Dominus Jesus and Mission

Dominus Jesus and Mission

Dr Vincent Kundukulam

Dr Vincent Kundukulam

Vincent Kundukulam

 No other Vatican document has produced so many storms in the recent past like Dominus Iesus,(DI), a Declaration prepared by the Office of the Congregation for Doctrine of Faith (CDF) and by the Pope John Paul II and published on 6 August 2000.  There ensued many discussions about DI in the form of study seminars and symposiums and through the publication of books, theological journals and popular magazines both inside and outside the Catholic Church. The conservative groups in different religions and Christian denominations came out with severe criticisms against it. Among the Indian catholic theological journals, Jeevadhara brought out a special issue in May 2001, a collection of reactions from theologians representing various continents. We are not in a position to examine this voluminous literature and that is not our objective too. Our aim is to understand the concerns of Dominus Jesus from a missiological perspective and the reasons for which it is known as a polemic document.

 1. Nature of the Document

 The Declaration Dominus Jesus besides the introduction and conclusion contains six small chapters and is spread in 23 numbers. Compared to other Vatican teachings like Redemptoris Missio or Fides et Ratio which have 92 and 108 paragraphs respectively, DI is not a very big document. It does not contribute any new insight regarding the uniqueness of Christ or unicity of Church. It reiterates only what has been taught in previous magisterial documents about this subject. Then naturally one may ask why does it create so much uproar.

A look into sources of this Letter gives us a glimpse on the nature of the document. Apparently this heavily documented Declaration is largely based on the open perspectives of Second Vatican Council. For, among the 102 citations 42 belongs to Second Vatican Council and 30 are taken from the encyclicals of John Paul II. But a close scrutiny of these citations shows that the drafter is very much selective in his references. He has chosen mainly the orthodox statements, which reinforce the primacy of Christ, Church and mission and seldom refers to the passages of inclusive and integrating order. The 7 citations from Ancient Councils and 5 from CCC add to its exclusive language.

 2. Purpose of the Declaration

The objective of the document, as made explicit in its beginning, is to recall to bishops, theologians and the faithful certain indispensable elements of Christian doctrine which would help them develop answers consistent with the content of faith and refute erroneous or ambiguous positions regarding faith (no: 3). This intention is again repeated in the last number: “Faced with certain problematic and even erroneous propositions, theological reflection is called to reconfirm the Church’s faith and to give reasons for her hope in a way that is convincing and effective” (no: 23).

 What are the erroneous doctrines that the document refer to? Mainly, these are propositions originating from relativism. DI rules out the mentality of indifferentism, which leads to the belief that Jesus is one of the manifestations of God and that one religion is as good as another. It takes extreme care to defend the uniqueness of Christ and unicity of Church. But a cautious reading of the Letter will show that these Christological and ecclesiological concerns are led by another objective namely to rejuvenate missionary preaching and baptism. The propositions coming from relativist ideologies had cast shadows of doubts regarding the need of missionary proclamation.

This missiological concern is very clear from the document, which laments that inspite of two thousand years of missionary efforts the mission still remains far from complete. DI cites St. Paul crying, “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Cor 9, 16) (no 2). Moreover the fact that the document begins with the missionary command of Resurrected Jesus to the disciples to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world and to baptize all nations shown in all the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, 28, 19-20; Mk 16, 15-16; Lk 24, 46-48) make evident the priority of the Declaration for mission. (no 1)

 3. Affirmations of DI

            From the above explanation the three theological disciplines in which the document likes to put certain order is very clear. They are Christology, Ecclesiology and Missiology. Though the sixth chapter deals with the salvific value of non-Christian religions it is not a major preoccupation of the Declaration. If it were so, the document should have positively defined their role in building the kingdom of God.

 3.1 Christological: Jesus, the only Unique Redeemer

One of the main assertions of DI is that Jesus Christ is the mediator and the universal redeemer. Christ, the Son of God Lord and only Saviour, through the event of incarnation, death and resurrection, has brought the history of salvation to fulfillment and there is no other name under heaven among men by which they can be saved (no 13). God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalted and placed at his right hand constituting him judge of the living and the dead. This gives him unique, singular, exclusive, absolute and universal significance as the mediator of the world (no 15)

