The Truth About God

The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, faith requires us to profess that the Word made flesh, in his entire mystery, who moves from incarnation to glorification, is the source, participated but real, as well as the fulfillment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity, and that the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit, will teach this “entire truth” to the Apostles and, through them, to the whole Church —Dominus Jesus (§6) 

 Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Dominus Jesus was issued on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 2000. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  Though not “inspired,” perhaps, in any technical sense, still the document was “prophetic.” It represents the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. In many ways, it is one of the most instructive and incisive of all recent papal documents.

As I look back on it now, it was a document meant to recall the central teaching of what Christianity is about. But even more, perhaps, it was to inspire Christians with the courage of their mission, which remains to go forth and teach all nations what Christ has asked and commanded. 1 It does indicate that we should be prudent, and theologically accurate, in whatever we do. But it does not say: “Go forth and teach all nations, except Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Chinese communists, sincere secularists, or Hindus.” This would, in practice, only leave a few African pagans who are not yet Muslim or Christian.

The fact is that, even with all the technological means available to us today, politically and culturally, it is less and less possible to teach and present Catholicism outside its own confines, and it is often under attack there. Freedom of religion is today much narrower than at almost any time in modern history. “Hate language” legislation has become largely a democratic, totalitarian tool to silence any real freedom of religion.

The document begins by stating what the Church itself is obliged to do and teach. It defines positions which deviate from that central purpose that is put into the world by Christ. It is thus of great significance to know just who and what Christ was and is—God? a prophet? a zealous man? a madman? “The Church’s universal mission is born from the command of Jesus Christ, and is fulfilled in the course of the centuries in the proclamation of the mystery of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son, as saving event for all humanity” (§1). Obviously, at the end of the second millennium, “this mission is still far from complete” (§2).

At this point, many begin to wonder: “Why is it not complete?” Surely two thousand years is enough time to give to a divine project. The implication is either that it really is not divine, or that the folks in charge, the pope and the hierarchy, have constantly botched the job, misunderstanding the mission. Many, therefore, want to find another way to salvation, one that would utilize other religions and rites. Christianity is only one among many ways, not the way. Dominus Jesus reaffirms the centrality of the Church and the place of Christ, true man and true God. It also relates the truths, found in other religions and philosophies, to the purposes of revelation.

Citing Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9 about the “necessity” to preach the Gospel, Dominus Jesus “explains the Magisterium’s particular attention to giving reasons for, and supporting the evangelizing mission of the Church, above all, in connection with the religious traditions of the world.” Inter-religious dialogue does not replace the need to evangelize. There is only one way of salvation. Inter-religious dialogue is designed that Catholicism be understood by other faiths, and that the Church itself knows exactly what other faiths hold. This mutual understanding is not conceived as an assault on other religions, but as a respectful understanding of how they think of themselves. Likewise, the Church has been misunderstood and misrepresented too often over the centuries to look kindly on the deliberate or inaccurate understanding of what it actually teaches and practices. It does not hide what it holds and teaches.

Dominus Jesus takes up “what has been taught in previous Magisterial documents, in order to reiterate certain truths that are part of the Christian faith” (§3). “The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto, but also de jure” (§4). Relativism holds that there is no single religious truth. All religions have something that is admirable. Therefore, religions should be joined together in a kind of world parliament of religion, under some larger cultural or political authority, which would define the limits of belief and religious practice. The claim to preserve a genuine revelation, and to make it known, is considered a threat to all religions. In this theory, Catholicism becomes the real enemy of religions in the world.

The following basic doctrines of revelation, in this new order view, have now been “superseded”:

The definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Scared Scripture, the personal unity between the Eternal Word and Jesus of Nazareth, the unity of the economy of the Incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit; the unicity and salvic universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the universal salvific mediation of the Church, the inseparability—while recognizing the distinction—of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of Christ, and the Church, and the subsistence of the one Church of Christ in the Catholic Church (§4).

These positions are controverted on all sides. The Church has the duty to remain itself, in all ages, to teach what was handed down to it. This is the good that Christ was sent into the world to make clear. His teaching was about the ultimate human purpose, and how it was to be achieved.

The document immediately states the philosophical and theological background to the objections against the truth of this revelation. Every objection to the truth of revelation will have its roots in an alternate intellectual system. What are these presuppositions?

  1. The conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation;
  2. Relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which, what is true for some, would not be true for others;
  3. The radical opposition posited between the logical mentality of the West, and the symbolic mentality of the East;
  4. The subjectivism which, by regarding reason as the only source of knowledge, becomes incapable of raising its “gaze to the heights, not daring to raise to the truth of being;”
  5. The difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history;
  6. The metaphysical emptying of the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced to a mere appearing of God in history;
  7.  The eclecticism of theologians, who uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts, without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth;
  8. The tendency to read, and to interpret, Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church (§4).

