Dominus Iesus: The Voice of Rigor Mortis

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

Continued from page 1

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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So my first response to "Dominus Iesus" was that I was not surprised.

My second response was sadness over the overwhelming ignorance that so clearly embraces this church. Any ecclesiastical hierarchy that would publish this document has not engaged the knowledge that confronts us. This document admits to no cultural shaping and to no relativity of truth that is so obviously present in all classical Christian doctrines. A system of thought shaped first by the Jewish worldview of the first century and next by the Greek worldview of the fourth and fifth centuries cannot deny cultural relativism.

Every Christian--whether Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, or Protestant--who seeks to engage contemporary thought had to be deeply embarrassed at this revelation of where the Roman Church's leadership is in its thinking. We know, for example, that earth has existed for between 4 1/2 and 5 billion years and that human life has inhabited this planet somewhere between 100,000 and 2 million years, depending on how human life is defined. But whichever number one adopts, it makes the Vatican's claim ludicrous that the only truth of God is found in its narrow version of Christianity. The entire Christian enterprise is only 2,000 years old. It is not yet the faith of the majority of the earth's population and in fact today has a declining percentage of that population.

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