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.
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.
Dominus Iesus also raised questions about Catholic-Jewish relations. Cardinal Cassidy and Archbishop Kasper took immediate steps to plant the idea that the document did not apply to Jews. They had some success in this regard, and Ratzinger appeared to go along with this. His subsequent writings on the Jews, which contain a favorable tone, as well as his endorsement of the 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission document on the Jews and their Scriptures in the New Testament, did take much of the sting out of Dominus Iesus in terms of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. But questions still remain that only an explicit exception for Jews could finally overcome.
So Benedict XVI comes to the papacy with a definite shadow over him regarding interfaith and interreligious relations. In his homily to the cardinals after his election, he gave the impression of wanting to reach out to other religions. But the ultimate proof of his sincerity will depend on 1) who he appoints to the two critical curial offices concerned with ecumenical and interreligious dialogue; 2) what he says and does on possible visits to Geneva, Canterbury, or Constantinople; and 3) how he receives leaders of other faith traditions who may visit the Vatican.
In other words, the proof will come only with concrete actions. We can all hope and pray that his previous track record on ecumenical and interreligious relations will be overcome, and the shadow over him because of Dominus Iesus and other similar statements will vanish. Let us hope the Holy Spirit will grant him the grace necessary to make this step forward.