This story originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000

I confess that I do not ordinarily sit around meditating on documents that come from the Vatican. The Scriptures, yes; Vatican declarations, no. But this latest one, titled "Dominus Iesus," and with a mouthful of a subtitle--"On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church"--had a pre-Second Vatican Council sound of clanging gates and rising drawbridges to it, or at least it was presented that way in the press. So I read it.

After all, I had a Protestant father who, I was told when quite young, would not be "saved" because he did not belong to the church of Rome. Neither would my grandmother or all my aunts and uncles and cousins on that side of the family. I know all about the post-Reformation Wars of Religion, in other words, because most of them were re-fought in my home. As a result, I came to peace with the issues implied in this new statement years ago.

What the new Vatican document says on its face--that Jesus is the unique son of God--is benign enough. What it can be read to imply, what it can be heard to mean--what it can be understood to incite--is dangerous.

The question is not whether Jesus is the "fullness of all revelation," as the new statement from Rome describes him, quoting a Vatican II document. The question is whether or not Jesus is the only revelation of the love and presence and mind of God. The question is not: "Is Jesus the Way?" The question is whether Jesus is the only way. And the answer to that must, in the end, have something to do with the justice of God.

If Jesus--and, more specifically, Roman Catholic Christianity--is the only way to heaven, then what are we to think about the other 80% of the world that is non-Catholic or even non-Christian? In fact, what are we to believe about God? Are we to believe that God created all these people in order to condemn them? Or are the things that are "true" in other religions, as the new Vatican statement admits, also salvific?

To proclaim Jesus as the fullness of salvation is one thing. To use Jesus as a weapon against the rest of the world is entirely another. We have done that before; in case the Catholic Church has forgotten it, ask the Jews and the Indians--and, oh yes, the Protestants. And then remember that in a statement of Lutheran-Catholic accord just months ago, we told the world that the division between us had simply been a grand misunderstanding all along--after 400 years of wars, broken families, and threats of hellfire for people who had the temerity to attend one another's churches for family marriages or baptisms or communal celebrations.

In today's global community, where national boundaries are porous, communication is immediate, and power is concentrated, statements of universal and absolutist truth of the sort that the new Vatican document hints at are even more dangerous than they were in the bloody post-Reformation years. Such statements wed the cross and the sword, the crescent and the scimitar, the turban and the dagger, the Bible and the bomb. Funny, if the claims of Catholicism are so absolute, why did we never hear them proclaimed to the Samaritan woman, or to Roman soldiers, or to Jewish Pharisees by the Jesus whose universal truth we preach? Why did the Jesus who said, "I am the Way," not add, "and there is no other"?

To its credit, the new Vatican document does not ridicule other religions, though to claim for the Catholic Church an "essential role" in the salvation of the non-Catholic rest of the world is to arrogate unto itself the saving power of God.

The document does not denounce those who are not Catholics, though to say that they are in a "gravely deficient situation" is certainly more than merely claiming that the Catholic Church has the fullness of light. The document does not totally dismiss non-Catholic religions, though it asserts that the Catholic Church has some sort of "mysterious relationship" with them that only it seems to know--or care--about. The worst thing about "Dominus Iesus"--worse than ridiculing, denouncing, or dismissing other beliefs--is that it inserts a theological conversation-stopper into a world that has never needed interfaith dialogue more or wanted it more sincerely.

What we get instead of Christian inclusion in this document is a worrisome statement about relativism, about the fact that Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, may cease to believe in the "unicity"--the uniqueness--of Christ if they do not state it "firmly." But Pope John Paul II himself in addressing a plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on April 26, 1990, said, "Dialogue is not so much an idea to be studied as a way of living in positive relationship with others." The confrontational, or at least exclusivist, tone of "Dominus Iesus" did not seem to be what he had in mind.

The role and place of Jesus is, of course, a matter vital to our Catholic faith. The new Vatican document may, nevertheless, be worrying about the wrong thing. The thing we ought really to worry about may not be the "unicity" of Jesus but this document and ones like it. It may not be "relativism" that is our greatest problem. Our greatest problem may be true believers who believe in no one else's belief, who use God to legitimate their need for control, who trade in statements like those in "Dominus Iesus" to justify their power and persecutions and pogroms. It may be those who do not "live in positive relationship with others" whom we should really be preaching against--in the name of Jesus and the unity he promises to a polarized world.

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