Needless to say, these statements themselves are a good review of the theology and philosophy behind the rejection of the specifically Catholic understanding of revelation. The document locates the background of arguments that, sooner or later, end up by denying essential positions of revelation. The courage to protect revelation includes the courage to state clearly what is revealed, and the reasons why it is credible.

The Koran, for example, denies both the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Man God. Indeed, it not only denies them, but forbids their expression. In the name of ecumenism, we often underestimate the virulence with which the Cross, and divinity of Christ, are denied in most segments of Islam. Calling Jesus a “prophet” here—as also occurs in liberal Christianity—is designed precisely to deny what is being taught in this document, that Jesus was not just a prophet, but the Son of God.

In the light of this view that Christ was only a prophet—a view obviously itself developed centuries after the events of Christ’s life—it is necessary to affirm that Christ was not a simply a prophet (as in the Koran), nor was he a revolutionary, nor a nice guy, nor a deluded madman. The separation of the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history, so dear to much modern theology, is, as the document says, simply untenable on the basis of the text itself. The Christian dispensation “will never pass away” (§5). The Koran’s version of another dispensation, replacing the Old and New Testaments, is simply untenable on its own, and on the grounds of the New Testament.

Nor are all religions, including Christianity, just so many partial revelations of something which none of them, by themselves, can completely grasp. There may be, and often is, some truth in most religions—from any era or in any part of the world. The Church does not deny this, but rather affirms it. But the only salvific message about salvation, in its fullness, is given in Christ (§6). Moreover, we should try to express exactly what it means when we say that “Christ is true God, and true man.” We often need philosophy—usually Greek philosophy—to assist us. In using such terms, we do not betray, but fulfill, the intent of Scripture.

“The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he who speaks and acts is the Incarnate Son of God” (§6). Those religions and systems that would say that God is so ineffable that he cannot be spoken of—so that we must lapse into silence concerning God—do not reckon with the significance of the Incarnation. The fact is that the Son of Man did use human speech, and used it accurately. This still grants that there is much more to be said, even when we have spoken rightly.

Theological faith, our personal adherence to God, and the “beliefs” of other religions are not equivalent. “The distinction between theological faith, and belief in the other religions, must be firmly held” (§7). This position does not say that, therefore, nothing in other religions is valid, but rather that the central and coherent fullness of God’s revelation is in Christ, and nowhere else. Non-revealed religions are still groping for what God is. They belong to the virtue of pietas: what man naturally owes to God. Christian revelation in this sense is not a religion. It is initially God seeking man, not man seeking God, though both have their proper places (§7).

Some writers want to maintain that the books of other religions are also “inspired.” Often, the reason they want to maintain this view is because they despair of the Christian mission in the world. If all are to be saved, they argue, the only way this can happen is if the books and rites of other faiths are equally salvific with the Christian books. The Church, however, reserves the term “inspiration” to the Old and New Testaments alone (§8). It does not deny that good things can be found in these other books, but not the proper explanation of what God has revealed. Nor does this mean that all men are not called to the same end. Citing the famous passage from Gaudium et Spes §22, the document states that God will “not fail” to make ways known to them. But the source of these ways is not independent of Christ, and his relation to the human race. “The sacred books of other religions, which, in actual fact, direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain” (§8).

Other theories want to “elevate” the Holy Spirit to a position independent of Christ and His Church. The document has no trouble in admitting that the range of the Spirit, and grace, is outside the limited boundaries of the visible Church. Jesus is not just another pious or holy figure, along with others (§9). “These theses (that say he is) are in profound conflict with the Christian faith. The doctrine of faith must be firmly believed which proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, and he alone, is the son and the Word of the Father” (§10). Nor is it possible to maintain that the Word of God, the Logos, is one thing, and Jesus, the man, is another. They are one and the same.

There is but one salvific program that is revealed: that is in Christ, who is true man. He is the sole, universal redeemer. Any theory of redemption must pass through him (§11). This is why some theories of the Holy Spirit, providing an alternate way of redemption, are untenable. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. There is one redemption effected by the Trinity, for one purpose: that all men might be saved. “There are also those who propose the hypothesis of an economy of the Holy Spirit, with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen. This position also is contrary to the Catholic faith, which, on the contrary, considers the salvific incarnation of the Word a Trinitarian event” (§12). Even from the beginning of the world, as well as in areas not yet evangelized, the presence of the Holy Spirit is always directed to the incarnational event. The Church has no trouble in admitting that the work of the Spirit, even now, ranges freely over the earth; but its purpose is the same redemption in Christ. There is but one “divine economy.”

The salvific mission of Christ is universal, being one within itself. With rather dry words, the document reads: “The thesis which denies the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ is also put forward. Such a position has no biblical foundation” (§13). The constant teaching is that salvation will finally come through the sacrifice of the Cross. There are not “many” ways to salvation. All salvation will be through the grace of Christ, through the plan of the Father in sending him, and his Spirit, into the world.

