Vol. 3, No. 3
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock
Cult Fighting in Massachusetts
The Mexican Election: Bringing the Church Back In
Waco Redux: Trial and Error
Tibet I: Lama on the Lam
Tibet II: Monastic Spinmeister
The Never Ending Story
Relativism, and Reaction
by Dennis R.
On September 5, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of theVaticans Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith handed down the declaration Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and
Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. The stated purpose was to
"recall to Bishops, theologians, and all the Catholic faithful, certain indispensable
elements of Christian doctrine." Why? Because "The Churchs constant
missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories" and by a
"mentality of indifferentism." Ratzinger said that some principles of the Second
Vatican Council (1962-1965) are being "manipulated" and "wrongfully
As the New York Times Peter Steinfels noted, to many non-Catholics the
document seemed "something like the theological equivalent of Ariel Sharons
striding into the area of Al Aksa Mosque." Public statements of concern about the
seemingly abrupt change of tone at the Vatican, and about the future of ecumenical and
inter-religious dialogue, came fast and furious from the Anglican Archbishop of
Canterbury, the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and
elsewhere. The Vatican had to cancel an October 3 symposium on Jewish-Christian dialogue
because two Italian rabbis withdrew in protest.
The declaration attracted considerable public and media interest because it opened a
window on the rarefied world of the Catholic hierarchy (a 2000 year-old institution whose
inner workings never seem to lack for intrigue) and on the delicate world of interfaith
diplomacy. But news coverage was even more captivated by the central theological issue
raised by Dominus Iesus: religious relativism.
Ratzingers attack on relativism stirred a strong, if confused, response from
journalists. The first-day stories tended to focus on the documents harshest
language, and frequently exaggerated or misconstrued its claims. Soon thereafter, numerous
journalists embraced the opportunity to do some of their own theologizing, both for and
One root of the trouble with the first day storiesand especially their
headlinesgrew from the fact that Dominus Iesus is heavily laden with
technical language. The rush effort to unpack the jargon often led to a loss of nuance,
and in some cases to outright mistakes that exacerbated the ensuing conflict over the
document. In a retrospective piece in the October 14 issue of the Salt Lake City Deseret
News, Diane Urbani sympathized with the journalistic task of September 5: "Quick,
turn this 9,000-word Vatican document into an article that takes five minutes to
Dominus Iesus declared nothing that wasnt already part of Catholic
doctrine, and quoted Vatican II documents frequently. (Out of 102 footnotes, 48 were
citations to Vatican II.) But it revived doubts about the relationship between Catholicism
and other religious groups because of the pointed manner in which it recapitulated
traditional teaching regarding two issuessalvation and "the church."
First, Catholics are said to have access to "the fullness of the means of
salvation." Other major Christian traditions (Orthodox and Protestant) are also (in a
derivative way) efficacious in salvation. Non-Christians, though, are another matter.
Although salvific grace can be given by God to individual non-Christians "in ways
known to Himself," such non-Christians are in a "gravely deficient"
spiritual situation. Because of Christ (and only because of Christ), salvation is a
possibility for all in the world, but it is far better to be a Christian than something
else, and better still to be Catholic. Accordingly, the Churchs commitment to
evangelism is not something that can ever be negotiated away in interfaith dialogue.
Second, apart from Orthodox churches (regarded as having maintained apostolic
succession and a valid Eucharist), Dominus Iesus says that other Christian bodies
are "not churches in the proper sense" but rather "ecclesial
communities" that are "in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the
[Catholic] Church." And, quoting an indelicate phrase from Vatican II, Dominus
Iesus expressed the distinctive ecclesiological views of the Catholic Church by saying
Orthodox and Protestant denominations "suffer from defects."
Although a September 5 dispatch by the APs Victor Simpson, "Vatican Rejects
Notion That All Religions Are Equal," got the gist of the story right, some of the
newspapers that ran Simpsons piece changed its headline in unfortunate ways.
