The Vatican has issued a document, written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reasserting that salvation is available only through Jesus Christ, and that "only in the Catholic Church" does the church that Christ founded continue to "exist fully."
The document, "Dominus Iesus" ("Lord Jesus"), does not contain anything that has not been said before. In fact, it consists mainly of quotations from earlier Vatican documents that made the same points. Nonetheless, it has upset the usual critics and church-watchers. Their position seems to be that the Catholic Church is acceptable as long as it keeps a low profile and doesn't make any special claims for itself as the preeminent institution of salvation.
My own feeling is that some such statement from Rome was overdue. The church has been so beset by papal apologies, endless dialogues, and ecumenical appeals that some of us had begun to wonder whether the hierarchy in Rome believed there was anything special about the church they governed. It's reassuring to be reminded that they do.
The other side's disappointment was well captured by the president of the Methodist Evangelical Churches of Italy, who was quoted by the Washington Post: "It's a jump backwards in terms of ecumenism and with dialogues with other religions," he said. "There is nothing new about this, but we had hoped they had taken another road. This is a return to the past."
If you are going to run a religion, in a world of many religions, you had better believe that yours is special. Because if you think there's a better one out there, you might as well close up your shop and join it. If the leaders of a faith are not themselves filled with conviction that they possess the truth to a greater degree than anyone else, their followers won't be, either. There are plenty of non-Christian true believers out there. In a world of timid leadership, the converts and the young will be attracted to those who do believe in the righteousness of their cause. That is why Muslim mosques are being built all over Europe as attendance at Christian churches declines drastically.
To be sure, those who put their faith in ecumenism and "dialogue" have reason to be disappointed with the Vatican's confident assertion that the Catholic Church represents the fullest source of Christian revelation. The quote-circuit Jesuit, Thomas J. Reese, is said to be "dismayed." The Vatican statement "had practically no reference to the dialogue going on for the past 35 years between Catholics and Protestants," he said. Well, a dialogue that has gone on for so long and has not yet reached agreement deserves to be brought to an end.
It's true that, since the Second Vatican Council, the church has encouraged those who have placed their hopes in dialogue and ecumenism with other Christian groups. But documents on the subject from the council and the post-Vatican II popes indicate that what the council and the popes had in mind was not arriving at some lowest common denominator of faith, but the conversion of other Christian denominations to Catholicism. Those groups are "not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church," the new Vatican document says, and in 1995 Pope John Paul II wrote that ecumenism "is directed precisely to making the partial communion existing between Christians grow towards full communion." That is a polite way of saying that non-Catholics are expected to see the wisdom of Catholicism, not vice versa.
In the new document, it's good to see that the word "conversion" reappears after what seems to have been a lengthy hibernation. St. Paul's comment that preaching the gospel of Christ is "a necessity . . . woe to me if I do not" is in a prominent place. Meanwhile, the World Council of Churches, the international association of mainline Protestants, a few years ago gave notice of "an urgent reordering of the ecumenical agenda, " George Weigel wrote in his 1999 biography of John Paul, "Witness to Hope." Rather than focusing on the nature of Christ or the structure of the church, the World Council of Churches' ecumenical efforts now center exclusively on such issues as poverty, racial discrimination, and Third World debt. In short, it has gone completely secular. It was time for the decades-long dialogue between Catholics and mainline Protestants to come to an end, if only because the Protestant side kept changing the subject.
It is particularly refreshing that the new Vatican document is so much at odds with the temper of our times. We have all been so indoctrinated with simple-minded relativism--one thing is as good as another as long as we mean well, don't hurt anyone's feelings, and hold hands--that the idea of truth and falsity as applied to faith and morals has almost been lost. That is why "Dominus Iesus" has come as such a shock; not because it is saying anything new, but because it is saying something old.