COMMENTARY ON THE NOTIFICATION
1. In every age, theological research has been important for the Church’s mission of evangelization in response to the plan of God who desires “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). Indeed, an ever deeper knowledge of God’s word contained in the inspired Scriptures and transmitted by the living tradition of the Church enriches the entire people of God, the “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” (Mt 5:13f.), helping them to bear witness to the truth of Christian revelation and to give an account of their hope to whomever asks (cf. 1 Pt 3:15).
Theology is proving even more important in times of great cultural and spiritual change like ours which, in raising new problems and questions concerning the Church’s consciousness of her faith, require new answers and solutions, even daring ones. One cannot deny that today the presence of religious pluralism obliges Christians to look with a renewed awareness at the place of other religions in the saving plan of the Triune God. In this context, theology is called upon to give a response which, in the light of Revelation and the Church’s Magisterium, will justify the significance and value of other religious traditions, which have shown a renewed central role in guiding and motivating the lives of millions of people in every part of the world.
As in the early centuries of the Church, theologians today need to have, on the one hand, an attitude of listening, knowledge and discernment regarding what is “true and holy” in the other (extra-biblical) religious traditions,(1) whose ways of acting and living and whose doctrines, “although differing in many ways from [the Church’s] own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”. On the other hand, they also need to be ready always to proclaim “Christ who is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6), in whom men find 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 significance and salvific value of other religions, the proposal of daring solutions, which is often attractive to the knowledge and freedom of theologians, does not bear fruit in the community of the Church, nor is it constructive, when it is unaccompanied by patient deliberation and continual verification against the truth that is Christ.
2. This invitation to “sincere and patient dialogue”(3) with other religions must not be seen as a hindrance or an attenuation of the readiness for friendship, collaboration and sharing, but rather as a true pilgrimage of faith in understanding the truth of Christian revelation.
Perhaps it would be useful here to recall the two basic forms of another dialogue, the “ecumenical” dialogue, which expresses itself both in a dialogue of love and a dialogue of truth. Love itself, manifested in the countless expressions of mutual respect, common prayer and fraternal solidarity, spurs all the baptized to the dialogue of truth, which demands careful study of the word of God and of the Church’s tradition, and thorough, laborious clarification of the respective theological positions. Patient but constant dedication to the search for the truth, together with epistemological accuracy and calm acclamation of the results achieved, makes ecumenical dialogue an important frame of reference for interreligious dialogue, whose extreme difficulty derives not only from the great variety of religious traditions, but above all from the lack of a common frame of reference.
3. This is why the Church cannot but praise the valuable work of theologians who take up the challenge of religious pluralism and new questions posed by interreligious dialogue. With creativity, sensitivity and fidelity to the biblical and magisterial tradition, they seek to find new paths and to explore new directions, advancing proposals and suggesting actions which necessarily demand the Church’s careful discernment. This readiness to confront the signs of the times cannot and must not devolve into superficial or inappropriate haste, so as not to disorient the Church’s consciousness of faith or endanger the credibility and effectiveness of the dialogue itself.
The precious good of theological freedom and creativity must also include the willingness to accept the truth of Christian revelation, transmitted and interpreted by the Church under the authority of the Magisterium, and accepted with faith. Indeed, the function of the Magisterium is not something extrinsic to Christian truth and faith, but is rather a constitutive element of the Church’s prophetic mission.(4)
4. Moreover, precisely in the field of interreligious dialogue, far from being a mere observer or a hindrance, the Magisterium of the Church has always exercised an undeniable and pioneering leading role. This is proven by the conciliar documents and the many papal initiatives such as, for example, those of the official organizations for dialogue.(5) Furthermore, the entire decade that has just ended was enlightened by John Paul II’s prophetic and groundbreaking Encyclical Letter Redemptoris missio (December 1990), which provides an authentic frame of reference for a Christian theology of religions, in terms of both epistemology and content. Ten years later, with the rapid expansion of interreligious questions, the Declaration Dominus Iesus (August 2000) published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was a further illuminating reaffirmation of some essential points of reference for the practice and theory of interreligious dialogue. Magisterial interventions such as these accompany and do not contradict legitimate theological research since, by rejecting objections and distortions of the faith, they authoritatively propose new studies and further applications of revealed doctrine.
