New Vatican document on salvation has puzzled many Catholics and other believers
By Tony Staley
The new Vatican document, "Dominus Iesus: On the Unity and Salvific Universality of Jesus
Christ and the Church," has left many Catholics and other believers with numerous questions.
Many insiders say the document was aimed mainly at Asia, where Vatican leaders have
criticized some theologians and bishops for their approach to Buddhism and Hinduism.
But almost immediately, the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Reformed
Churches and the Anglican Communion said they feared it could harm ecumenical dialogue.
Meanwhile, U.S. Catholic leaders made reassuring comments about the document, which was
signed by Card. Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
But many U.S. Catholics and non-Catholics, who have welcomed ecumenical dialogue and the
resulting decrease in animosities, are at least puzzled by the document's tone.
For example, it said that ecclesial communities that have not preserved the valid episcopate
through apostolic succession and the valid Eucharist "are not churches in the proper sense."
Another said, "If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also
certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with
those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation." Why not, some may
wonder, restate the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian
Religions (Nostra Aetate): "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these
religions.... Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the
way, the truth and the life.... Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life,
acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture."
Sadly, most Catholics need a strong reminder to take seriously the commission Jesus gave us all as baptized believers to "Go forth and make all nations my disciples" (Mt 28:19).
But at the same time, many Catholics believe we can learn from other Christian and non-Christian believers and thereby enrich our faith. Pope St. Gregory the Great put it this way when he sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to England in 596: "You are familiar with the usage of the Roman church. But if you have found customs, whether in the church of Rome or of Gaul or any other that may be more acceptable to God, I wish you to make a careful selection of them.... For in these days the church corrects some things strictly, and allows others out of leniency. Others she deliberately glosses over and tolerates, and by doing so often succeeds in checking an evil of which she disapproves." He also called for turning pagan rites and festivals into Christian ones and for retaining local customs as far as possible.