Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Let the Spirit breathe

Cardinal Franz König

Inter-religious dialogue is vital in a pluralistic global culture. Thus Pope John Paul II in his recent apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte of 6 January this year speaks of "the great challenges of inter-religious dialogue to which we shall be committed in the new millennium". The dialogue "must continue", he urges forcefully. To which I would add – without peace among the world's religions there will be no peace among the nations.

Because too little was known about other civilisations, Christians used to see members of non-Christian religions as "heathens" or "idolators" and their religions as superstitions or false religions. But interreligious dialogue has opened up new insights.

The Second Vatican Council was the first to take up the subject of inter-religious dialogue and of religious pluralism - the interpretation of the significance of the variety of world religions. The council's brief decree Nostra Aetate explains that in a world in which people are drawing closer together, the Church "is examining its relations with the non-Christian religions more carefully". The council did not ask whether there were such "relations", but "what kind of relations existed and should be encouraged. The question was significant, it explained, because it was the Church's duty to foster "unity and charity among nations".

With his invitation to the representatives of all the world religions to meet at Assisi with him in 1986, John Paul II opened people's eyes to what this meant. His action corresponded to the council text: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions." For this reason, Nostra Aetate explained, "the Church urges its sons and daughters to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. 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."

At the council the Catholic Church opened itself in a positive way to other religious traditions and other religions, to a far greater degree than had ever been the case before. John Paul II has added emphasis on these positive appraisals by, pointing to the ubiquitous presence of the Divine and of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in the other non-Christian religions, as for example in his encyclicals Redemptor Hominis (1979) and Redemptoris Missio (1990).

The Second Vatican Council, however, did not adequately answer the question of what kind of relationship the Church has to the non-Christian religions. The theology of religious pluralism does not only pose the question of human values, but also of religious values and their meaning - their significance for salvation. I personally feel that to recognise some salvific elements in other religions does not belittle the treasures of our own.

An extensive amount of literature testifies to the great interest which these new theological issues have aroused. The theology of religions and the theology of religious pluralism have come to be accepted as new disciplines next to the philosophy of religion and comparative religious studies. Christians are now faced with additional questions which give rise to new difficulties, but should also make it possible to strengthen and deepen their own choice of the Christian faith.

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has devoted a comprehensive document to the subject, entitled Dominus Iesus. This declaration draws attention to the difficulties which religious pluralism can cause for the missionary proclamation of the Christian message. The text goes into the difficulties and dangers of relativising this missionary proclamation. It insists on the "unique and universal salvation" accomplished through Jesus Christ: the universal salvific will of the one threefold God brought about the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, who died on the Cross and rose from the dead.

Dominus Iesus does not reprove any authors, books or theological schools by name. And despite the warnings it expresses about relativising the Christian doctrine of salvation, thus endangering Church's missionary proclamation, the CDF invites theologians to reflect on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God's salvific plan: they should "explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation".

At the time that this CDF document was presented to the public (5 September 2000), another, shorter text, a so-called Notificatio or notification, had already been prepared, which referred solely to one author, Fr Jacques Dupuis SJ, and to one of the books he had written, Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, which he wrote originally in English and which is considered a pioneering achievement in the new and complex issues of religious pluralism. Until the investigation of his book started, Fr Dupuis taught at the theological faculty of the Gregorian University in Rome. His book was first published in the autumn of 1997 and has since been translated into several languages and had numerous reprints. In dealing with Fr Dupuis' book, however, the CDF did not proceed with the same open-mindedness towards inter-religious dialogue and religious pluralism as in the passages from Dominus Iesus that I have quoted above.

On 26 September 1999, nine months after his book was published, the distinguished author was informed by his superior general that the CDF had accused it of containing serious doctrinal errors, whereupon Fr Dupuis became utterly distraught. He was able, however, to reply to the CDF's detailed written list of questions on his book. But the CDF, on 1 September 2000, sent the author the first textual version of a notification that was to be published forthwith and which had already been signed by Pope John Paul II two and a half months previously, namely on 16 June.

