The Vatican today published a new text from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the unique role of the Church in the economy of salvation.
Dominus Jesus is a 36-page statement, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the prefect and secretary respectively of the Congregation. It is designed to answer a series of questions about the importance of the Catholic Church, answering questions that have arisen in the context of ecumenical activities. The document was approved by Pope John Paul in June.
Addressed to "bishops, theologians, and all the Catholic faithful," Dominus Jesus is structured as a response by the Holy See to theories that have been raised by contemporary theologians, particularly in Asia. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith warns against "shortcuts" in theology that tend to diminish the importance of the Catholic Church. Because it is primarily a response to such "erroneous or ambiguous opinions," the document frequently uses phrases such as "it must be firmly believed" or "it is contrary to the faith of the Church."
The text emphasizes the essential role of the Church, as opposed to "relativistic theories" that would suggest all religions are equal. The new Vatican statement also rejects an approach which would claim a "radical opposition" between "the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East." That attitude, the text 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 is divided into six chapters. The first chapter asserts 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.
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 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."
Chapter Three carries that message further, emphasizing that salvation can come to mankind only through the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. The document rejects the notion that the Catholic Church should avoid claiming that Jesus is the "unique," "universal," or "absolute" means to salvation. The use of such language, the document says, is simply a matter of faithfulness to the message which has been entrusted by God to the Church.
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 document warns against a relativistic approach, which would suggest that all religions contain some elements of God's saving message, or that no institutional religion is a perfect representation of God's will for mankind. The Catholic Church-- defined as the Church that has maintained apostolic succession-- is the one true Church, the document asserts.
Dominus Jesus acknowledges that some Orthodox churches, which have maintained apostolic succession although they do not accept the primacy of Peter, represent the true Church. But other Christian bodies do not enjoy the same status. Through Baptism, the members of these Christian ecclesial bodies maintain "a certain communion, albeit imperfect," with the Church, the document says.
The final chapter of Dominus Jesus sketches the implications of these Church teachings for ecumenical dialogue. The Vatican statement upholds the ancient teaching that "the Church is necessary for salvation." While Jesus opened the path to salvation for all mankind, the statement teaches, "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," Dominus Jesus cautions. The Church engages in ecumenical dialogue, treating other partners with equal respect, out of recognition for "the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not the doctrinal contents" of their beliefs.
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