5. In this atmosphere of willingness to listen, discussion and mutual understanding, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents the Notification concerning Jacques Dupuis’ book, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism. In this work, which attempts to offer a theological response to the question of the meaning and value of the plurality of religious traditions in God's plan of salvation, the author explicitly professes his intention to remain faithful to the Church's doctrine and the teaching of the Magisterium. The author himself, however, aware of the potential problems in his approach, does not conceal the fact that as many questions may be raised as he seeks to answer.
After a patient and serious dialogue during which the author provided certain clarifications, at the conclusion of the examination of the book, the author expressed his assent to the theses contained in the above-mentioned Notification, which was approved by the Holy Father. His recognition and assent are certainly a positive and encouraging sign. However, as the Preface explains, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found it necessary to publish the Notification, with the principal aim of offering readers solid criteria for doctrinal judgment.
Indeed, a careful reading of the book reveals certain ambiguities and difficulties on doctrinal points of great importance, which could lead the reader to erroneous or harmful opinions. The Notification, making reference to the Declaration Dominus Iesus, sets out five doctrinal points, which, independent of the author’s intentions, are ambiguously formulated and inadequately explained in his book and thus could give rise to errors and misunderstandings.
First of all, faith in Jesus Christ, the sole and universal mediator of salvation for all humanity is reaffirmed. Next, the unicity and universality of Jesus Christ, Son and Word of the Father, the fulfilment of the saving plan of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is reaffirmed. There is no salvific Trinitarian economy independent of that of the incarnate Word.
In the second place, the Church’s faith in Jesus Christ, the fulfilment and fullness of divine revelation, is reasserted, countering the opinion that the revelation of Jesus Christ is limited, incomplete or imperfect. The seeds of truth and goodness that exist in other religions are gifts of grace of the one mediation of Christ and of his Spirit of holiness.
With regard to the universal salvific action of the Holy Spirit, it is restated that the Spirit working after Jesus’ resurrection is always the Spirit of Christ sent by the Father, who works in a salvific way also outside the visible Church. It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to hold that the Holy Spirit’s salvific action may be more extensive than the one universal salvific economy of the incarnate Word.
Furthermore, since the Church is sign and instrument of salvation for all people, the opinion that the various religions are ways of salvation complementary to the Church is rejected as erroneous.
Lastly, while recognizing that elements of truth and goodness exist in other religions, there are no grounds in Catholic theology for considering these religions as such as ways of salvation especially since they contain omissions, inadequacies and errors regarding fundamental truths about God, man and the world. Nor can their sacred texts be considered complementary to the Old Testament, which is the immediate preparation for the Christ event.
This Notification seeks to underscore the gravity and danger of certain statements which, while apparently moderate, precisely for this reason risk being easily and uncritically accepted as compatible with the Church’s doctrine, even by those closely involved in interreligious dialogue. In the present context of a society that is indeed increasingly multireligious and multicultural, the Church recognizes that she urgently needs to express her doctrinal identity and witness in love to her unshakeable faith in Jesus Christ, source of truth and salvation.
6.With regard to the “tone” of the Notification, it must be noted that it is not a lengthy or complex document, but simply a series of brief declarative statements. This form of communication is not a sign of authoritarianism or unjustified harshness, but is rather characteristic of the literary genre of magisterial pronouncements whose aim is to set out precise points of doctrine, to censure errors or ambiguities, and to indicate the degree of assent that is required of the faithful.
This literary genre, the same as that of the Declaration Dominus Iesus, is of course distinct from the other modes of expression used by the Magisterium to present its teaching, which take into account the purpose of the text. There are texts which are expository and illustrative, containing ample and precise reasoning on doctrines of faith and on pastoral questions (for example, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, many Encyclical Letters of the Holy Father, and in our specific case, the Encyclical Redemptoris missio). There are texts which are exhortative or directive in order to address problems of a spiritual or pastoral-practical nature.
