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Forum: About that 'Dominus Iesus'

Ann Rodgers-Melnick offers context for the recent Vatican declaration that raised Protestant and Orthodox eyebrows

Sunday, September 17, 2000

Recently, the Vatican ignited an ecumenical uproar with "Dominus Iesus," a declaration on salvation through Christ alone that contained an awkwardly written passage on Orthodox and Protestant churches. Its language was so obscure that the press corps, and many Protestants, misinterpreted it to mean that only Catholics would go to heaven. It did claim that the Catholic Church is the best church, but most churches think that of themselves.

  Ann Rodgers-Melnick covers religion for the Post-Gazette. 

I exercised a bit of backhanded consolation by sending a Catholic friend an e-mail titled, "What my church says about your church."

It contained The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the foundational doctrinal statement of the Church of England. The articles have all the ecumenical tact of a hand grenade lobbed at St. Peter's.

"[T]he Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith," says Article 19. Article 22 proclaims, "The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration, as well of images as of reliques, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrenty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the word of God."

Although not binding on Episcopalians, these articles are in our Book of Common Prayer. In the Church of England, every candidate for ordination must affirm The Thirty-Nine Articles.

When it comes to saying, "My church is better than your church," Catholics tend to say it more politely than many others do.

In "Dominus Iesus," the much-criticized line about "defects" in Protestant churches was actually a quotation from the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism. In 1965, it was hailed as progressive:

"Therefore, these separated churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church."

The theologians who drafted "Dominus Iesus" could have avoided Protestant outrage by citing John Paul's own interpretation of that passage in his 1995 encyclical "Ut Unum Sint." He made it clear that Protestants are not saved by the Catholic Church per se, but by the one, holy church of Christ that Jesus founded.

"To the extent that these elements [of sanctification and truth] are found in other Christian communities, the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them. For this reason the Second Vatican Council speaks of a certain, though imperfect communion" between Protestant traditions and the Catholic Church, John Paul wrote.

So why didn't "Dominus Iesus" cite "Ut Unum Sint"?

One theory holds that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is run by those who believe that John Paul is too friendly to non-Catholics. Hardliners are allegedly exploiting his frailty to get his endorsement on statements that fall short of his own ideals. This is alleged to set the stage for a more conservative pope.

Such a plot would seem doomed to backfire. The cardinals who will vote in the next conclave had to spend last week assuring their Protestant neighbors that the pope had not consigned them to hell. Few cardinals relish the thought of a papacy filled with such incidents.

Another theory is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is run by doctrinal wonks, whose sole focus is to keep Catholic theologians Catholic. They don't think it's their job to worry about Protestant opinion. They leave that to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

Perhaps they should read further in the same Decree on Ecumenism that they cited in "Dominus Iesus." It says: "The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. . . . [T]he Catholic faith must be explained . . . in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand."

In a remarkable passage of "Ut Unum Sint," John Paul invited Orthodox and Protestants to propose ways to exercise the papal office so it would be helpful to them. As Bishop Donald McCoid of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America suggested, perhaps Protestant and Orthodox representatives should be allowed to critique proposed papal statements about their churches.

The passage on Protestants may have been clumsily crafted because it is little more than a passing reference in a document about whether non-Christians need to be evangelized. It's Buddhists, not Baptists, whose salvation is questioned in "Dominus Iesus."

Catholicism actually views non-Christian faiths in a relatively positive light. Many conservative Protestants teach that - apart from Judaism - non-Christian religions are demonic. Catholicism, however, views faiths such as Buddhism and Islam as reflections of a sincere search for God.

In a passage quoted in "Dominus Iesus," the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate stated, "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."

"Dominus Iesus" was addressed to some Asian theologians who the pope believes have taken that idea too far. They argue that Hindus will encounter Christ through Hinduism. "Dominus Iesus" says that, while such an encounter is possible, it is not the norm.

Among Christians, it was the Lutherans - who have made tremendous ecumenical progress during John Paul's pontificate - who expressed the most frustration over "Dominus Iesus."

"We are disappointed that 35 years of ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans seem not to have been considered in the formulation of the letter and documents issues by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The impact of these statements is more painful because they reflect a different spirit than that which we encounter in many other Lutheran-Roman Catholic relationships," said Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation.

Metropolitan Maximos of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh, analyzed "Dominus Iesus" from an Orthodox point of view, and declared its understanding of faith "defective." The faith of the Apostle Peter cannot be reduced to the faith of his successors in Rome, he wrote.

"Every faithful [Christian] is Peter, as much and as far as they profess the faith of Peter, that is, that 'Christ is the son of the living God,' " Maximos wrote.

Maximos wondered whether John Paul has become disheartened at the impasse in Catholic-Orthodox relations. In 1995, John Paul called for full communion between what he termed the two lungs of the church.

But his overtures met with hostility. Conservative Orthodox theologians rejected the term "sister churches," on which the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also issued a cautionary note in late June.

July's meeting of the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue was so rancorous that Maximos and Catholic Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee were banned from giving a planned talk on the good relationship between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the United States, Maximos said.

Perhaps, Maximos suggested, John Paul has become too discouraged to fight the Vatican bureaucracy on behalf of other churches.

"We got discouraged as well," Maximos said of his own and Weakland's response to the meeting.

"It takes forever to accomplish a few positive steps in the right direction, and then everything is destroyed with so much ease."

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