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Article of Comment on the Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith pertaining to the book of J. Dupuis: Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.

Published in L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 27, 2001.

Translation from Italian by NCR.

1. In every epoch theological research has been important for the evangelizing mission of the church in response to the design of God, who wishes “that all people may be saved and arrive at the consciousness of truth” (I Timothy 2:4). An understanding always more profound of the word of God, contained in inspired scripture and transmitted through the living tradition of the church, in fact enriches the entire people of God, “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Matthew 5:13ff.), helping them both to give witness to the truth of Christian revelation and to render an explanation of their hope to whomever asks it of them (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

Theology is shown to be even more important in times such as ours, of great cultural and spiritual changes, which, posing new problems and questions to the church’s understanding of the faith, require new, even audacious, responses and solutions. The fact cannot be denied that today religious pluralism demands of Christians a renewed understanding of the place occupied by other religions in the salvific plan of God and the Trinity. In this context, theology is asked to give a response that, in the light of revelation and the magisterium of the church, justifies the meaning and value of these other religious traditions that, as conscious and renewed protagonists, continue to guide and animate the life of millions of people in every part of the world.

As in the first centuries of the church, also today theology must have, on the one hand, an attitude of listening, of consciousness and of discernment of how much of what is “true and holy” is present in the other religious traditions (extra-Biblical) [1], whose modes of living and acting, and whose doctrines, “however much they differ on many points from what the church believes and proposes, nevertheless not rarely reflect a a ray of that truth that illuminates all persons,” and on the other hand, an equally necessary attitude of incessant proclamation of “Christ who is ‘the way, the truth and the life,’ (John 14:6), in whom humanity finds the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.” [2] In interreligious dialogue and in theological reflection on the meaning and salvific value of the other religions, audacity, which is often demanded by the understanding and the liberty of the theologian, does not frutify or edify the ecclesial community if it is not accompanied by patient maturation and by continual confirmation of the truth that is Christ.

2. This invitation to a “sincere and patient dialogue” [3] with the other religions should not be seen as an impediment or a diminishing of openness to friendship, respect, collaboration and mutual sharing, but rather as a true and proper pilgrimage of faith into the comprehension of the truth of Christian revelation.

Perhaps it is useful to recall here two fundamental articulations of another dialogue, “ecumenical,” whether expressed by means of a “dialogue of charity” or a “dialogue of truth.” The same charity which manifests itself in countless manifestations of reciprocal respect, of common prayer and of fraternal solidarity, motivates all the baptized in the dialogue of truth, which requires accurate studies of the word of God and the tradition of the church, as well as profound and laborious clarifications of the respective theological positions. The patient but constant engagement of research into the truth, the epistemological accuracy, and the serene praise of results reached makes ecumenical dialogue a significant model for interreligious dialogue, the extreme difficulty of which does not derive solely from the great variety of religious traditions, but above all from the lack of reference to a shared foundation.

3. Therefore the church can only celebrate the precious work of theologians who, facing the challenge of religious pluralism and the new questions posed by interreligious dialogue, with creativity, sensibility and loyalty to the Biblical and magisterial tradition, search for new understandings and follow new trails, advancing proposals and suggesting modes of conduct that necessarily require an adequate ecclesial discernment . Timeliness in seizing the challenges of the signs of the times cannot and must not be overturned in a superficial and inopportune haste, both in order to not disorient the correct faith understanding of the ecclesial community, and also so as not to risk the credibility and effectiveness of the dialogue.

The precious good of theological liberty and creativity must also include an openness to receive the truth of Christian revelation, transmitted and interpreted by the church under the authority of the magisterium and welcomed with faith. The function of the magisterium, in fact, is not something extrinsic to Christian truth and the faith, but a constitutive element of the same prophetic mission of the church [4].

4. Moreover, precisely in the field of interreligious dialogue, the magisterium of the church, far from being a simple observer or from making obstructionist requests, has always played an undeniable and pioneering role of protagonist. The conciliar documents and the numerous pontifical initiatives, such as, for example, official organisms of dialogue, demonstrate this. [5] The decade just ended was wholly illuminated by the prophetic and forward-looking encyclical Redemptoris missio (December 1990) of John Paul II, an authentic epistemological frame of reference rich in content for a Christian theology of religions. At a distance of ten years and with the rapid diffusion of the challenges posed by interreligious matters, the declaration Dominus Iesus (August 2000) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was another illuminating contribution that proposes anew some essential points of reference in both the theory and practice of interreligious dialogue. These are cases of magisterial interventions that accompany rather than obstruct legitimate theological research, from the moment in which, rejecting objections and deformations of the faith, they propose with authority new understandings and applications of the revealed doctrine.

