Is Jesus the Only Savior?

In September 2000, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, often described as "the successor to the Inquisition," caused a global uproar by issuing a doctrinal declaration, Dominus Iesus [The Lord Jesus], which vigorously reasserted the classic Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is uniquely the savior of the world, for everyone everywhere. The ensuing controversy had some sharp edges.

One American newspaper displayed a photo of Pope John Paul II, arms outstretched, with the caption "We're Number One!" More soberly but no less inaccurately, another major paper headlined the story "Vatican Declares Catholicism Sole Path to Salvation." According to most of the stories and commentaries that followed, the declaration had done serious and perhaps even fatal damage to thirty years of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. As the common interpretation of Dominus Iesus had it, the Catholic Church was teaching that Catholics had a singular claim on salvation and that non-Catholic Christians were second-class Christians. As for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and nonbelievers, well...

None of this was, or is, true, but that is not an easy case to make in a climate in which a lot of people are not sure that anything is "true." ("It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," as a prominent public figure once said.) In fact, Dominus Iesus taught nothing new, substantively. One distinguished Catholic commentator put the case for the defense succinctly: the declaration reiterated "the Church's faith that Jesus is, as he said of himself, the way, the truth, and the life. He is not one way among other ways or one truth among other truths." That faith in Jesus Christ leads to other convictions, also affirmed once again in Dominus Iesus. Because there is one God, who definitively revealed himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, there is one salvation history, centered on Christ. God gives everyone the grace necessary to be saved, including those who have never heard of Jesus Christ. Yet everyone who is saved is saved because of what God did for the world and for humanity in Jesus Christ.

Before, during, and after the Dominus Iesus controversy, one had to wonder just what else the Catholic Church was supposed to say about itself: that it was another brand-name product in the supermarket of "spirituality"? Yet in a culture that rates tolerance the highest virtue and imagines that tolerance means indifference to questions about the truth of things, the unambiguous claim that this is the truth, and that all other truths incline toward this truth as iron shavings incline to a magnet, is not just controversial. It's an outrage.

The frankness of Dominus Iesus may be applauded one day, when passions have cooled a bit. At a moment in history when ecumenical and interreligious dialogue threatened to dissolve into dull and uninteresting forms of political correctness of the "I'm OK, you're OK" variety, the chief doctrinal agency of the Catholic Church reminded the Church and the world that Christianity stands or falls on the answer the Church and its people give to a single question. The question has been unavoidable for almost two thousand years. It is the question Jesus himself posed to his disciples on the road to Caesarea Philippi: "Who do you say that I am?" (Matthew 16.15).

Who does the Catholic Church say that Jesus is?

The Two Things Jesus Reveals

The Second Vatican Council, which met between 1962 and 1965, was the most important event in world Catholicism since the sixteenth-century Reformation. Among many other things, the Council tried to open a two-way dialogue between the Church and contemporary culture. In a lengthy document called the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the bishops of the Catholic Church wrote that Jesus, the Son of God come into the world, reveals the face of God and his love, and the full meaning of our humanity. The two go together. To know the Son is to know the Father; to know the Father and the Son is to know, ultimately, who we are.

Who is the God whom Jesus reveals? He is a God who is linked to us not simply as the source of creation, distant and detached, but as "Father," intimately present to us through the gift of his Son. He is a God who comes in search of us, a God who is not a stranger to history but a participant in the human drama. He is a "God who has gone before us and leads us on, who himself set out on man's path, a God who does not look down on us from on high, but who became our traveling companion."

God's fidelity, powerfully conveyed in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-32), is not remote and austere but passionately affectionate. To believe in this God, the Father of Jesus Christ, is to believe that order and reason, rather than chaos and indifference, are at the root of things. To know this Father, through Jesus Christ, means to know "that love is present in the world, and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil."

We "cannot live without love," Pope John Paul II writes. We cannot understand ourselves, we cannot make sense of life, unless love comes to us and we "participate intimately" in it. We sense our profound need for love instinctively. The God whom Jesus reveals is the guarantor that this intuition is one of the great truths of the human condition, not a psychological illusion.

And what is the humanity that Jesus reveals? Who are we? We are not congealed stardust, an accidental by-product of cosmic chemistry. We are not just something, we are someone. Moreover, we are "someones" going somewhere. As human beings possessed of an innate, God-given dignity, we have a divine destiny, revealed ...

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