The document rejects the concept of limited, incomplete or imperfect character of revelation of Jesus Christ which will be complementary to that found in other religions. It denies also the underlying relativist theory, which says that God cannot be grasped and manifested in its globality and completeness by any historical religion. According to the document this theory is not applicable to the person of Jesus. The truth about God is not abolished or reduced even though it is spoken in human language by Jesus because he who speaks and acts here is the Incarnate Son of God (no 6) The attitude of perceiving Jesus as a particular, finite, historical figure manifesting one of the many faces of Logos communicating with humanity in course of the history does not conform to the faith of the Church. (no 9)

DI cautions against the different sorts of separation made by the progressive theologians: between Jesus of history and Christ of faith; between humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ and between the economy of salvation realized through the Three Persons of Trinity in order to create space for the mediations of other religions in the salvific project of God. The document denies the view that there are two economies of salvation: one of the Eternal Word, which is valid even outside the Church and another of the Incarnated Word, which is limited to the Christians. (no 9) The declaration does not accept any separation between the Word and Jesus Christ and the salvific actions of the Word as such and that of the Word made flesh (no 10)

            DI admits the work of the Spirit extending beyond the visible boundaries of the Church and affecting other cultures, peoples, and religions. It quotes Gs 22: “For since Christ has died for all and since all men are called to one and the same destiny we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the Paschal mystery”. But the declaration does not accept a separate economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word. It is the same Spirit who is active among other religions and who was at work in the life death and resurrection of Jesus and now present in the Church. The action of the Spirit is not parallel to that of Christ.  (no 12)

 3.2 Ecclesiological: Necessity of Church

            The fourth and fifth chapters of the document defend the Unicity of the Church. Because there is an historical continuity between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church DI argues that she has the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery. Just as the head and members of a living body, though not identical, are inseparable, so too Christ and the Church can neither be confused nor separated, and constitute single ‘whole Christ’. Just as there is one Christ so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ, a single Catholic and apostolic Church. Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. (no 16)

            Church being the legitimate continuation of Christ claims the declaration: ‘none can empty or deny the intimate connection between Christ, the Kingdom and the Church’. The declaration is aware that the kingdom of God is not identical with the Church in her visible and social reality. Church is oriented toward the kingdom of God, of which she is the seed, sign and instrument. Yet while remaining distinct from Christ and the kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both. Church is the kingdom of Christ already present in mystery. (no 18) On account of the indissoluble mysterious relationship that Church has with Christ, it would be contrary to faith to consider Church as one way of salvation along side those constituted by other religions. Other religions cannot be seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if they will converge with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God. (no 21)

 After affirming the specificity of Church DI alerts the Catholics not to boast of their exalted condition: ‘if they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed, not only they shall not be saved but also they shall be more severely judged’. (no 22) In fact these chapters reveal drafter’s tension to keep two truths together: the necessity of the Church for salvation on the one hand and the possibility of salvation for all mankind in Christ on the other. DI finds Church necessary for salvation because of Christ’s presence in her. Since Church is united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, she has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being. She is the universal sacrament of salvation. But at the same time DI affirms that to those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation is accessible by virtue of a grace. (no 20).

 3.3 Missiological: Urgency of Mission

            Apart from relativism, what put down the missionary zeal in the Church is misunderstanding caused by some forged concepts of dialogue. Some missionaries doubt the need to work for the conversion of the gentiles if the latter are already on the way of salvation while they obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Responding to this situation DI explains the basic reason for evangelization: God has made himself in the fullest possible way known to Christians. Since Church possesses the definitive revelation of God she has by her nature to be missionary. (no 5)

According to DI though the followers of other religions can receive divine grace in their own religions, it is also certain that they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who in the Church have the fullness of the means of salvation. Hence the Church, to whom the fullness of Truth has been entrusted, has the duty to bring them the full truth. Guided by charity and respect for freedom Church must commit herself to proclaim the truth revealed by the Lord, to announce the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of the adherence to the Church through baptism and other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (no 22)

 With regard to dialogue DI says that the inter-religious dialogue does not relegate the necessity of mission. Dialogue is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes. Inter-religious dialogue as well the mission ad gentes today as always retains its full force and necessity. Dialogue does not replace but rather accompanies the missio ad gentes. In brief the certainty of the universal salvific will of God does not diminish but rather increase the duty and urgency of the proclamation of salvation and of conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ. (no 22)

4. Attitude towards other Religions

            In some instances DI endorses the open outlook of Second Vatican Council. For example, the first chapter quotes NA 2: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”. Referring to the universal salvific will of God DI admits that ‘the sacred books of other religions receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace for God who desires to call all people to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation. God’s love does not fail to make himself present in many ways not only to individuals but also to entire people through their spiritual riches. Hence other religions are the main and essential expression of God’s revelation even when they contain gaps, insufficiencies and errors’ (no 8). A similar attitude is obvious in the last chapter: “Certainly, the various religious traditions contain and offer religious elements, which come from God, and which are parts of what the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions” (no 21)

