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Religion and Society

The Uniqueness and Universality of the Mystery of Christ

Presentation of the Declaration Dominus Iesus, Vatican City, 5 September 2000

In the lively contemporary debate on the relationship between Christianity and other religions, the idea is increasingly advancing that all religions are, for their followers, equally valid paths to salvation. This is a view that is by now widespread not only in theological circles but also in increasingly vast sectors of Catholic public opinion and non-Catholic public opinion, and especially that public opinion influenced by the cultural orientation that is today prevalent in the West which can be defined, without fear of being contradicted, by the word 'relativism'.

 

In truth, the so-termed theology of religious pluralism gradually established itself from the 1950s onwards but only today has it taken on a fundamental importance for the Christian conscience. Naturally, its configurations are very different and it would not be right to lump together all the theological positions that refer to the theology of religious pluralism within a single system. The Declaration, therefore, does not seek to describe the essential features of these theological tendencies, nor does it seek to capture them with a single formula. Rather, our document points out certain assumptions of both a philosophical and theological nature which are at the basis of the (albeit different) theologies of pluralism that are currently widespread: the belief in the complete incomprehensibility and inexpressibility of divine truth, as a result of which what is true for some people is held not to be true for others; the radical opposition between the Western logical mentality and the Eastern symbolic mentality; the exaggerated subjectivism of those who see reason as the sole source of knowledge; the metaphysical emptying of the mystery of the Incarnation; the eclecticism of those who in theological reflection adopt categories derived from other philosophical and religious systems without being concerned about either their internal coherence or their incompatibility with the Christian faith; and, lastly, the tendency to interpret the texts of Holy Scripture outside Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church [cf. Declaration. Dominus Iesus, n. 4].

 

What is the fundamental consequence of this way of thinking and feeling in relation to the centre and the core of Christian faith? It is the substantial rejection of the identification of the individual historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth with the reality itself of God, of the living God. Thus what is Absolute or He who is the Absolute can never express Himself in history through a full and definitive revelation; in history there are only models, ideal figures who refer us to the Totally Other, who, however, cannot be understood as such in history. Some more moderate theologians confess that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, but hold that because of the limitedness of the human nature of Jesus the revelation of God in him cannot be held to be complete and definitive but must always be seen in relation to other possible revelations of God expressed in the religious genes of mankind and in the founders of the religions of the world. In this way, objectively speaking, is introduced the erroneous idea that the religions of the world are complementary to Christian revelation. It is clear, therefore, that the Church, dogma and the sacraments as well cannot have the value of absolute necessity. To attribute to these finite means an absolute character and to see them as an instrument for a real encounter with the truth of God, which is universally valid, would mean placing on an absolute level what is particular and to misinterpret the infinite reality of God the Totally Other.

 

On the basis of such approaches, to hold that there is a universal truth, binding and valid in history itself, which is fulfilled in the figure of Jesus Christ and is transmitted by the faith of the Church, is seen as a kind of fundamentalism that is held to be an attack on the modern spirit and to represent a threat to tolerance and freedom. The very concept of dialogue takes on a radically different meaning to that understood by the Second Vatican Council. Dialogue, or better the ideology of dialogue, replaces mission and the urgency of the call to conversion: dialogue is no longer the path by which to discover truth, the process by which a person communicates to another the hidden profundity of what he has experienced in his religious experience but which he expects to be fulfilled and purified in the encounter with the definitive and complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Dialogue in these new religious approaches, which have also, unfortunately, penetrated the Catholic world and certain theological and cultural circles as well, is, instead, the essence of 'relativist' dogma and the opposite of 'conversion' and 'mission'. In relativist thinking, 'dialogue' means placing on the same level one's own position or one's own faith and the beliefs of other people so that everything is reduced to an exchange between fundamentally joint positions, which are thus relative to each other, with the higher purpose of achieving the highest level of co-operation and integration between different religious approaches.

 

