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In 1996, the International Theological Commission published its document “Christianity and the World Religions.” In December 1992, the majority of the appointed members of the commission for the period 1992-1997 overwhelmingly proposed during their first meeting to analyze the theological problem of religions. The subject was already being discussed at that time. Clearly, it was one of the theological questions that kindled greater discussions and consequently explains the interest of the International Theological Commission in considering it. Even though some years have passed since the publication, the interest for this subject remains and the document keeps, in a great way, its actuality. This explains why it is still being translated and re-edited in different languages. This brief introduction will try to situate the document in its context and offer a concise guidance to read it.

Historical and Doctrinal Context

The Second Vatican Council represented a great progress in the deepening of the Catholic view on religions. These were seen in a more positive way than before, at least in the official documents of the Church. A better knowledge of the cultures and the different religious traditions had obviously contributed to a change of mentality that the Council could not but reflect. It is enough to read numbers 16-17 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, the Declaration Nostra Aetate or the Decree Ad Gentes 9. 11. Nevertheless, in opposition to the intention and to the actual statements of the documents, a definite religious relativism spread in certain environments during the post-conciliar years, as if all religions were of the same value in the pursuit of salvation; the missionary zeal faded and the sole and universal mediation of Christ was put into question. This is the situation before which, in 1986, after twenty-five years of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council and the Decree Ad Gentes, and fifteen years after the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II presented the encyclical Redemptoris Missio on the validity of the missionary mandate. In this document, in the same way the Church’s duty to announce Christ is affirmed, it is possible to find a profound appreciation for cultures and religions in the context of the sole and universal mediation of Christ. In the year 1992, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples published together the Instruction Dialogue and Proclamation. These were the immediate points of reference for Redemptoris Missio that the Theological Commission had necessarily to consider in order to accomplish its mission. A more open and positive appreciation of other religions did not in any way have to make us relativize somehow the contents of the faith. In fact, if we analyze carefully the magisterial declarations on this matter since the Second Vatican Council, we can see clearly that the starting point is the undisputed fact of God’s universal will of salvation and the sole and universal mediation of Christ. Precisely, the point of reflection is how this salvation can reach all men and how Christ and his Spirit are present in the world. The point of departure is the conviction that there is no other way to the Father than Christ and that only in the Church, which is in Christ, a sacrament, i.e., a sign and instrument both of the union of men with God and among themselves (cf. LG 1) and which subsists in the Catholic Church (Cf. ib. 8), one can find the plenitude of the means of salvation that God has granted to us in his infinite goodness. Basing itself on these fundamental truths, the Theological Commission approached this subject with the intention of exploring the possibility of a positive contribution of other religions to their followers, while with the clear awareness of its ambiguity. In 2000, four years after the publication of Christianity and the World Religions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Declaration Dominus Iesus, on the unicity and universality of the salvation of Jesus Christ and the Church. This document presents, with a direct and clear language, some essential and indispensable points of the Catholic doctrine regarding these issues and highlights some areas of study that need to be developed. Given the diversity of the literary genre, the style is different from the document of the Theological Commission. This latter collects more information, addresses different positions and offers some hypothesis. It is clear that a magisterial document, by its very nature, should be more sober and direct.

Having presented in general terms these considerations and briefly outlined the historical context, we move now to the different parts of the document; before we do so, we will examine the title: Christianity and the World Religions. With this formulation, the problem of whether or not Christianity is or not one more religion among others or if it is comparable to them, was avoided. On the other hand, it talks about “religions” instead of using the expression: “non-Christian religions” in order to avoid a definition based on what they are not.

First Part: Status Quaestionis

When the document was being prepared, it was necessary to recall the different attempts to classify the theological positions that were commonly used in regard to religions. While some referred to the relationship between Christianity and other religions as the “fulfilment” of all human aspirations and saw in them moments of both expectation and difficulty, others with more optimism spoke about the “presence” of elements of salvation in them, in the sense that they reflect a social expression of the relationship with God that in this sense could help in the reception of grace. This great “optimism” did not prevent from discussing certain elements of ignorance, sin, or even corruption (n.4). The ambiguity of the religious phenomenon, even in its different nuances, was admitted by the best known theologians.

The majority of Catholic theologians, with the differences that we have already mentioned, preserved a christocentric approach, that is, their starting point was the conviction that Jesus is the saviour of all, that only in him the saving will of God is fulfilled, and therefore, his unique mediation can reach men in any situation in which they find themselves, even religiously. In this sense, they spoke of an “inclusivist” tendency inasmuch as the salvation of Christ, as a principle, is accessible to all men, because God’s grace can reach anyone in one way or another (n.11).

