UCAN COMMENTARY - VATICAN 'NOTIFICATION' AMBIGUOUS ABOUT 'AMBIGUITIES' NEW DELHI (UCAN)

Fr. Samuel Rayana, S.J.
March 7, 2001

A Vatican "notification" issued to clear "ambiguities" in a book by Jesuit Father Jacques Dupuis seems to confuse matters further, says his confrere Father Samuel Rayan.

After an investigation that began in 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued the notification Feb. 26. It details five doctrinal principles to help Catholics understand "Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism," published by Belgian Father Dupuis in 1997.

The congregation declared that the book has no specific doctrinal error but does contain "ambiguous statements and insufficient explanations" on important doctrinal points that could lead a reader to "erroneous or harmful opinions" not intended by the author. Father Dupuis taught theology in India for 25 years before taking up a teaching assignment at the Gregorian University in Rome in 1982.

In the following commentary, Father Rayan, who has taught in several seminaries in India and has been involved in the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians movement since 1980, addresses various implications of the notification. The notification that came after two-and-a-half years of "comprehensive examination" has not condemned the book. Neither has it censured nor rejected any positions in the book. Rather, it implicitly praises the author for working in realms that are "hitherto largely unexplored" in the Catholic Church.

The congregation emphasizes that the notification is not a judgment on the author's subjective thought or intentions but a statement of the Catholic faith. It is meant to safeguard the doctrine of the Catholic faith from "errors, ambiguities or harmful interpretations."

The five doctrinal principles detailed in the text largely center on the "unicity and salvific universality of Christ" and on the Church as the only sign and instrument of salvation.

Jesus Christ is the sole and universal mediator of salvation for all humanity. This is our Christian faith. But it is also true that the Scriptures, Sacraments, preachers, priests, parents, good people, Church and events are also salvific mediations in the hands of Christ. This truth should not be obscured.

The paragraph about the centering of God's plan of salvation in Jesus and about the relation between the salvific activity of the Word and of Jesus calls for a great deal of clarification.

As it stands it can be misleading and confusing. Is not Creation the first of God's salvific acts? Has not God created everything in, through and for Christ? Is not the Humanity of Christ a created salvific reality? In its creation the Divine Word plays a part. Could it be said that the Incarnate Word, Jesus, plays a part in the creation of his own Humanity? Is the notification suggesting that the Incarnation is co-eternal with the Word of God?

In no. II paragraph 3, the notification begins by affirming the completeness of revelation in or of Jesus Christ. But then it modifies the assertion and admits that full knowledge of divine revelation is yet to be.

That agrees with Paul, who tells us that "now we see only reflections in a mirror," "now we know only imperfectly;" and with John who assures us that what we shall be in the future has not yet been revealed; and especially with Jesus, who affirms that only the Father knows the time (and the manner?) of the consummation, not angels, not even the Son.

The notification adds a second qualification to "completeness" by stating that it is offered in the historical revelation of Jesus Christ. But has not God been offering, through His Word in His spirit, everything necessary for salvation to everybody throughout history?

Or again, is only what is "necessary" for man's salvation offered in Jesus? Is not much more offered in Jesus Christ? Is not a superabundance of pardon, peace, life and love, the length and breadth and height and depth of which we can never fathom, offered to us in Christ?

Some legalism and a danger of reductionism seem to lurk here. Jesus is more than a "necessary" instrument of salvation, and God is no parsimonious businessman.

Finally, who has suggested that revelation in Christ needs completion by other religions? An unwarranted insinuation? What has been upheld is that the one saving action of God through the Word in the Spirit has a history culminating in the Person of the crucified and resurrected Christ Jesus.

The notification also speaks about "seeds of truth and goodness" that exist in other religions. One is at a loss to understand why only "seeds" exist in other religions. If seeds exist, there would also be sprouts, trees, flowers and fruits; for it is God's work, his saving deed and love.

We have seen beautiful examples of justice and compassion, nonviolence, love and self-sacrifice among adherents of other religions -- examples in which the seal of God's Spirit can be discerned.

In III.5, what is the significance of the word "after" in the opening statement: "... the Holy Spirit, working after the resurrection of Jesus Christ is always the Spirit of Christ sent by the Father, who works in a salvific way in Christians as well as non-Christians?" How about the Holy Spirit's work before the resurrection of Jesus? In Noah, in Jeremiah, in the Buddha, in Ashoka, in Lao Tzu? Was it not salvific, and interior to the salvific economy of the Father who so loved the world as to give his Son for its salvation? The initiative is the Father's. Or, are there two different salvific economies, one "after the resurrection of Jesus" and another "before" it?