Meanwhile a theological adviser was able to prove that there was not a single passage in Dupuis' book which justified the CDF's accusation of serious errors pertaining to the faith. And indeed the first notification of the CDF had not actually pointed out which passages in the book it was referring to. Thus on 6 December 2000 a second, milder version of the notification was drafted, which had again been signed by the Pope on 24 November. This version spoke only of "ambiguities" on matters of faith. This second version was altered yet again, and a third version drawn up which was officially made public on 26 February 2001. The Pope had signed this third version on 19 January 2001.

The first and second versions of the notification were both seen by Fr Hans Kolvenbach, the Jesuit superior general, and Fr Gerald O'Collins, Dupuis' theological adviser. Today these versions are back in the CDF archives. The information I am reproducing here comes from a talk to journalists in Rome given by Fr Dupuis on receiving the final version of the notification on 26 February 2001.

It is evident from the way the notification came into being that the CDF is experiencing difficulties with its procedural mechanisms. I have four chief points of criticism to make here. In this particular case it is shocking that Dupuis was informed of the CDF investigation by his superior general and not approached directly. The CDF procedure, which used to be inquisitorial, was altered and much improved by Paul VI on the last day of the Second Vatican Council - 7 December 1965. The idea of informing the superior general if the member of a religious order was to be investigated was meant to enable his entire order to come to his help. But Dupuis is a distinguished professor of theology and an expert in his field, who is as qualified as the members of the CDF - so why not inform him directly or simultaneously with his superior general, for courtesy's sake?

It was moreover far too soon for an investigation. The book had been published only nine months beforehand and inter-religious dialogue is a relatively new, complicated and most important subject. Theologians and others working in this field must be given the greatest possible freedom. By investigating Dupuis so soon, the CDF risked narrowing the discussion down, discouraging those theologians who have taken it up and giving rise to a fear that the subject is "dangerous". One also wonders why three times in a row the notification was presented for the Pope's signature before the third and final version was published. That surely is confirmation that the CDF was proceeding over-cautiously and far too quickly?

A third important aspect is that no specific passages in the book were quoted. The CDF's accusations applied to the book as a whole. If I reject an entire book, that surely means that I do not think much of it, a negative assessment of inter-religious dialogue which contrasts with the positive approach of the Pope and Vatican II.

And then there is the human aspect, which is perhaps the most important shortcoming of all. The CDF deals not only with books, but also with their authors who are human beings, in this case with a distinguished theologian who taught at a renowned university and had pledged himself to fidelity to the Church's teaching authority. The CDF hurt Fr Dupuis deeply and the shock he received led to ill-health and depression, albeit, one hopes, only temporarily.

This brings us to the commentary the CDF published on the internet on 12 March ("Commentary on the Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Regarding the Book Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by Fr Jacques Dupuis SJ"). It is on the Vatican website at (see Congregations and then CDF). In this apologia the Vatican congregation defends itself against accusations of "undeserved harshness" as regards the Dupuis notification, pointing out that this is written in the traditional style in which CDF documents are always presented.

The fact that the CDF felt obliged to defend itself shows clearly that it has come in for sharp criticism because of the discourteous and negative tone it used. And indeed its words were often not only impersonal but withering, as if they had been taken from a sixteenth-century catechism. The congregation has neglected the human aspect, ignoring the deep hurt it has caused, all of which could have been avoided had it adopted a different approach. No one loses authority just because they are courteous.

I can only hope that the subject of inter-religious dialogue and religious pluralism has not been adversely affected. Rather, we should press ahead and encourage inter-religious dialogue all the more determinedly, especially from the Christian viewpoint. The CDF's right, and indeed its duty, to accompany these discussions with critical remarks goes without saying.

The CDF is correct, however, at least in this, that inter-religious dialogue today is raising once more the ultimate question: was Jesus Christ a great religious leader, but in the last instance only human? Or was Our Father in heaven speaking through him in order to point to those all-important final questions which concern all humankind and to answer them? We Christians are convinced of the latter. Not only the Council of Nicea but above all the Council of Chalcedon had to confront this question, which Jesus Christ himself first put to his apostles: "Who do you say that I am?"

Fr Dupuis has always clearly confessed Jesus Christ as the Son of God and universal Saviour. But this very confession - as is the case also with Pope John Paul II - encourages him to seek and acknowledge the active presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the religions and cultures of the world.