Fall 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Taking Stock

Preacher Joe

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

Rome, Relativism, and Reaction

by Dennis R. Hoover

On September 5, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of theVatican’s 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 Church’s 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 surpassed."

As the New York Times’ Peter Steinfels noted, to many non-Catholics the document seemed "something like the theological equivalent of Ariel Sharon’s 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.

Ratzinger’s attack on relativism stirred a strong, if confused, response from journalists. The first-day stories tended to focus on the document’s 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 against relativism.

One root of the trouble with the first day stories—and especially their headlines—grew 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 read."

Dominus Iesus declared nothing that wasn’t 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 issues—salvation 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 Church’s 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 AP’s Victor Simpson, "Vatican Rejects Notion That All Religions Are Equal," got the gist of the story right, some of the newspapers that ran Simpson’s 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 fully."

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 Radio’s 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 criticized widely.

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 declaration’s 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 Pope’s 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 II’s 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 story’s headline, Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Heinen, "I can honestly say that in the 23 years that I have been a bishop, I’ve 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 won’t be seeing me in heaven because I’m 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, it’s 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 Vatican’s 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 Document’s 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 didn’t 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 don’t 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 Pope’s 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 Vatican’s stand against religious relativism. One parishioner replied, "If a person believes in his creed and follows it, he’s got it made." When asked if it bothered him that his views differed from the Pope’s, another parishioner responded, "He’s 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 Church’s 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 equal."

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 guy’s 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 Hussain.

The Vatican’s 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 one’s 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 dialogue]."

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 Paul II.

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… The 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 Inquirer’s 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 isn’t about making the relationship perfect; it’s about finding a new way to show respect for another’s 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. There’s a big difference," a local Catholic leader explained to Robin Cuneo of the Times-News (Erie, Pa.). And Bruce Nolan’s 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, "I’m 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."