Suddenly the benign smile was gone and the face of an intolerant claim of superiority took its place. What was this? It was a document called "Dominus Iesus," issued by the Vatican in the late summer with the imprimatur of John Paul II and uttered by the watchdog of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.
Quite simply, this document tore the facade off ecumenical cooperation. Predictably, it received reactions ranging from the roar of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to the whimper of non-Christian leaders who felt betrayed and who mourned this clear setback in ecumenical cooperation.
"Dominus Iesus" affirmed that there was only one way to God and that was through Jesus Christ, the only savior. It went on to say that there was only one way to follow Christ and that was through the Holy Roman Church.
These assertions were nothing less than those of a tribal religion of the past seeking to make a comeback in a world where tribalism is dying. In a final gratuitous slap, the document cautioned Roman Catholic ecumenical leaders against ever referring to other bodies of Christians as "sister churches." To use that phrase, this document suggested, implied a certain subliminal note of recognition, even of legitimacy, and Rome no longer wanted to be guilty of that crime.
When I read the document, I had two quite different responses. First, I found nothing new in this attitude. It was consistent with what I had experienced from Roman Catholic leaders during my life in the ministry.
The Roman Catholic Church has, in my opinion, always made its greatest contribution to our world when it has been a minority presence fighting against oppression. When it achieves majority status, its arrogant, totalitarian side always reappears. Recall what a powerful and effective voice the Roman Catholic Church and this current pope were in the fight to overthrow communism in Poland. When this victory was won, the church moved into the power vacuum to impose its own views on the Polish population. It was then that many Polish people made it clear that they were not willing to exchange the oppression of communism for what they saw as the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church--with the result that secularism has been the big winner in Poland.
I recall a time in my Episcopal career when we in the Diocese of Newark had something called "an ongoing ecumenical dialogue" with our Roman Catholic counterpart, the Archdiocese of Newark. Most of the time our discussions were over issues that did not matter much to either of us. We were not allowed, for example, to discuss that which divides our two churches, most of which has little to do with Christianity itself: the shape of authority, validity and power in sacramental worship, the ordination of women, the church's attitude on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the mandatory requirement of celibacy for priesthood.
On each of these issues we were told the infallible mind of Rome had spoken. Not only was no debate allowed, but also, clearly, it was not possible to debate with those who claim to possess infallible truth. One either resists or converts.
I finally ended this empty local dialogue as a public protest when the Vatican removed Hans Kung from his chair as a Roman Catholic theology professor at the University of Tubingen in the early 1980s because he had been publicly critical of aspects of Roman Catholic theology. If Rome could not engage one of its own most brilliant and loyal theologians in dialogue, then obviously every other dialogue meant nothing. Of course, there were howls of protest, and the local archbishop feigned hurt and offense--but that was clearly public relations.
So my first response to "Dominus Iesus" was that I was not surprised.
My second response was sadness over the overwhelming ignorance that so clearly embraces this church. Any ecclesiastical hierarchy that would publish this document has not engaged the knowledge that confronts us. This document admits to no cultural shaping and to no relativity of truth that is so obviously present in all classical Christian doctrines. A system of thought shaped first by the Jewish worldview of the first century and next by the Greek worldview of the fourth and fifth centuries cannot deny cultural relativism.
Every Christian--whether Roman, Anglican, Orthodox, or Protestant--who seeks to engage contemporary thought had to be deeply embarrassed at this revelation of where the Roman Church's leadership is in its thinking. We know, for example, that earth has existed for between 4 1/2 and 5 billion years and that human life has inhabited this planet somewhere between 100,000 and 2 million years, depending on how human life is defined. But whichever number one adopts, it makes the Vatican's claim ludicrous that the only truth of God is found in its narrow version of Christianity. The entire Christian enterprise is only 2,000 years old. It is not yet the faith of the majority of the earth's population and in fact today has a declining percentage of that population.
This is also the same church that condemned Galileo in the 17th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th century only to admit in 1991 that Galileo was right after all, and in 1994 that one could be both a Darwinian and a Christian.
This is a church that has not engaged the intellectual revolution of the past 400 years. It therefore does not recognize that the current understanding of human life as a product of evolution is not compatible with the traditional Christian claim that we were originally created perfect in God's image, only to fall into sin through an act of disobedience. If human life is incomplete or unfinished--and not fallen as Christian doctrine asserts--grave doubt is cast on the story of Jesus as a divine attempt to rescue fallen sinners through the sacrificial death of the Son of God on the cross. Baptism, which was designed to wash from us the stain of the fall, and the Eucharist, which was to reenact the sacrifice that overcame the fall, have also both lost their primary reasoning.
Beyond that is the birth of Jesus, said to have been accomplished through a virgin mother, which is an idea that the discovery of the egg cell in 1724 rendered hopelessly naïve. And there is ascension, which supposedly was achieved in a three-tier universe rendered nonexistent by the Copernican Revolution in the 16th century.
In light of these realities, claims by any religious hierarchy to possess the only and absolute truth, or to represent the sole pathway to God, becomes an expression not of a faith that is strong but of an ignorance that is profound. It bespeaks not a universalism to which we are destined but a ghetto mentality by which we are bound.
The only reason such claims can emanate from the Vatican is that the Christian Church itself is so clearly dying. This document is the voice of rigor mortis. The people who know the absurdity of these claims have already voted with their feet and are no longer present in the church to speak against this foolishness. They are members of the Church Alumni Association.
So strange documents like "Dominus Iesus," undergirded only by the security needs of the religiously neurotic, can still be issued without offense to those who remain within the church. This document suggests that it may be too late to reform institutional Christianity, because there does not appear to be a sufficient critical mass of people left to prevent their production.
If that diagnosis is correct, then very shortly the Church of Jesus Christ, in all its forms, will begin to hear the sound of taps.