vatican leadership to rush to beatify Pope Pius XII? There is a critical juncture in the development of Catholic memory which can shift the picture of the effectiveness of the church in the past century. Most especially, the church continues to bear the burden of a memory of failure, a failure that is represented to many by the figure Pius XII and the weakness of church leadership in providing the model for full and strong resistance to the Nazi onslaught.(1) That surely is the issue with the effort to paint a saintly picture of Pius XII, but it may also be a clue to the effort to shape the nature of Catholic teaching at the beginning of the twenty-first century. For this is a theology of the church, first and foremost, and the point is to set forth an image of the church that reinforces a theology that sees the church as the light of the world, the hope for all humanity. How is it possible for the church to do this if there is a lingering suspicion that the opposite is in fact true, the church is a model of the failure of humanity to respond to evil? Even more, we can understand that the leadership in Rome does not want dissidents in the teaching ranks who are prepared to challenge this image and open the door for seeing the church as one among many voices that humanity needs to listen to. It may be crass to say, but the document reads quite clearly as an effort to re-assert the oft-assumed principle that there is no salvation outside of the church, even as this must be set in post-Nostre Aetate terms. …

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