Last September, the Vatican issued a document, Dominus Iesus, asserting that the salvation of souls is available only through Jesus Christ, and that among Christian denominations, "only in the Catholic Church" does the church that Christ founded continue to "exist fully." (Full text of the document.)

This was construed as a severe blow to ecumenism, and critics directed their fire at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where the document was written. (This congregation is headed by that perennial villain of Roman Catholicism, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, of whom one commentator remarked that he "seems to glower even when he smiles.")

Then, in December, in a general audience in St. Peter's Square in the presence of 30,000 people, the pope made some remarks on "cooperation in the coming of the Kingdom in the world." We are called to cooperate in the coming of this 'Kingdom,' the pope said. "The just of the Earth, even those who do not know Christ and his Church, but who under the influence of grace seek God in a sincere heart, are called to build the Kingdom of God, collaborating with the Lord, who is its first and supreme architect."

This was promptly construed by some journalists as "an attempt to soften the impact of the recent Dominus Iesus declaration," to quote from a Religion News Service article with a Vatican City dateline. The authors of the RNS article claimed the pope had said "that all who live a just life will be saved even if they do not believe in Jesus Christ and the Roman Catholic Church." They also quoted the pope as saying that the gospel teaches us that "those who live in accordance with the Beatitudes--the poor in spirit, the pure of heart . . . will enter God's Kingdom."

In a similar vein, Bruce Johnston wrote in the (London) Daily Telegraph that "the Pope has amended a Vatican pronouncement that the Roman Catholic Church was 'the only way to salvation,' saying that Heaven is open to all as long as they are good. He said at an audience that 'all of the just on Earth, including those who ignore Christ and his Church' were called upon to build the Kingdom of God."

Several European newspapers published similar articles, some saying that the pope had contradicted Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Il Corriere della Sera, the Italian newspaper with the widest circulation, included a statement in quotation marks that the pope did not make, according to the news agency Zenit. The pope was quoted as saying that "even the nonbeliever can be saved." The faulty press reports seem to have started with a dispatch from the Italian news agency ANSA headlined: "The Pope: All the Just, Including Non-Believers, Will Be Saved."

The Vatican Press Office was forced to publish a clarification, explaining that this "hurried news" had resulted from "insufficient knowledge" of the original document, Dominus Iesus. The pope's later remarks had referred not to the Kingdom of Heaven but to something quite different--the Kingdom of God.

Then came this all-important distinction (which maybe should have been made earlier): The Kingdom of Heaven is in the next world, the Kingdom of God is in this. The Kingdom of God is "the effective but mysterious action of God in the Universe and in the tangle of human events." As to those who "are called to build the Kingdom of God," they include all "the righteous on Earth" who "seek God with a sincere heart," including those "who do not know Christ and his Church."

I have three comments on this imbroglio. First, I admit to some sympathy for the journalists, for reasons unconnected with doctrine. In the reign of John Paul II, papal pronouncements have not been distinguished by their lucidity. Vatican documents often seem to have been thought up in German, then translated by Latinate specialists whose English has been quarried from dictionaries. The subtitle of Dominus Iesus itself is characteristic: "On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church."

Also, if inclusion in the "Kingdom of Heaven" is what is on people's minds, but inclusion in the "Kingdom of God" (which means something quite different) is suddenly the topic, listeners were understandably confused and should have been alerted ahead of time.

My second comment is that the journalists and other commentators were obviously looking for a more genial and liberal interpretation of Ratzinger's document. For the fact is that, in our present age, any claim to exclusivity in truth is out of fashion. It is likely to strike us today as "elitist," "triumphalist," "dangerous," "absolutist," "narrow-minded," and "intolerant," to list just some of the descriptions hurled at Dominus Iesus in the days immediately following its publication.

But the all-important question still has not been addressed. Is Christianity in fact essential to salvation? We should at least consider the possibility that God chose to send a unique savior to Earth, not a rainbow assortment of prophets who possessed bits and pieces of the truth. We should recall the words of Jesus: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me" (John 14:6).

He also said this: "Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life: and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

An intellectually tenable option, if an imprudent one, it seems to me, is to reject the whole Christian message. One may perhaps say that it is not credible, not reliable, or some such. But all the criticism of Dominus Iesus that I have seen comes from those who profess Christianity in one form or another. What seems to me to be impermissible is the "cafeteria" approach to the truth that they take, picking and choosing those sayings of Jesus that seem comforting, and ignoring those that seem uncomfortably severe--of which there are many.

This brings me to my final point. If Jesus is indeed God's only Son, by whom alone we can "come to the Father," then our criticism of the exclusivist and "narrow" character of this route to salvation should be directed not at Cardinal Ratzinger or the pope, but at God himself.

Among the commentaries on Dominus Iesus that appeared on Beliefnet, one of the most critical was written by Sister Joan Chittester of the Order of St. Benedict. Although I disagree with much of what she wrote, she did, I believe, get one important thing right. She directed her criticism to the right address. In considering the question whether Jesus is "the only way," she wrote, "the answer to that must, in the end, have something to do with the justice of God."

She added: "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?"

A partial answer to this is to be found, I believe, in St. Matthew's gospel. In the apocalyptic Chapter 24, he foretells the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and then goes on to address the Last Judgment. That day shall not come, he says, until "this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come" (Matthew 24: 14).

The idea here surely is that "the justice of God" ensures that everyone will be given a chance to hear the gospel before they can be held responsible for rejecting it. Those who have died before doing so are presumably exempt from the "condemnation" that Chittester deplores.

But the rider to that seems clear, even if it is unwelcome today. Those who have had access to the Gospel--and that would surely be almost all of us in the Western world who have reached the age of reason--are no longer in a position to plead ignorance of the law. In fact, we are enjoined to go forth and preach that gospel ourselves.

The implication, and it is an awesome one, is that the words of Jesus Christ have a unique power that sets them off from all merely human words. We deny them only at our peril. Nations that were pagan before the gospel of Christ had been preached in them cannot revert to paganism should they choose to repudiate the words of Christ. They will revert not to paganism but to something less innocent.

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