“Those solutions that propose a salvific action of God, beyond the unique mediation of Christ, would be contrary to Christian and Catholic faith” (§14). This reaffirmation is not stated with any arrogance or defensiveness. It is just a report of what the texts say, and of what the Church has always taught. It is one thing to say that “I do not agree with this, or I do not think it applies to me.” What is of concern here is whether this unconcern is what the Church teaches, on the basis of its mandate in Scripture and tradition.

Some propose that “theology should avoid the use of terms like ‘unity’, ‘universality’, and ‘absoluteness’, which give the impression of excessive emphasis on the significance and value of the salvific event of Jesus Christ in relation to other religions. In reality, however, such language is simply being faithful to revelation” (§15).

The final two sections of Dominus Jesus have to do with the Church, and its role in our salvation. The Church was established: she is an organized society under the successor of Peter and the bishops (§16). “Therefore, there exists a single Church ofChrist” (§17). The mission of this Church remains to make known this single revelation to all men (§18). We may not like this establishment, or think we have a better plan. Rather, what is at issue here is: “What did Christ do?” The document states the difference between the Church, and churches and ecclesiastical bodies (§17). And there is no doubt that all Christians should worship in one Church.

The document is careful to distinguish between the Church, theKingdomofGod, and theKingdomofChrist(§18). These are biblical terms, and technical ones. Christ, as the man-God, is the center. The Church is not identified with theKingdomofGod, but is not apart from it. It is within it, as a body set up by Christ, to carry out his mission in this world. The document notes a modern “kingdom-oriented” thesis that wants to downplay both Christ and the Church, in order to get everyone into the Kingdom of God. Again, “these theses are contrary to Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God” (§19). In wanting to gather everyone into the kingdom, they bypass the means and institutions that Christ set up in the world to accomplish what he offered to mankind.

Finally, the Church is not just one way, among other ways, to salvation. If there is going to be an eternal destiny for all mankind, as there is, it cannot avoid a relationship with Christ. Dominus Jesus states that the Church is necessary for salvation, but this doctrine should not “be set against the universal salvific will of God” (§20). The true Church, established by Christ, “subsists in” the Catholic Church. This does not mean that grace and the Spirit are not operative beyond the visible Church’s structure, but it does mean that grace and the Spirit are not setting up some alternative way to salvation that somehow bypasses what the Church is. “It would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church, or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological  kingdom of God” (§21).

How all of this is to be coherently explained is something for theologians to ponder. Dominus Jesus is concerned with these issues, but within the parameters of what is given in revelation itself. We may not see how God’s salvific will—that all be saved—is explained within the context of what Christ said about baptism, and the Church. But any explanations should begin with these givens. Otherwise, we have, in effect, some other position that was established by Christ.

“With the coming of the Savior Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church, founded by him, be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity. This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, the mentality of indifferentism, characterized by a religious relativism, which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another’” (§22). The universal plan of God for salvation means that the Church must always, even today, be “missionary” to all peoples in ways that respect the freedom, intelligence, and customs of others, but which also include the core of revelation.

Thus, if it is asked about its truth, the Church must speak it. This truth is what it owes to the people of the world, who look for a salvation from their sins. The document concludes by citing the Declaration on Religious Liberty (§1) from Vatican II: “We believe that this one true religion continues to exist in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus entrusted the task of spreading it among all peoples’” (§23).

Looking back over a decade since the publication of Dominus Jesus, we can note that in the meantime, we witness the rise of a militant Islam, the increased and aggressive secularism that no longer “tolerates,” but replaces religion, and the continued decline in births in formerly Christian areas. We also see the growing doubt, in many quarters, that the Church is the mediator of salvation. As Benedict wrote in Spe Salvi, we see a secular eschatology, not the one given through the Lord Jesus, but invented by man himself.

We notice that the alternatives to Christianity are pale imitations of what men really want, which is eternal life. It is refreshing that the Church still has the vigor, in her heart and in her head, to reaffirm that the salvation, offered to mankind through Christ, remains the only one which answers the longing in men’s restless souls. Surely, the Church is right to reaffirm what it is to the nations, whether they listen or not. To repeat: “The truth about God is not abolished or reduced because it is spoken in human language; rather, it is unique, full, and complete, because he, who speaks and acts, is the Incarnate Son of God” (§6).

 

  1. Cf. for an earlier comment on this document, James V. Schall, “On Being Faithful to Revelation,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CI (March 2002), 22-31.
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avatar About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, S.J., is professor emeritus of political science at Georgetown University, now retired and in residence at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center, Los Gatos, California. He is the author of many monographs, and, perhaps, the leading essayist writing in English today. He has been one of HPR’s most prolific authors.

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