Dominus Iesus: The Voice of Rigor Mortis

The Vatican's exclusionist document exposes a hierarchy that refuses to face reality

BY: John Shelby Spong


This story originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000

Suddenly the benign smile was gone and the face of an intolerant claim of superiority took its place. What was this? It was a document called "Dominus Iesus," issued by the Vatican in the late summer with the imprimatur of John Paul II and uttered by the watchdog of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.

Quite simply, this document tore the facade off ecumenical cooperation. Predictably, it received reactions ranging from the roar of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to the whimper of non-Christian leaders who felt betrayed and who mourned this clear setback in ecumenical cooperation.

"Dominus Iesus" affirmed that there was only one way to God and that was through Jesus Christ, the only savior. It went on to say that there was only one way to follow Christ and that was through the Holy Roman Church.

These assertions were nothing less than those of a tribal religion of the past seeking to make a comeback in a world where tribalism is dying. In a final gratuitous slap, the document cautioned Roman Catholic ecumenical leaders against ever referring to other bodies of Christians as "sister churches." To use that phrase, this document suggested, implied a certain subliminal note of recognition, even of legitimacy, and Rome no longer wanted to be guilty of that crime.

When I read the document, I had two quite different responses. First, I found nothing new in this attitude. It was consistent with what I had experienced from Roman Catholic leaders during my life in the ministry.

The Roman Catholic Church has, in my opinion, always made its greatest contribution to our world when it has been a minority presence fighting against oppression. When it achieves majority status, its arrogant, totalitarian side always reappears. Recall what a powerful and effective voice the Roman Catholic Church and this current pope were in the fight to overthrow communism in Poland. When this victory was won, the church moved into the power vacuum to impose its own views on the Polish population. It was then that many Polish people made it clear that they were not willing to exchange the oppression of communism for what they saw as the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church--with the result that secularism has been the big winner in Poland.

I recall a time in my Episcopal career when we in the Diocese of Newark had something called "an ongoing ecumenical dialogue" with our Roman Catholic counterpart, the Archdiocese of Newark. Most of the time our discussions were over issues that did not matter much to either of us. We were not allowed, for example, to discuss that which divides our two churches, most of which has little to do with Christianity itself: the shape of authority, validity and power in sacramental worship, the ordination of women, the church's attitude on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the mandatory requirement of celibacy for priesthood.

On each of these issues we were told the infallible mind of Rome had spoken. Not only was no debate allowed, but also, clearly, it was not possible to debate with those who claim to possess infallible truth. One either resists or converts.

I finally ended this empty local dialogue as a public protest when the Vatican removed Hans Kung from his chair as a Roman Catholic theology professor at the University of Tubingen in the early 1980s because he had been publicly critical of aspects of Roman Catholic theology. If Rome could not engage one of its own most brilliant and loyal theologians in dialogue, then obviously every other dialogue meant nothing. Of course, there were howls of protest, and the local archbishop feigned hurt and offense--but that was clearly public relations.

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