In opposition to this, there was a more “exclusivist” tendency called by others: “ecclesiocentric,” which was not defended at that time by Catholic theologians because the magisterial definitions no longer allowed a strict interpretation of the principle extra Ecclesiam nulla sallus (n. 10). On the other hand, the “pluralist” tendency, which admitted, in different ways, a plurality of mediation in salvation, was seen as problematic. Those who supported this idea thought that christocentrism was insufficient, and that only “theocentrism” could give a reason to the incomprehensibility of God and his transcendence. No concrete mediation could claim exclusivity of the revelation. There could be complementary manifestations of the divine Logos, but in no religion this could be fully manifested (n.12). It is clear that this penetrated the core of the Christological and Theological debate, where the question about the truth (nn. 13-15) and the explicit announcement of Christ (nn. 23-26) could not be put aside in a moment of dialogue.

Before this reality, the Theological Commission proposed three fundamental tasks for a Christian Theology of Religions (cf. n. 7): Christianity must understand itself in the context of a plurality of religions and meditate specifically on the universality that it claims. (b) It must study the meaning and value of religions in salvation history. (c) The concrete content of other religions must be examined in order to confront them with the Christian faith. This third proposal could not be addressed in the document due to the lack of specialists in the Commission who could analyze it more deeply. Even the other two were not developed systematically; however, the document gave fundamental elements to guide their study. Both the meaning of the universality of Christianity and the value of other religions in salvation history were mentioned in different moments of this reflection.

Second Part: Fundamental Theological Principles

The answer to the former questions on the position of Christianity in the universe of religions and the value that can be attributed to them depends on a series of fundamental theological questions. The document addresses them in this order: the initiative of the Father in salvation; the sole mediation of Christ; the universality of the action of the Holy Spirit; and the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation.

It is not necessary now to examine closely the first point; neither does the document (nn. 28-31). It is important, however, to highlight the context of 1 Tim 2: 3-6, where the Saving God desires that all men be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, and this universal will is linked to the sole mediation of Jesus Christ. The Father has conceived his design of salvation in Christ before the foundation of the world and wants to recapitulate all things in him (cf. Eph. 1, 4-10). Not only is the Father the initiator of this work of salvation but also the end to which it moves (cf. 1 Cor 15: 28).

The subject of the mediation of Christ will occupy a more extended analysis (nn. 32-49). Nevertheless, some tendencies in the 90’s attributed this mediation only to the Eternal Logos, and not to the Son made flesh, dead and risen. This thesis contradicts some capital texts of the New Testament (cf. 1 Tim 2: 5; Acts 4: 12). It is necessary to maintain the principle of the universality of the salvation in Jesus, the Incarnate Son. The universal significance of Christ is affirmed in different levels. The salvation of Christ is directed especially to all men, and to all the gospel has to be announced (cf. Mt 28: 16-20; Mk. 16: 15-18; Acts 1: 8). Moreover, we can ask ourselves if this universality can be discovered on a different level in those to whom the message will be announced, previous to its reception. We can find some evidence of this in the New Testament: Jesus is not only the mediator of salvation, but also of creation, and both dimensions are related (cf. Col 1: 15-20). The Pauline parallelism between Adam and Christ shows the significance of Jesus to all (cf. Rom 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15: 20-22. 44-49). According to Jn 1: 9, Jesus is the light that comes into the world to enlighten every man. We have already referred to 1 Tim 2: 5. In terms that certainly will have to be defined and specified, the New Testament talks about the relevance and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, the Incarnate Son, dead and risen for all men. For this reason, the document concludes: “The New Testament message is not compatible with any limiting of the salvific will of God, or with admitting mediations parallel to that of Jesus or with attributing this universal mediation to the eternal Logos in isolation from Jesus” (n. 39).

The document presents now some references from Patristic Theology that the recent magisterium, especially from the Second Vatican Council and from Blessed John Paul II, has used on different occasions to talk about the universal presence of Jesus: the semina Verbi. This principle that we find in Saint Justin and Saint Clement of Alexandria tells us that to all men has reached a fragment of the truth that only can be found fully in Jesus, the Logos in his totality. In the same way, we find the idea of the union of the Son of God with all men through his Incarnation and the Christological dimension of the image of God, recalled by the Council in GS 22 when quoting a well-known passage from Tertullian.[1] All these references from the Tradition seem to presuppose that the salvific relevance of Christ is not reduced to those who know it. Therefore the document indicates that only in the context of the universal participation of Christ and the Spirit, it is possible to conceive the value and significance of other religions in the order of salvation. Consequently, it underlines with clarity that salvation is the same for all men, that there are not different economies of salvation for those who believe in Jesus and for those who follow a different religion or who do not believe in him, and that there is no other path leading to God that does not converge on the unique path which is Christ (cf. Jn 14:6) (cf. n.49).