By the clear indicative/declaratory tone of a magisterial Document — typical of a Declaration or Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and similar to the earlier Decrees issued by the Holy Office — it is intended to communicate to the faithful that these are not debatable opinions or disputed questions, but rather central truths of the Christian faith, which are denied or seriously threatened by specific theological interpretations. The tone therefore belongs to the content, since it must be consistent with the particular goal of the text. Adherence to the Person of Jesus, to his words and his mystery of salvation, demands a simple and clear response of faith, like that, for example, found in the Creeds, which belong to the prayer of the Church.
The efficacy of the Notification, both for its understanding and in its call for an adherence of faith, lies precisely in its tone. To repeat, it is not a tone of imposition, but one of declaration and solemn celebration of faith. It is the tone used in the Professio Fidei.(6) Indeed, since her earliest days, the Church has professed faith in the crucified and risen Lord, bringing together the fundamental contents of her belief in certain formulas. And we know that the Creed is not a collection of abstract truths, but a rule of faith that sustains life, prayer, witness, action and mission: lex credendi, like lex vivendi, orandi, agendi et evangelizandi. It is also clear that the proclamation of the truth of the Catholic faith also implies refuting error and censuring ambiguous or dangerous positions which lead to confusion and uncertainty among the Christian people.
Thus it would certainly be erroneous to maintain that the indicative/declaratory tone of the Declaration Dominus Iesus and of this Notification marks a step backwards in contrast to the literary genre and the explanatory and pastoral character of the magisterial documents from the Second Vatican Council and after. It would be equally erroneous and unfounded to hold that after the Second Vatican Council the literary genre of the censuring/declarative type should be discarded or excluded from the authoritative interventions of the Magisterium. The unfortunate fact must be stated that the criticism, coming from various sources, that the general “tone” of Dominus Iesus is far different from that of texts such as the Encyclical Letters Redemptoris missio and Ut unum sint, shows by its very nature that it has failed to take account of the different purposes of these different documents, which, though not identical, are in no way contradictory. The Declaration Dominus Iesus, like the present Notification, merely intends to reaffirm specific truths of faith and of Catholic doctrine, pointing out the relative degree of theological certainty and thus delineating the sure doctrinal foundations in order to preserve the integrity of the deposit of faith. In this way, the Declaration guarantees also that interreligious dialogue — as also the ecumenical dialogue between the Christian confessions — will develop as a “dialogue of truth”.
Finally, the simple reaffirmation of truth expresses the unity of faith in the Triune God and thus solidifies communion in the Church. Adherence to the Truth is adherence to Christ and to his Church, and constitutes the true space of human freedom: “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) Indeed, Christ is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6): “The truth which is Christ, imposes itself as an all-embracing authority. The Christian mystery, in fact, overcomes all barriers of time and space, and accomplishes the unity of the human family”.(8)
(1) It must be noted that the relationship between Christianity and Judaism requires an altogether singular explanation, because, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, of “the spiritual ties which link the people of the New Covenant to the stock of Abraham” (Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra aetate, n. 4).
(2) Second Vatican Council, ibid., n. 2.
(3) Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity Ad gentes, n. 11.
(4) Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian Donum veritatis, n. 14.
(5) On 6 August 1964, Paul IV published his famous Encyclical Letter on dialogue, Ecclesiam suam. But already several months earlier, on 19 May 1964, Paul VI himself founded the “Secretariat for Non-Christians”, which in 1988 became the “Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue”.
(6) On 1 July 1988, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published both the Professio fidei, addressed to the members of 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, in addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, includes three paragraphs which are intended to make a clearer distinction between the type of truth professed and the corresponding assent required. On 18 May 1998, the Holy Father John Paul II issued the “Moto proprio” Ad tuendam fidem, in order to add to the existing texts of the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Church new “norms which expressly impose the obligation of upholding truths proposed in a definitive way by the Magisterium of the Church”. On 28 June of that same year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Commentary on the Concluding Formula of the “Professio fidei”. The Commentary gives a more detailed explanation of the three paragraphs, together with concrete examples.
(7) John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et ratio, n. 38.
(8) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, n. 23.