A new doctrinal statement - Dominus Jesus - authorised by Pope John Paul II, affirms the Catholic Church's teaching that it is the "one, true Church of Jesus Christ." It rejects trends, often claiming to be in the 'spirit' of Vatican II, which have involved an exaggerated ecumenism that waters down the Church's claims to truth, a religious pluralism that equates the beliefs of all world religions and a reluctance among some missioners to seek converts from other faiths.
The document advances nothing new, but merely reminds Catholics of what the Church - including the Second Vatican Council - has continued to teach.
At a Vatican press conference on 5 September 2000 introducing the new statement, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Dominus Jesus was a necessary response to "the theology of religious pluralism," which is growing "not only in theological circles, but also more generally in Catholic public opinion." Many people today, he observed, view the Church's traditional claim to be the unique and universal means to salvation as "a bit of fundamentalism which is an attack on the modern spirit and a menace to toleration and liberty."
Because of that attitude, many people see ecumenical dialogue as an end in itself: "Dialogue - or rather the ideology of dialogue - becomes a substitute for missionary activity and for the urgency of an appeal to conversion." This mistaken notion of dialogue, Cardinal Ratzinger said, emphasises not a search for objective and absolute truth, but a desire to put all religious beliefs on the same plane. And such dialogue gives rise to a "false idea of tolerance," which rejects the possibility of any objective truth.
Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pointed out that Dominus Jesus does not contain any new teaching, but "reaffirms and restates the doctrine of the Catholic faith" in answer to contemporary problems and theories. He emphasised that because it comes from the Holy See, with the explicit authorisation of the Pope, the document must be viewed as the teaching of the Magisterium, rather than just another theological opinion.
The Secretary of the Congregation for Evangelisation, Archbishop Marcello Zago, who himself worked as a missionary in Laos in the 1970s, commented that there has been a growing trend toward religious relativism, particularly in Asia. Too many theologians "question the need for evangelisation, and refrain from suggesting conversion from another religion."
Dominis Jesus itself is a 36-page statement, divided into six chapters, and addressed to "bishops, theologians, and all the Catholic faithful." It is structured as a response by the Holy See to theories that have been raised by contemporary theologians, particularly in Asia.
The text underlines the essential role of the Church, as opposed to "relativistic theories" that posit a conflict between "the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East." That attitude, it points out, could lead to the conclusion that the Catholic Church is not the best route to salvation for the peoples of Asia.
Dominus Jesus asserts in Chapter One that the "full revelation of divine truth" comes through Jesus Christ and His Church. Thus it is wrong to suggest that the Catholic Church is "complementary" to other religions, while Chapter Two refutes the views of theologians who say that the Holy Spirit has "a more universal breadth" than the Church. Citing the teachings of Vatican II, Dominus Jesus points out that that there is only one economy of salvation, and "the action of the Spirit is not outside or parallel to the action of Christ."
In the fourth and fifth Chapters, Dominus Jesus notes that the salvation promised by Jesus Christ comes through the Catholic Church, his "bride" and Mystical Body. The Catholic Church - defined as the Church that has maintained apostolic succession - is the one true Church.
While the document acknowledges that some Orthodox churches, which have maintained apostolic succession, although they do not accept the primacy of Peter, represent the true Church, other Christian bodies do not enjoy the same status. Through Baptism, it says, the members of these Christian ecclesial bodies are "incorporated in Christ" and maintain "a certain communion, albeit imperfect," with the Church.
However, the statement that "Ecclesial communities that have not preserved the valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery are not churches in the proper sense," drew a critical response from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey.
This statement, he said, fails to represent "the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical dialogue and cooperation during the past 30 years." He added that the Anglican Church "believes itself to be part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Christ."
The final Chapter sketches the implications of the Church teachings reaffirmed in Dominus Jesus for ecumenical dialogue. The ancient teaching that "the Church is necessary for salvation" is reiterated, as is the belief that while Jesus opened the path to salvation for all mankind, "the fullness of means to salvation" can be found only in the Catholic Church. For this reason, the Church has a special mission "ad gentes" - that is, to non-Catholics; the Church seeks to bring them into full communion, and offer them the full opportunity for salvation.
In ecumenical dialogue, then, it is never accurate to suggest that "one religion is as good as another." When the Church, as it engages in ecumenical dialogue, treats other partners with equal respect, this is out of recognition for "the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not the doctrinal contents" of their beliefs.