The Theological Commission also reflects on the universality of the gift of the Holy Spirit (nn. 50-61). In reality, the universal work of Jesus cannot be understood without the work of the Spirit, through whom Christ’s work becomes universal. The Holy Spirit had been present already in the Old Testament, but as a gift of the risen Lord, it is communicated to the church and humanity in its plenitude. The Spirit has descended upon Christ in the Jordan as head of humanity in order that the anointing could pass from him to the members of his body. Without the Spirit, the salvation of Christ does not reach men. The Church is the privileged place for the action of the Spirit, however, already in the New Testament we can see that its action precedes proclamation (Cf. Acts 10: 19. 44-47). Pentecost must be seen in its context and as an event that overcomes the division of Babel (cf. Gn 11: 54), and consequently as ferment of unity among peoples. This gift has a universal relevance. Above all, the document underlines that the gift of the Spirit comes from the risen Lord who ascended to the right hand of the Father. This is a constant teaching of the New Testament. The spirit has been given to us as the Spirit of Christ, the Son who has died and risen. There is no "economy" of the Holy Spirit that is more encompassing than that of Jesus; “therefore one cannot think about a universal action of the Spirit which is not related to a universal action of Jesus”(n. 58). The declaration Dominus Iesus insisted on this particular matter. The Spirit is of Christ and takes everyone to Christ. The humanity of Christ is the place of the presence of the Spirit in the world and the beginning of his effusion. The action of the Spirit in the church and his universal presence must be distinguished, but not separated.

It is precisely this universality that constitutes the Church as a universal sacrament of salvation (nn. 62-79). The question arises whether the church has significance only for its members or for everyone. Given the fact that the second answer is more relevant, the need of the Church for salvation is understood in two ways: the need to belong to her and the need of ministry of the Church at the service of the coming of the kingdom of God. Enlightened by the new perspectives offered by the Second Vatican Council, the old statement of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus illuminates the question of the affiliation to the Church as the body of Christ, the justification of all, and especially, the salvific mission of the Church in her threefold martyria, leitourgia and diakonia. In virtue of her witness, the Church proclaims the Good News to all. In her liturgy, the Church celebrates the paschal mystery and as such “fulfils her mission of priestly service in representing all humankind. In a way that, in accord with God’s will, it is efficacious for all men, it makes present the representation of Christ who "was made sin" for us (2 Cor 5:21) (n.77). In her diakonia of service of the neighbour she gives witness to the benevolent gift of God to men. It is clear that highlighting these aspects of the Church's function as a universal sacrament of salvation does not attempt to exhaust the complexity of this subject.

Third Part: Some Consequences for a Christian Theology of Religions

So far nothing concrete has been said about the value of religions as such. But the foundations to tackle the problem have been laid. From these assumptions, the Commission wants to offer guidelines for reflection, certainly not to give definitive solutions.

The problem that occupied more attention in theology of religions was the potential value of salvation that they may have. It is the first point studied by the Theological Commission (nn. 81-87). Neither the conciliar documents nor the encyclical Redemptoris missio had expressly ruled on this matter, although the presence in cultures and religions of the seeds of the Word, the rays of truth and the action of the Spirit were discussed. The Theological Commission questioned whether this presence and action of Christ and the Spirit could have another function other than to help people realize their ultimate end which is salvation. From this fundamental consideration, the Commission poses cautiously some conclusions. We cite literally some of the most significant paragraphs;

«Given this explicit recognition of the presence of the Spirit of Christ in the religions, one cannot exclude the possibility that they exercise as such a certain salvific function; that is, despite their ambiguity, they help men achieve their ultimate end. In the religions is explicitly thematized the relationship of man with the Absolute, his transcendental dimension…» (n. 84). «In the religions the same Spirit who guides the Church is at work. But the universal presence of the Spirit cannot be compared to his special presence in the Church of Christ. Although one cannot exclude the salvific value of the religions, this does not mean that everything in them is salvific. One cannot forget the presence of the spirit of evil, the inheritance of sin, the imperfection of human response to God's action, etc. Only the Church is the body of Christ, and only in it is given in its full intensity the presence of the Spirit. Therefore, to no one can belonging to the Church of Christ and participation in the fullness of the saving gifts which alone are found in it be a matter of indifference (Redemptoris missio, 55). The religions can exercise the function of a praeparatio evangelica; they can prepare different peoples and cultures for welcoming the saving event, which has already taken place. In this sense, however, their function cannot be compared to that of the Old Testament, which was the preparation of the very event of Christ» (n. 85).«Salvation is obtained through the gift of God in Christ, but not without human response and acceptance. The religions can also help the human response, insofar as they impel man to seek God, to act in accord with his conscience […] The religions can therefore be, in the terms indicated, means helping the salvation of their followers, but they cannot be compared to the function that the Church realizes for the salvation of Christians and those who are not» (n. 86). «The affirmation of the possibility of the existence of salvific elements in the religions does not imply in itself a judgment about the presence of these elements in each one of the specific religions» (n. 87).