Minneapolis Star Tribune and San Jose Mercury News headlines suggested that
Catholicism had declared itself the "Single Church of Christ," an
over-simplification that cropped up in other stories as well. In a letter to the Boston
Globe, Francis A. Sullivan, professor of theology at Boston College, wrote that Dominus
Iesus "did not say that the Church of Christ continues to exist only in the
Catholic Church; it said that it is only in the Catholic Church that it continues to exist
More incendiary were the numerous headlines and reports indicating that the Vatican had
said only Catholics can be saved. Stories in several smaller papers included
assertions to this effect, but large media outlets bore most of the responsibility.
National Public Radios Sylvia Poggioli boiled Dominus Iesus down to:
"[A] person can achieve complete and eternal salvation only through Jesus Christ and
the Roman Catholic Church." And then there was the Washington Post article by
Jeffrey Smith, "Vatican Claims Church Monopoly on Salvation", and the Los
Angeles Times story by Richard Boudreaux and Larry Stammer, "Vatican Declares
Catholicism Sole Path to Salvation." Both of these articles (but especially the
former) were picked up by numerous other newspapers around the country.
Writing in the conservative journal First Things, editor Richard John Neuhaus
was sure that "much of the [media] misunderstanding was willful." Yet some of
the media shortcomings may have been a byproduct of journalists not having the time,
inclination, or theological fluency to absorb the distinctions of the declaration, and
thus reacting impressionistically to the blunt, preemptory tone of the document, which was
Even Neuhaus, who agreed "with every word of it," allowed as how "one
may be forgiven for thinking it missing other words that might have avoided
misunderstandings." The Archbishops of Los Angeles and Seattle were both on record in
the media expressing reservations about the declarations tone, and Cardinal Edward
Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was reported
to have called the document "inopportune" and to have fueled speculation that it
did not have the Popes full blessing. (It did.) As reported in the Montreal
Gazette, Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian and editor of the journal The
Ecumenist, said the document "has a fault-finding and scolding tone" that
makes it "singularly unattractive."
Still, the media had an obligation to give the declaration a fair reading. In a candid
admission, Buffalo News columnist Paula Voell wrote, "Since no one has
mastered the art of writing legalistically dry language better than the Vatican, I will
confess that I rather quickly scrolled to the conclusions." Noting that the
conclusion quotes Vatican IIs assertion that "this one true religion continues
to exist in the Catholic and Apostolic church," Voell shared her feelings: "I
was surprised that this sentiment came from Vatican II
My strong sense of that time
was of a church coming alive as fresh air poured into open windows. This feels much more
like a door shutting, firmly."
Not a few Catholic leaders thought the media had irresponsibly magnified the
exclusionary "feel" of the Vatican declaration. Denying that there is anything
in the Vatican document that could support the Washington Post storys
headline, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinels
Tom Heinen, "I can honestly say that in the 23 years that I have been a bishop,
Ive never had so much reaction." There also appears to have been fallout for
the laity. One Catholic laywoman recalled to the Omaha World-Herald the
embarrassment she felt when a non-Catholic co-worker remarked, "I guess you
wont be seeing me in heaven because Im going to hell."
Archbishop of Chicago Cardinal Francis George challenged the Washington Post
story in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times"Accurate reporting would have
recognized the difference between subjective personal salvation and the objective
availability of the means to salvation"while Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul
and Minneapolis weighed in against the Post with a stern press release. Reacting to
the Los Angeles Times story, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of
Pittsburgh told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette religion writer Ann Rodgers-Melnick,
"If that article were a tire, its so full of defects it would be
recalled." Likewise, Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, rebutted the Times
headline theology in a September 10 op-ed.
Rodgers-Melnick was one of a handful of religion reporters who tried to undo some of
the confusion created by the early stories. In the September 17 Post-Gazette she
drew on the more felicitously phrased 1995 papal encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint,
to explain the Vaticans positions. She also made the pertinent observation that, at
least by comparison to some conservative Protestants, the Catholic view of the possibility
of salvation for non-Christians is actually relatively generous. In his September 24
piece, "Catholic Documents Intention Obscured by Furor," Cleveland
Plain Dealer religion reporter David Briggs made the same point.