5. In this climate, therefore, of openness and readiness to listen, in dialogue and reciprocal comprehension, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proposes now the Notification relative to the book of J. Dupuis, Toward A Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. In this work, which attempts to give a theological response to the meaning and value that the plurality of religious traditions holds within the salvific design of God, the author professes explicitly his intention to remain faithful to the doctrine of the church and the teaching of the magisterium. The same author, however, conscious of the problematic nature of his perspective, does not hide the possibility of generating questions at least equal to the solutions proposed.

After a patient and serious dialogue, in which some of his own clarifications were not missing, at the conclusion of the examination of the book the author has expressed his assent to the theses enunciated in the above-mentioned Notification, which was approved by the Holy Father. Such recognition and assent are without doubt a positive and encouraging sign. That notwithstanding, as is recalled in the preamble the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has nevertheless retained it necessary to publish the Notification with the principal aim of offering to readers a secure criterion of doctrinal evaluation.

In fact, an attentive reading of the book causes some ambiguities and difficulties on doctrinal points of great relevance to emerge that can lead the reader to erroneous or dangerous opinions. The Notification, recalling also Dominus Iesus, confirms five doctrinal themes that in the volume, independently of the intention of the author himself, are presented with ambiguous formulations and insufficient explanations and thus can generate confusion and misunderstandings.

First of all, faith in Jesus Christ as the lone and universal mediator of salvation for all humanity is confirmed. Consequently the unicity and universality of the mediation of Jesus Christ, Son and Word of the Father, as actualization of the salvific plan of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is underscored. There is no Trinitarian economy of salvation independent of that of the Incarnate Word.

In second place the faith of the church in Jesus Christ, completion and fullness of divine revelation, is reconfirmed, against the opinion that the revelation of/in Jesus Christ is limited, incomplete and imperfect. Also the seeds of truth and of goodness that exist in the other religions are gifts of grace of the one mediation of Christ and of his Spirit of holiness.

With respect to the universal salvific action of the Holy Spirit, it is confirmed that the Spirit operating after the resurrection of Christ is always the Spirit of Christ sent by the Father, who works in a salvific way also outside the visible church. For this reason it is contrary to the Catholic faith to retain that the salvific action of the Holy Spirit can extend beyond the one universal economy of salvation of the incarnate Word.

Since the church is the sign and instrument of salvation for all humanity, the opinion that the various religions are complementary ways alongside the church in the order of salvation is rejected as erroneous.

Finally, while recognizing the existence of elements of truth and goodness in the other religions, it does not have any foundation in Catholic theology to retain that these religions, considered as such, are ways of salvation, especially because in them are present omissions, insufficiencies and errors that regard fundamental truths about God, humanity and the world. Neither may their sacred texts be considered complementary to the Old Testament, which was the immediate preparation for the event of Christ itself.

The Notification intervenes in order to underline the gravity and the danger of certain affirmations which, despite appearing moderate, exactly for this reason risk being easily and naively accepted as compatible with the doctrine of the church, also on the part of persons emotionally invested in the outcome of interreligious dialogue. In a context such as actually exists today, of a society that in fact is always more multireligious and multicultural, the church feels with urgency the need to manifest with conviction its doctrinal identity and to testify in charity to its indestructible faith in Jesus Christ, source of truth and salvation.

6. The “tone” of the Notification must be mentioned. It is not a case, in fact, of a long and articulated document, but only of brief and assertive propositions. This mode of communication does not intend to be a sign of authoritarianism or unjustified harshness, but rather pertains to the literary genre typical of those magisterial pronouncements that have the aim of defining doctrine, censuring errors or ambiguities, and indicating the grade of assent requested of the faithful.

This literary genre, which is the same of the declaration Dominus Iesus, certainly must be distinguished from other expressive forms adopted by the magisterium for presenting its teaching, taking account of their particular aims: expositive and illustrative, containing ample and precise justifications for doctrines of the faith and pastoral directives (one thinks, for example, of the Documents of Vatican Council II, of many papal encyclical letters, and in our specific case of the encyclical Redemptoris missio); and exhortative or orientational (for confronting problems of a spiritual or practical-pastoral nature).