If on the one hand, the magisterial statements that speak of the possible presence of the Spirit and the seeds of the Word in religions lead to affirming the possibility of existing in them elements of salvation, caution is also required given the ambiguity of the religious phenomenon. In any case, the explicit identification of these elements in religions is avoided. Only in the religion of Israel, where true divine revelation is recognized, can we safely affirm its existence.

With this we move on to the subject of revelation, one of the issues with regards to some central themes of the theology of religions addressed in this third part (nn. 82-92). The basic statement is that «Only in Christ and in his Spirit has God given himself completely to men; consequently, only when this self-communication gives itself to be known is there given the revelation of God in the full sense» (n. 88).In addition to the books of the New Testament, the books of the Old Testament, which also testify the authentic revelation, are the "word of God", but only in the light of Christ do they reach the fullness of their meaning. Therefore, only the canonical books can be considered "inspired" and "word of God."

The pluralist position, which we have already mentioned, prompts us to address the problem of "truth" in the context of the relationship and the dialogue with other religions (93-104). If it ever gave the impression that this issue has been put aside, this document insists upon the need of taking it directly into account avoiding all relativism. The Church's teaching on religions argues from the center of the truth of the Christian faith. Appreciating what is good in others does not give to the pretence of truth of other religions the same value as the truth of one’s faith. In regards to "pluralistic" theology, the Theological Commission recalls that the Second Vatican Council had a distinct vision of religions: if they all have in common the purpose to answer the profound questions of the human heart, one cannot ignore the fundamental differences between them. If on the one hand, the Church does not reject anything of what is true and holy in these religions, it does have the duty to proclaim Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14: 6), the only one through whom men find the fullness of his religious life (cf. n. 100). The basis of any serious interreligious encounter or dialogue is a differentiated theology of religions. Dialogue cannot invalidate the contents of one's faith and the ethics on which it is founded. In respecting the "otherness", the Christian cannot ignore the heart of his faith in the Triune God revealed in Christ. Sometimes this attitude is labeled as superiority or arrogance. However, since the truth of Jesus Christ is always in the service of man, it can never be presented as having an attitude of superiority or domination.

The last subject which this document studies is interreligious dialogue (nn. 105-113), already implicitly suggested in the reflection on truth. Nevertheless, this subject was not widely addressed, because it has been already addressed in other documents. There are two fundamental issues in which the Christian is challenged: God and man. We are aware that there are many and various notions of God or of the Absolute in the different religions. It is fundamental, therefore, to consider how God and his relation to men are understood by others. The vision of man can also be different, but dialogue is an encounter between human beings, not merely a verbal communication. The encounter takes place in the common human condition in search for salvation. This produces a deeper relation of equality than just a mere human dialogue. All human problems far from being a distraction of the interreligious dialogue itself are a breeding ground for it. The common denominator that underlines all the problems of the human condition is death. Yet it is here that the call of the living God resonates with more intensity. The fundamental witness of Christians is to the resurrected Christ in the hope of His second coming.

Conclusion: Dialogue and Mission of the Church

This dialogue is placed within the context of the Church’s mission (nn. 114-117). It has its origin and end in the Holy Trinity. It makes manifest and actualizes the mission of the eternal Logos and the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation. It is not the Christians who are first sent to him, but rather the Church. Therefore they do not share their own opinions but rather they offer Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit will touch hearts more than the power of human conviction. Although, a distinction must be made between dialogue and proclamation of the Gospel, the first must not be deprived of its testimonial value. In this manner it can be a “praeparatio evangelica” and «it is already an integral part of the mission of the Church as an irradiation of the love poured out from her through the Holy Spirit » (n. 117).

Final Reflection

On the one hand, this document attempts to embrace and respect the values of religions, following the already given example by the magisterium. At the same time it avoids all relativism, not speaking of religions as ways to salvation, even though it affirms the possibility that some of its aspects may help their followers on this matter. It is also clear that there are not only goods, but also shortcomings, ambiguities, and errors. Although they may reflect some rays of the Truth, the fullness of Truth does not illuminate them.

Above all it affirms with clarity that all that is good and valuable in them comes from Christ and the Spirit that has been poured out after his resurrection. The sole mediation of the “Christ Jesus, himself human” (1Tim 2:5) must always be maintained. He is the only way that leads to the Father (cf. Jn 14:6), and those which do not converge on it are not true. There are no complementary or parallel pathways. For this reason, before the encounter with Christ and the entry into his Church, which is his body, no one can be indifferent. In addition, the Church has the obligation to proclaim Christ unceasingly to those who do not know him until his glorious manifestation at end of time, when he will judge the living and the dead.

+ Luis F. Ladaria


[1]De res. Mort. 6, 3: “Quodcumque limus exprimebatur, Christus cogitabatur, homo futurus”.