If St. Thomas More were alive now, he might examine the new Vatican document on the Catholic Church's claim to be the ultimate source of salvation in the same way he did the oath demanded of him by Henry VIII in Robert Bolt's play "A Man for All Seasons." Instead of dramatically rejecting Henry's demands for absolute loyalty to the crown--or in the case of the Vatican statement, to the church--More would study its language with his lawyer's understanding of the human way with words to see "if I can sign it." It is my belief that, despite critics' complaints, there is plenty in the document that More and other intelligent Catholics would be happy to sign.

The release of the 36-page "Dominus Iesus" had obvious confrontational overtones. It came from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, once and famously known as the Holy Office, home of the Roman Inquisition. Its head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, seems to glower even when he smiles, and he is not given to opening up dogmatic questions for intellectual exploration but rather to closing them down in the name of ecclesiastical uniformity.

It is thus perhaps understandable that alarm bells rang in many quarters when "Dominus Iesus" appeared. The Washington Post headlined its story on the document's release "Vatican Claims Church Monopoly on Salvation." According to the Post, the document took the position that we are saved only "through the spiritual grace of the Catholic Church" and that other churches suffer from "defects that place their followers in a 'gravely deficient situation.'" The Post story included a quotation from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, to the effect that the Vatican statement "seems to question the considerable gains we have made" in ecumenical dialogue with Rome. The World Council of Churches foresaw a "tragedy" if the document reopened old inter-church disputes about their relative authority and status. That stock figure of urban folklore, the sheet-clad man shouting, "The end is near!" came to mind.

Are the critics of "Dominus Iesus" right? Is this new Vatican document just a new proclamation of the Catholic Church's old boast that there is no salvation outside its walls? The church put that claim aside even before the Second Vatican Council convened. The American bishops of the mid-20th century, as conservative and loyal to the pope as could be found anywhere, condemned as heretical the followers of then-famous Father Leonard Feeney for touting Catholicism's exclusive franchise on salvation and suggesting that non-Catholics were damned.

Upon reading the document carefully, however, in the spirit of Thomas More, even someone prepared to be outraged by yet another display of Vatican hubris will find that "Dominus Iesus" is considerably less than the foreclosure of ecumenical relations with other churches that the press and its critics described. The document describes other religions' existence and their relationship to Catholicism in a manner that is far from new or disturbing.

The University of Notre Dame theologian Father Richard McBrien, who is hardly a religious conservative or cheerleader for the Vatican, explains, "This is a fairly traditional presentation of the Catholic Church and its relationships with Christian and non-Christian religions. It takes into account and repeats rather than disowns the broader ecumenical views of Vatican II. I am mystified at its being interpreted as so momentous or threatening."

If you adopt the restrained approach of Father McBrien and Thomas More, if you look past the sensationalism of a few explosive words and phrases--such as "gravely deficient situation"--you will discover that the Vatican statement's meaning is more to be found in its omissions than in its inclusions. The document does not, for example, literally claim that the Catholic Church is the true church. Nor, as Father McBrien notes, does "it even say that Christianity is the one true religion."

The document discusses the theologically organic relationship of other Christian churches to Catholicism in language broad enough for theologians of all faiths to continue pursuing ecumenical studies together. It does not condemn or exclude the reality of non-Christian religions. Nor does it raise the issue of the meaning of the Eucharist, a subject that the Vatican could have dropped like a bomb into the ecumenical forum, reducing it to rubble.

"Dominus Iesus" does proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as the "Incarnate Son of God who is 'the way, the truth, and the life' and 'the mediator and fullness of all revelation.'" This, however, is basic Catholic teaching. If the church failed to preach it, it would pull down the pillars of its own temple.

The document also focuses extensively on the "mystery of Jesus" as central to Catholic teaching. This is a response to a small group of radical Catholic theologians who explore the notion of a cosmic sense of the Logos, or Word of God, operating beyond and in other ways than in and through the person of Jesus. Traditional Catholic thinking about Jesus rests on Greek--that is, Western--metaphysical categories, and the Vatican is expressing its Western difficulties with Asian theologians who pursue symbolic ways of conceptualizing Jesus that they say better match Eastern thought processes.

Instead of aiming to shut down theological discussion, the forceful proclamation of central Catholic doctrines in the new Vatican document leaves great room for and, indeed, encourages continuing theological investigation. It is hardly a line drawn in the sand or a rigid manifesto. Catholic critics who suggest otherwise may lack Father McBrien's sophisticated theological understanding. They certainly lack Thomas More's good judgment.

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