The dissolving of Christology and thus of ecclesiology, to which it is subordinated but to which it is inseparably linked, thus becomes the logical outcome of this relativistic philosophy, which, paradoxically, is to be found at the basis of both the post-metaphysical thought of the West and of the negative theology of Asia. The result is that the figure of Jesus Christ loses its character of uniqueness and salvific universality. The fact, then, that relativism presents itself, under the banner of encounter between cultures, as the true philosophy of mankind which is able to assure tolerance and democracy leads to a further marginalisation of those who are constant in their defence of the Christian identity and its claim that it disseminates the universal and salvific truth of Jesus Christ. In truth, the criticism of the claim to absoluteness and definitiveness of the revelation of Jesus Christ that is upheld by Christian faith is accompanied by a false concept of tolerance. The principle of tolerance as an expression of respect for freedom of conscience, thought and religion, which was defended and promoted by the Second Vatican Council, and is once again proposed by this declaration, is a fundamental ethical position that is present in the essence of the Christian Creed because it takes seriously the freedom of the decision of faith. But this principle of tolerance and respect for freedom is today manipulated and unduly exceeded when it is extended to an appreciation of contents, almost as if all the contents of the various religions and even of the religious conceptions of life were to be placed on the same level, and there no longer existed an objective and universal truth because God or the Absolute is said to reveal Himself under innumerable names although all these names are held to be true. This false idea of tolerance is connected with the loss or the forgoing of the question of truth, which, indeed, today, is felt by many to be an irrelevant question or a question of secondary importance: with the question of truth absent, the essence of religion is no longer differentiated from its 'non-essence', faith is not distinguished from superstition, nor experience from illusion. Lastly, without a serious claim to truth the appreciation of other religions also becomes absurd and contradictory because one does not possess the criterion to observe what is positive in a religion by distinguishing it from what is negative or the outcome of superstition and deception.

 

 

Here the Declaration takes up the teaching of John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris missio: 'Whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions serves as a preparation for the Gospel' [Redemptoris Missio, n. 29].

 

This text refers explicitly to the action of the Spirit not only in 'human hearts' but also in 'religions'. However, the context places this action of the Spirit within the mystery of Christ, from whom it can never be separated. In addition, religions are near to the history and to the cultures of peoples where the mixture between good and evil can never be called into doubt. Thus not everything that is to be found in religions is to be seen as praeparatio evangelica but only 'whatever the Spirit brings about' in them. From this there flows a very important consequence: the way of salvation is the good present in religions, as the work of the Spirit of Christ, but not religions as such. This for that matter is confirmed by the doctrine itself of the Second Vatican Council in relation to the seeds of truth and good that are present in other religions and cultures expounded in the Council's Declaration Nostra Aetate: 'The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence their ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men' [Nostra Aetate, n. 2]. Everything true and good that exists in religions must not be lost; indeed it should be recognised and appreciated. The good and the true, wherever they are to be found, come from the Father and are the work of the Spirit; the seeds of the Logos are scattered everywhere. But one cannot close one's eyes to the errors and deceptions that are also present in other religions. The Dogmatic Constitution itself of the Second Vatican Council Lumen Gentium states: 'But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator' [Lumen Gentium, n. 16].

 

It is understandable that in a world that is increasingly growing together, religions and cultures also encounter each other. This does not only lead to an exterior drawing closer of men of different religions but also to a growth in interest in unknown religious worlds. In this sense, as regards that is to say reciprocal knowledge, it is legitimate to speak about mutual enrichment. But this has nothing to do with the abandonment of the claim of the Christian faith to have received as a gift from God in Christ the definitive and complete revelation of the mystery of salvation; indeed, one must exclude that indifferentist mentality characterised by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that 'one religion is as good as another' [Redemptoris missio, n. 36].

 

Esteem and respect for the religions of the world, and for the cultures that have brought an objective enrichment to the promotion of human dignity and to the development of civilisation, do not diminish the originality and the uniqueness of the revelation of Jesus Christ and do not limit in any way the missionary task of the Church: 'she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ 'the way, the truth, and the life' [John 14:6], in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself' [Nostra Aetate, n. 2]. At the same time these simple words point out the reason for the belief that holds that the fullness, universality and fulfilment of the revelation of God are present only in the Christian faith. This reason does not lie in a presumed preference accorded to the members of the Church, nor in the historical results achieved by the Church in her pilgrimage on earth, but in the mystery of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, who is present in the Church. The claim of the uniqueness and salvific universality of Christianity comes essentially from the mystery of Jesus Christ who continues his presence in the Church, his Body and his Bride. Thus the Church feels that she is committed, constitutively, to the evangelisation of peoples. In the contemporary context as well, which is marked by a plurality of religions and the need for freedom in decision-making and thought, the Church is aware that she is called 'to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him and one people of God [Decree Ad Gentes, n. 1].

 

Restating the truth that the faith of the Church has always believed and held in regard these subjects, and safeguarding the faithful from errors or from ambiguous interpretations that are currently widespread, the Declaration Dominus Iesus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved and confirmed certa scientia and apostolica sua auctoritate by the Holy Father himself, performs a dual task: on the one hand it offers itself as a further and renewed authoritative testimony to demonstrate to the world 'the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ' [2 Cor 4:4]; on the other, it indicates as binding for all the faithful the inalienable doctrinal basis that must guide, inspire and direct both theological reflection and the pastoral and missionary action of all the Catholic communities throughout the world.

 

©Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 00120 Città del Vaticano

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