Further, is it right to call Hindus, Buddhists and others "non-Christians" when we, Christians, would not like to be described as "non-Hindus" or "non-Buddhists" or "non-Muslims?"

Once again, is it really a matter of Christian faith that the Spirit works in a salvific way after the resurrection of Jesus and in a non-salvific way before the resurrection? How about the work of the Spirit overshadowing Mary at the incarnation, or descending on Jesus at his baptism? Are they salvific works or non-salvific?

In IV.6, how could the Church be a "sign" for "all people" -- for those even who lived in the long centuries before the Church came into being? There was no Church for them to see and recognize as a sign.

The same applies to those who lived in continents where the Church did not exist for centuries even after its founding, like the people of the Americas and most parts of Asia. The notification is not only unclear here but problematic. It is rhetorical rather than doctrinal.

Instrument is not a happy word to be used for realities like the Church or human persons; it smacks of mechanics. How again could the Church be "instrument of salvation for all people," when for the major part of history it did not exist? Is it right to put the Church on a par with the eternal Word of God or the Incarnate Word?

How does it contradict the Catholic faith to hold that "at many moments in the past and by many means God spoke to our ancestors" and the ancients, and that all His communications are integral to the one salvific plan that Father works out through the Son in the Spirit?

In IV.7, the "all" who are said to be oriented to the Church and called to belong to her can only mean those who live after the Church came into being and to whom it has been presented. Otherwise, the claim about orientation and call would be idle and meaningless.

The formulations in IV.6 and IV.7 should have been more careful and nuanced. What is true is that absolutely all are oriented to and called to belong in the Kingdom.

And by God's grace, many belong there who "strive to live a good life, thanks to God's grace," though they may "not yet have arrived at an explicit knowledge of God," not to say any such knowledge of Christ or Church.

In V.8 it is well that the notification recognizes that "the Holy Spirit accomplishes salvation" in the followers of other religions also "through these elements of truth and goodness present in the various religions."

This amounts to acknowledging the Spirit's presence in those religions and the Spirit's use of them as salvific mediations in concrete situations. If so, why not hold them too as ways of salvation in the hands of the Spirit?

Has such a position no foundation in Catholic theology? But in which "Catholic" theology? The reference seems to be theologies developed in Europe within a particular cultural context, cut off from the situation of many living religions and of spiritual experiences different from that of "Christian" Europe.

Developing in an imperial, feudal, colonial and slave-trading context, European theology could not build a theology of religions. Those religions surely contain "omissions, insufficiencies and errors." But which religious tradition does not? The Catholic Church has now come around (Martin) Luther's position on justification; she is now in a process of asking pardon of those concerned for her past faults, omissions, insufficiencies and errors including anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the attitude toward slave trading and colonialism.

The Church is the first to admit that she needs ongoing reform and repentance.

As for the sacred scripture of other religions, are they not expressions of spiritual visions and experiences gifted by the Holy Spirit? They can be as much a preparation for the Christ event in the hearts and histories of peoples as were the Hebrew scriptures.

In fact, some of them are more spiritual, elevating and ethical than some Old Testament texts of violence and genocide mandated by the deity, which directly contradict the teaching, life and Spirit of Jesus.

The Old Testament itself has taken over myths, legends, sayings and stories from many lands and religious backgrounds. Paul makes positive use of pre-Christian, non-Jewish literature.

We are right in following Paul and other biblical authors in making our own the profound, elevating, illuminating scriptural treasures of Asian and other religions.

Our Old Testament could well be larger than that of European Christians, just as the Catholic Bible is larger than the Protestant, and the Bible of the Alexandrian Jews larger than the Bible of the Palestinian Jews, who refused to acknowledge inspired texts composed in Greek.

The notification is strongly Christocentric. The theocentrism of Jesus attested to in the New Testament is remarkably absent. What is happening?

Eleven out of 17 footnotes carry references to the CDF's own documents. The CDF cites itself in support of itself, while reference to Holy Scripture is almost absent. The methodology is a bit surprising.

The notification that was issued to clear ambiguities and "avoid serious confusion" seems to make matters more confusing.


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