Sorry, Vatican, Religious Relativism Isn't the Problem
To proclaim Jesus as the fullness of salvation is one thing. To use Jesus as a weapon against the rest of the world is another
This story originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000
I confess that I do not ordinarily sit around meditating on documents that come from the Vatican. The Scriptures, yes; Vatican declarations, no. But this latest one, titled "Dominus Iesus," and with a mouthful of a subtitle--"On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church"--had a pre-Second Vatican Council sound of clanging gates and rising drawbridges to it, or at least it was presented that way in the press. So I read it.
After all, I had a Protestant father who, I was told when quite young, would not be "saved" because he did not belong to the church of Rome. Neither would my grandmother or all my aunts and uncles and cousins on that side of the family. I know all about the post-Reformation Wars of Religion, in other words, because most of them were re-fought in my home. As a result, I came to peace with the issues implied in this new statement years ago.
What the new Vatican document says on its face--that Jesus is the unique son of God--is benign enough. What it can be read to imply, what it can be heard to mean--what it can be understood to incite--is dangerous.
The question is not whether Jesus is the "fullness of all revelation," as the new statement from Rome describes him, quoting a Vatican II document. The question is whether or not Jesus is the only revelation of the love and presence and mind of God. The question is not: "Is Jesus the Way?" The question is whether Jesus is the only way. And the answer to that must, in the end, have something to do with the justice of God.
If Jesus--and, more specifically, Roman Catholic Christianity--is the only way to heaven, then what are we to think about the other 80% of the world that is non-Catholic or even non-Christian? In fact, what are we to believe about God? Are we to believe that God created all these people in order to condemn them? Or are the things that are "true" in other religions, as the new Vatican statement admits, also salvific?
To proclaim Jesus as the fullness of salvation is one thing. To use Jesus as a weapon against the rest of the world is entirely another. We have done that before; in case the Catholic Church has forgotten it, ask the Jews and the Indians--and, oh yes, the Protestants. And then remember that in a statement of Lutheran-Catholic accord just months ago, we told the world that the division between us had simply been a grand misunderstanding all along--after 400 years of wars, broken families, and threats of hellfire for people who had the temerity to attend one another's churches for family marriages or baptisms or communal celebrations.