Nevertheless, the lasting impression left by Dominus Iesus was of a step
backward in ecumenical and interfaith relations. And, as the New York Times
Peter Steinfels argued, this could not all be laid at the feet of the media: "Media
shortcomings and lazy thinking are more or less permanent facts of life that the Vatican
might have considered in wording and presenting its declaration."
So why didnt Dominus Iesus use more politic language? Rodgers-Melnick
answered with two theories: (1) Vatican conservatives think John Paul is too friendly to
non-Catholics, and are taking advantage of his weakening physical condition to push their
own agenda in anticipation of the next papacy; (2) the Congregation for the Doctrine of
the Faith is run by "doctrinal wonks" who dont think it is their job to
worry about public opinion.
Theories of succession politics were mentioned widely in the coverage. What
impressed journalists most was the juxtaposition of significant ecumenical and interfaith
advances in recent years (e.g., a major doctrinal rapprochement with Lutherans, the
Popes dramatic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his efforts to improve relations with
Jews) with the developments of September (release of Dominus Iesus, the
beatification of the controversial Pope Pius IX, news of a note from Ratzinger instructing
Bishops not to call Protestant denominations "sister churches" since Roman
Catholicism is the "mother church").
But the theory of Congregation indifference to public opinion is also worth pondering.
Indeed, it may even be possible that in its choice of tone and presentation for Dominus
Iesus the Congregation was self-consciously baiting religious relativists. If so, the
media coverage revealed that there was no shortage of people (including journalists
themselves) ready to rise to it.
In his September 10 story in The Hackensack, N.J. Record, Charles Austin
attended a local Mass and interviewed several lay Catholics about the Vaticans stand
against religious relativism. One parishioner replied, "If a person believes in his
creed and follows it, hes got it made." When asked if it bothered him that his
views differed from the Popes, another parishioner responded, "Hes
entitled to his opinion."
Some Catholic theological professionals also shrugged off the Vatican. In the October
20 issue of Commonweal, Philip Kennedy, a Catholic professor of theology at the
University of Oxford, wrote that "Dominus Iesus regards religious pluralism as
a worrying phenomenon. Yet religious pluralism is unavoidable because of the ineffability
or complexity of God
Jesus Christ is not the complete revelation of God in history,
but a partial manifestation of what God may be like."
Several op-eds, editorials, and columns came to the defense of liberal pluralism. Two
representatives of the American Jewish Committee wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles
Times arguing that it was because of the Catholic Churchs post-Vatican II
"willingness to set aside preconceived doctrinal judgements" that it was able to
embrace the fight against anti-Semitism and give official recognition of Israel. "In
portraying Judaism-and other faiths-as spiritually deficient, does the document reopen the
door to religious stereotyping and intolerance?" they asked.
A Hartford Courant editorial went further, saying Dominus Iesus
contradicted the spirit of Vatican II declarations supporting religious freedom immune
from coercion. Citing the Crusades and the Inquisition as examples, the Courant
opined that "the conviction that one religion is superior to all others has led to
much bloodshed." James Ahearn, contributing editor at The Record, wrote a
column tying an attitude of religious equivalence to the American Way. To deny that
religions are equally true, argued Ahearn, "stands in opposition to the core belief
of American society, that we are a nation in which everyone is legally and philosophically
S. Amjad Hussain, columnist for the Toledo Blade, expressed dissatisfaction with
the memorable definition of religious tolerance attributed to H.L. Mencken: "You
respect the other guys religion the same way you respect his belief that his wife is
beautiful and his kids are smart." Much better to fully embrace the idea that all
religions "lead us to the same place but through different routes," argued
The Vaticans unqualified rejection of liberal pluralism led many journalists and
commentators to predict major damage to ecumenism and interfaith relations. But from the
Vatican perspective, and that of numerous (mainly conservative) sympathizers, asserting
ones own firmly held truth claims is only being authentic, and expectations for
ecumenical and interreligious dialogue should be calibrated accordingly.
