Dominus Iesus, the Catholic Church's declaration about Christianity and non-Catholics issued by then-Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on September 5, 2000, sparked a major controversy in ecumenical Christian circles and serious concern within the wider interreligious dialogue. Asserting that the fullness of truth is found in the Catholic Church alone, Dominus Iesus indicated that Protestant churches "suffer from defects," and that salvation for non-Christians was mysteriously tied to the Catholic Church. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, former head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, then-Archbishop Walter Kasper, head of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, took strong steps to curb its negative impact.

I was at a meeting at the World Council of Churches in Geneva on the weekend after it appeared. The General Secretary of the WCC expressed his anger over the document as a breach of the trust that had been created between Pro-testants and Catholics after the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. The Reformed Church in Switzerland summoned the Catholic bishop in Geneva to an emergency meeting to discuss the implications of the document. Cardinal Kasper subsequently indicated that he had attempted to dissuade Cardinal Ratzinger from issuing the declaration.

The tone and content of Dominus Iesus was present in a much shorter address given by Ratzinger more than a decade earlier. In that address, Ratzinger laid out his perspective that the Catholic Church is the only one in which the fullness of the gospel can be found. About a week later, Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, then head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, addressed the same question. Without mentioning Ratzinger or his statement by name, Willebrands conveyed that the Ratzinger interpretation of the Catholic-Protestant/Orthodox relationship did not represent the true spirit of Vatican II.

In both his original statement and subsequently in Dominus Iesus, Ratzinger basically reduced the other Christian churches to a peripheral status. Willebrands insisted this was not the prevailing view of the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. The real breakthrough at Vatican II was the Catholic Church's recognition that the other churches were in fact integral to a full understanding of Christianity. This was clearly the understanding expressed by Protestant observers at the Council, such as the liberal Methodist theologian Shubert Ogden, in their commentaries on Vatican II.

To be sure, Vatican II did not say all Christian churches were on a totally equal plane with the Catholic Church. But it did insist that there was no fully adequate understanding of the church that excluded them.

By implication, Vatican II argued that Catholicism had something to learn from the other churches' expression of the gospel vision. Dominus Iesus, on the other hand, leaves the distinct impression that the Catholic Church has nothing really important to gain from dialogue with the other churches. Some of them, particularly those with a sacramental tradition, may reflect some of the vision that exists within Catholic Christianity. But Catholicism has nothing of essential importance to gain from them.

Dominus Iesus also argues that those who do not accept the Catholic vision of faith stand in considerable danger in terms of ultimate salvation. Vatican II spoke of other Christian communions as "sister churches," implying that they were in fact vehicles of human salvation as well. Admittedly, this question was not totally resolved at Vatican II. But the ecumenical dialogues it generated have moved the Catholic Church positively in this regard.Dominus Iesus reversed this course.

Dominus Iesus strikes one as written by a person who only works at the abstract theological level. But the beauty of interfaith and interreligious encounter has been the depth of personal spirituality that participants have uncovered in each other through conversation and other forms of faith sharing. The monks from the Catholic and Buddhist/Hindu tradition who have spent a month or so together in each other's monasteries simply are unable to speak only the language of Dominus Iesus. They have found authentic soul friends although they may not have achieved adequate theological language to express fully this new understanding.

On the interreligious front, Pope Benedict XVI has in the past caused considerable apprehension by his remarks regarding Islam, especially his claim that if Turkey joined the European Union it would be the beginning of the demise of Christian Europe, and his grossly inappropriate comments regarding Buddhism, which Cardinal Arinze, as president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, had to struggle to overcome.

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