The clear declarative/assertive tone of a magisterial document - typical of a declaration or of a notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, analogous to that of doctrinal decrees of the former Holy Office - intend to communicate to the faithful that it is not a case of debatable arguments or disputed questions, but of central truths of the Christian faith that certain theological interpretations deny or place in serious danger. The tone, therefore, from this point of view, pertains to the content, which must be coherent with the particular aim of the text. Assent to the Person of Jesus, to his word and his mystery of salvation, demands a response of faith simple and clear, such as that found, for example, in the symbols of the faith which form part of the prayer of the church.

The effectiveness of the Notification, whether in its comprehension or its appeal to the assent of faith, resides precisely in the tone. We repeat the point, it is not the tone of imposition, but the tone of solemn manifestation and celebration of the faith. It is the tone used in the Professio Fidei [6]. From its very beginning, in fact, the church has professed faith in the Lord crucified and risen, collecting in certain formulas the fundamental contents of its belief. We know that the Creed is not an ensemble of abstract truths, but a rule of faith that sustains life, prayer, testimony, action and mission: lex credendi, like lex vivendi, orandi, agendi et evangelizandi. It is moreover clear that the proclamation of the truth of the Catholic faith implies also the refutation of error and the censure of ambiguous and dangerous propositions that introduce confusion and uncertainty among the faithful.

It would certainly be wrong to hold that the declarative/assertive tone of the declaration Dominus Iesus or of the present Notification are regressive steps backward in comparison to the literary genre and the expositive and pastoral nature of the magisterial documents of Vatican Council II and afterwards. It would, however, be equally wrong and unfounded to retain that after Vatican Council II the literary genre of the declarative/assertive type must be abandoned or excluded from the authoritative interventions of the magisterium. It is thus displeasing but obligatory to note that certain criticisms, raised in many quarters, of the general “tone” of the declaration Dominus Iesus, which is said to be quite diverse from that of other documents, such as for example the encyclical letters Redemptoris missio and Ut unum sint, thus demonstrate a failure to take account of the differing, but in no way contradictory, aims of these documents. The declaration Dominus Iesus, just as the present Notification, intends simply to reaffirm certain truths of the faith and of Catholic doctrine, indicating the relative grade of theological certainty and thus making precise the secure doctrinal basis for conserving the integrity of the deposit of faith, and at the same time guaranteeing that interreligious dialogue - just like the ecumenical dialogue among the Christian confessions - develops as a “dialogue of truth.”

Moreover the simple act of proposing anew the truth expresses unity in faith in God, one and three, and cements communion in the church. Assent to truth and assent to Christ and to his church constitute the true space of human liberty: “There are many paths which lead to truth, but since Christian truth has a salvific value, any one of these paths may be taken, as long as it leads to the final goal, that is to the Revelation of Jesus Christ.” [7] Christ in fact is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6): “The truth, that is Christ, is imposed as a universal authority. The Christian mystery, in fact, conquers every barrier of time and space and realizes the unity of the human family.” [8]

[1] It is necessary to specify that an entirely particular discourse belongs to the relationship between the Christian faith and the religion of Israel, because as the Vatican Council II teaches, there exists “a bond with which the people of the New Testament is spiritually tied to the descendants of Abraham.” (Vatican Council II, dec. Nostre Aetate, n. 4).

[2] Vatican Council II, dec. Nostre Aetate, n. 2.

[3] Vatican Council II, dec. Ad gentes, n. 11.

[4] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, instruction Donum veritatis, n. 14.

[5] On August 6, 1964, Paul VI published his famous encyclical letter on dialogue, Ecclesiam suam. But already some months earlier Paul VI himself had instituted the “Secretariat for Non-Christians,” which became in 1998 the “Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.”

[6] On July 1, 1988, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published both the Professio fidei, designed for the faithful called to exercise an office in the name of the church, and a special “oath of fidelity” concerning the particular duties inherent in the office to be assumed. The Professio fidei, beyond the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, included three paragraphs that intend to better distinguish the type of truth professed and the corresponding assent requested. On May 18, 1998, the Holy Father issued the motu proprio Ad tuendam fidem, in order to introduce into the texts then in force of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches certain “norms which expressly impose the duty of observing truths proposed in definitive form by the magisterium of the church.” June 28 of the same year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published an “Illustrative doctrinal note on the concluding formula of the Professio fidei.” In the “Note” is presented a more detailed explication of the three paragraphs along with concrete examples.

[7] John Paul II, encyclical letter Fides et ratio, n. 38.

[8] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dec. Dominus Iesus, n. 23.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted March 5, 2001