The Pope himself offered several statements in this connection. The most notable
occurred at a Vatican event October 1, where he argued that Dominus Iesus intended
only to clarify the foundations Catholics bring into dialogue, "because dialogue
without foundations would be destined to degenerate into empty verbosity." He
continued, "The document thus expresses once more the same ecumenical passion that is
at the basis of my encyclical Ut Unum Sint. And it is my hope that after so many
mistaken interpretations, this declaration, which is close to my heart, may finally carry
out its function of clarifying and at the same time providing an opening [to
Some theologically conservative Protestants rallied to support this vision of pluralism
and ecumenism. Stanley Hauerwas, a professor of theology at Duke University, wrote in a
letter to the Durham Herald-Sun that, "It is almost as if the American press
thinks John Paul II should say something like, Jesus is Lord but it is just my
personal opinion. John Paul II as well as all Christians believe that Jesus is
Lord requires Christians to live as if that is a matter that is non-negotiable. That
is all the declaration says."
Journalists themselves also weighed in. From England, there was this from David Quinn,
columnist for the Sunday Times of London: "In logic, mutually contradictory
claims cannot all be true at the same time. The irony is that the relativists are as keen
to win converts as the most evangelical Protestant. They want all religions to agree with
them that there is no such thing as the truth." And from Canada, the Ottawa
Citizen wondered, "why stop the presses on hearing that all non-Catholics are
non-Catholic?" Describing himself as a "son of the Reformation," Arizona
Republic editorial columnist Robert Robb wrote that the declaration "bothers me
not a whit
Ecumenism and living in a religiously pluralistic society do not require
denying the existence or importance of doctrinal disagreements."
In a Tampa Tribune op-ed, Robert N. Lynch, bishop of the Diocese of St.
Petersburg, noted, "Heads of other faiths have never asked and do not expect me to
give away the store in order to seek avenues of mutual cooperation." This
is the sort of ecumenism that many evangelicals have warmed to during the papacy of John
Clark Morphew, religion writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, was also on this
wavelength. He argued that the only really successful ecumenism is that which is practical
and local. "If people expect some kind of ironclad unity to emerge from ecumenical
dialogues, we should all take some truth serum and try to grasp a bit of reality
idea of creating a massive, wiggly, gelatin-style religion, wobbling this way and that,
should not appeal to us." Commenting on Jewish-Christian relations, the Philadelphia
Inquirers Jane Eisner wrote, "Religion is about absolute beliefs and
time-tested ways of living; if they were easily surrendered or compromised, what would
they be worth? Besides, this isnt about making the relationship perfect; its
about finding a new way to show respect for anothers beliefs and traditions without
fear of coercion or assimilation."
And so it went. The controversy over Dominus Iesus was a story that played out
largely at the level of official statements, op-eds, and journalistic commentaries. But in
many local contexts in the United States, there appeared to be a pragmatic spirit of
cooperation among religious groups that was remarkably unperturbed by the philosophical
dogfight going on overhead.
Several religion reporters produced stories on the reaction of local religious groups
already engaged in cooperative relationships. "We have grassroots ecumenism, not
theological ecumenism. Theres a big difference," a local Catholic leader
explained to Robin Cuneo of the Times-News (Erie, Pa.). And Bruce Nolans
reporting for the Times-Picayune suggested that even mainline and evangelical
Protestants could join in a collective shrug. Dominus Iesus was "barely a
ripple in the ecumenical stream," the Episcopal leader of the Louisiana Interchurch
Conference told Nolan. Likewise, the head of the Louisiana Baptist Convention said,
"Im not going to let it affect my relationship with Bishop Hughes [Catholic
Bishop of Baton Rouge]. There are too many things we have to work together on."