 But in many other parts DI compares Christianity with other religions and thereby downplays their value. First of all, the document makes a distinction between faith in Christianity and belief in other religions. Theological faith gives Christians revealed truth whereas beliefs of other religions are the sum of experience of human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which are still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself.  (no 7) Secondly DI makes a distinction between the sacred writings of other religions and Bible. The Scriptures of other religions contain however some elements to nourish and maintain inter-relationship with God but they can not be considered as inspired texts, a title which is reserved only to the Canonical Books of the Bible as they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. (no 8) Thirdly, DI compares the Christian prayers and rituals with that of other religions. DI recognizes some of them as preparation for the Gospel but it does not attribute to them a divine origin or ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. (no 21)

 In the light of above pages we can certainly say that Dominus Jesus projects an ambivalent attitude towards Non-Christians. In one context, it would say that other religions receive elements of goodness and grace from God and in spite of the errors contained in them, are essential expressions of God’s revelation (no 8). But on other occasions DI does not hesitate to affirm that other religions are in a gravely deficient situation (no 22) and that they are the sum of experience of human treasury of wisdom and religious aspiration, which still lacks assent to God’s revelation (no 7). Such sort of incoherence happens partly due to the presence of members having diverse sensibilities in the redaction committee. When Pope John Paul II convened the meeting of leaders of the World Religions at Assisi in 1986 there were some misgivings already in the Vatican and Pope had to give a special address to the Roman Curia explaining the theological foundations of that initiative. We will now see non-Catholic reception of Dominus Iesus.

 5. Reactions from outside Church

            Abd-al-Haqq, the director of Institute for Islamic Higher Studies at Paris thinks that Dominus Jesus is “taking a step back”. He observes that for the first time in the history of humanity the religions coexist in different continents and above all they encounter and know mutually. We can no more understand Truth in the same way as in the past. God does not want to be exhausted by one faith. Haqq regrets of the exclusive attitude in Dominus Jesus and he is afraid that such kind of text reinforces the rigid attitude in Islam. (La Croix, 7 September 2000, Paris)

Olivier Clement, an orthodox theologian who has been engaging in ecumenical dialogue since years comments that “this abrupt way of saying things make me to think that this text is a reaction of those who have difficulty in the Curia to accept the open attitude of John Paul II. I don’t see any continuity between this text and Ut unum sint (1995), an encyclical on the unity of Christians. Rabbi Korsia, the director of College of Rabbis in France, does not understand why a text from Vatican takes position on Judaism. When the Association of Rabbis makes a declaration to the Jews, it does not discuss any issue related to the Catholic Church. It is true that each religion must be able to articulate for its own members where lays the Truth. The only thing that we accuse is the fact of imposing one’s own truth on others. (La Croix, 7 September 2000, Paris, p.11)

            The Hindu world, the Sangh Parivar in particular, could not digest the premises of Dominus Iesus. N.S. Rajaram, an ideologist of RSS writes: “In a just released document titled Declaration of Lord Jesus the Vatican proclaims non-Christians to be in a gravely deficient situation” and that even non-Catholic churches have “defects” because they do not acknowledge the primacy of Pope. This of course means that the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the spiritual right (and freedom) of non-Catholics. This consigns non-Christians to hell, and the only way they can save themselves is by becoming Christians, preferably Catholics, by submitting to the Pope. (Organizer, 3 June 2001, Delhi, p. 19)

 6. Lacking pedagogy of encounter

 As we mentioned in the introduction a bundle of articles had already come out criticizing this document. Due to constraint of time we will discuss about only one aspect, namely language of DI.

No doubt, the tone, style and language of the Declaration are very different from that of the Second Vatican Council. The Council Decrees by its inclusive style generates in the reader a feeling of harmony. Reading them we are moved to work with all peoples, cultures and religions. For example see the human fellowship outlined in Nostra aetate: “All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock” (no 1) Gaudium et spes writes: “Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. (no 16).

But this spirit of commonality or togetherness is unseen in Dominus Jesus. Exclusive language, imposing style and comparative statements of DI nourish a ghetto culture. Referring to the language of DI, Felix Wilfred has rightly observed that Church still lacks the pedagogy of dialogue. Many misunderstand tolerance, compassion and the concern for other’s faith as compromise. We are afraid to follow in our relationship with other religions the path of renunciation and kenosis showed by Jesus. The only way to get rid of this fear is to let us be touched by the neighbour (La Croix, 28 September 2000).

