Dominus Iesus: The Voice of Rigor Mortis

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

BY: John Shelby Spong


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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.

This is also the same church that condemned Galileo in the 17th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th century only to admit in 1991 that Galileo was right after all, and in 1994 that one could be both a Darwinian and a Christian.

This is a church that has not engaged the intellectual revolution of the past 400 years. It therefore does not recognize that the current understanding of human life as a product of evolution is not compatible with the traditional Christian claim that we were originally created perfect in God's image, only to fall into sin through an act of disobedience. If human life is incomplete or unfinished--and not fallen as Christian doctrine asserts--grave doubt is cast on the story of Jesus as a divine attempt to rescue fallen sinners through the sacrificial death of the Son of God on the cross. Baptism, which was designed to wash from us the stain of the fall, and the Eucharist, which was to reenact the sacrifice that overcame the fall, have also both lost their primary reasoning.

Beyond that is the birth of Jesus, said to have been accomplished through a virgin mother, which is an idea that the discovery of the egg cell in 1724 rendered hopelessly naïve. And there is ascension, which supposedly was achieved in a three-tier universe rendered nonexistent by the Copernican Revolution in the 16th century.

In light of these realities, claims by any religious hierarchy to possess the only and absolute truth, or to represent the sole pathway to God, becomes an expression not of a faith that is strong but of an ignorance that is profound. It bespeaks not a universalism to which we are destined but a ghetto mentality by which we are bound.

The only reason such claims can emanate from the Vatican is that the Christian Church itself is so clearly dying. This document is the voice of rigor mortis. The people who know the absurdity of these claims have already voted with their feet and are no longer present in the church to speak against this foolishness. They are members of the Church Alumni Association.

So strange documents like "Dominus Iesus," undergirded only by the security needs of the religiously neurotic, can still be issued without offense to those who remain within the church. This document suggests that it may be too late to reform institutional Christianity, because there does not appear to be a sufficient critical mass of people left to prevent their production.

If that diagnosis is correct, then very shortly the Church of Jesus Christ, in all its forms, will begin to hear the sound of taps.

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