Some may underestimate Felix’s comment, as he is a theologian, known for his modernism. But Joseph Dore, Archbishop of Strasbourg, known for his orthodoxy and allegiance to Vatican, also confesses that the style of DI is different from that of the Council. There are expressions of command like “In fact it must be firmly believed that” (no 5) “It must be firmly held” (no 7) “all the children of the Church should nevertheless remember that” (no 22), etc. in the document, which may badly affect its reception by local Churches. (La Croix, 6 September 2000). Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, CBCI Vice-President said, “Dominus Iesus is immediately relevant to the multi-religious and multi-cultural situation in India but it was felt that the document has to be toned down”. (The New Leader, vol. 114, no:10, June 1-15, 2001, p.30.)

            As Jacob Parappally notes, DI cannot but be exclusive because its language is confessional. Our task is to proclaim the faith of the Church in the context of plurality of religions and ecclesial communities. It is the charism of the local Churches to evolve a language in which the faith affirmations can be meaningfully communicated. Overemphasis on the historicity of Jesus in DI reduces him to be one among the founders of religion. DI makes Jesus Christ small and his Church a sect. (Parappally, Profession and Proclamation of Faith, Jeevadhara, vol, 31, no 183, May 2001, pp. 225-227)

            Against the above-mentioned accusations CDF’s response was that DI is not destined to other religions. But this argument does not stand in Asia and Africa where to be religious means to be inter-religious. Whatever is said by one religion affects all others. Nobody can seek God in isolation here. In such a context the Church teachings must be expressed in local cultures. “Doing Asian Theology in Asia Today’ (DATAT), a document published by FABC in October 2000 seems to be a glaring example. It begins with addressing the threat of relativism, as does DI. But DATAT does not equate relativism with pluralism; instead as Second Vatican Council, DATAT advocates pluralism in theology.  At the same time it warns against irresponsibility or indifferentism with matters affecting the faith of the Church. When DI relegates other religious traditions to beliefs still in search of truth DATAT draws nourishment from Asian cultures. DI presents Church as custodian of Truth but DATAT consider Truth as mystery, to be approached with reverence. This reverence does not allow FABC make judgment upon other religions (Jeevadhara, vol, 31, no 183, May 2001, pp. 230-233)

            The absence of the theology of incarnation has also affected the missiological perspective of DI. It finds the source of mission in Jesus’ missionary command to the apostles after resurrection. To base mission on this mandate is an outdated approach. The Second Vatican Council accepts the Mystery of Incarnation as the source and model of evangelization. As Jesus who, being sent by the Father, assumed what is good in humanity the missionary must assimilate the fruits of Spirit already present in the local culture before announcing the Gospel. Unfortunately, DI is silent about inculturation, dialogue, liberative actions, witness, etc. which should precede mission.

7. There is yet to hope for

Inspite of all the above noted drawbacks DI cannot be, in my view, totally discarded because all along with the rigid standpoints it has also retained inclusive attitude of Second Vatican Council. For example, the document still believes in the participatory mediation of other religions: “The unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation, which is, but a participation in this one source. These participatory forms of mediation acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation. They cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.” (no: 14)

Similarly, DI has not totally identified Church with Christ and the Kingdom: “The kingdom of God is not identified with the Church in her visible and social reality. In fact the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries must not be excluded. Therefore, one must also bear in mind that the kingdom is the concern of everyone: individuals, society and the world”. (no 19 On the contrary if DI had equated Church with Kingdom there would have been no room left for dialogue and inculturation.

 It must also be noted that the Declaration believes in the salvation of those who remain outside Catholic Church by means of a special grace from God: “For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace, which while having a mysterious relationship to the Church does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way, which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit (no: 20).

 Above all, the document promotes the freedom of theologians to cogitate over the mystery of salvation. DI invites the theologians to explore in what way the historical figures and positive elements of other religions fall within the divine plan of salvation. (no 14) It encourages them to find out the meaning of the statement in AG 7 saying: “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him “(no 21). The present Pope Benedict XVI during the Holy Mass that he offered on the subsequent day of his election (20th April 2005) promised to continue the efforts of dialogue commenced by his predecessor. Let us hope that Church will rediscover the vision of the Council about other religions.

3 replies »

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