Published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, CI (March, 2001), 22-31.


James V. Schall, S. J.

  Georgetown University, DC, 20057-1200




ANot infrequently it is proposed that theology should avoid the use of terms like >unicity,= 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, since it represents a development of the sources of the faith themselves.@

B Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, Declaration =Dominus Jesus.= #15.[1]


From time to time, it is incumbent on the Catholic Church to state clearly what it is.  When it makes this effort, as most recently it did with the Declaration ADominus Jesus@: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, it will be accused of everything from arrogance, to duplicity, to pride, to hatred of other religions and philosophies.  Even in the supposedly most responsible media, what it teaches will often be misunderstood or unfairly presented.  Few really want to think that the Church=s claims, claims given to her about herself, are in fact true.  Moreover, genuine confusion often exists among Church members themselves about just what it does hold about itself and why.  The Magisterium of the Church is really not free simply to ignore widespread confusions about what it is and holds, especially when these confusions arise from certain theological or philosophical speculations of Catholic thinkers themselves. 

To those who do not pay careful attention to the exactness of thought and wording that the Church employs when speaking of what has been revealed to it, it might seem like the Church has Achanged.@  In recent times, with considerable attention to world religions and to the ecumenical movement, it may appear that the Church is just another sect or Areligion.@  Proposals for a Aworld congress of religions@ are evidently designed to reinforce this impression that something Ahigher@ than the Church exists, of which it is merely a part.  In an article in the Italian journal, L=Avvenire (Sept. 15, 2000), Josef Cardinal Ratzinger noted the philosophical presuppositions that arise out of the ANew World Order@ as it appears in United Nations circles.  This philosophy of a Anew man and a new world@ rejects the idea of responsibility to others.  AIt is very realistic in as much as it sets limits to the means available for reaching it (human good) and recommends, for example, without so doing attempting to justify itself, not being concerned with the call of those who are no longer productive or who can no longer hope for a determined quality of life.@  The very meaning of feminity in this thinking is radically changed to a sterile egalitarianism.  Others are Aantagonistic@ to us, not objects of love.

Josef Cardinal Ratzinger clearly and patiently in Dominus Jesus seeks to express what it is that the Church is obliged to teach about herself.  It might be well, in the minds of some, if the Church were something other than what it is.  Many of the Church=s claims, in the scope of their vision, make moderns nervous.  Thus, if we have some kind of outside philosophy or theory that reduces the Church to the limits of our own Ascientific@ categories, then certain basic positions of the Church will have to be rejected.  The effort to make the Church look just like the Aworld@ has a long history. 

But the Church is bound, in a clear and calm way, to state of itself not what some human being has concocted, but what is revealed to it about itself  on the authority of God.  We might wish that God had left us alone or kindly figured out some other way so that no one would have to reckon with the demands of this particular revelation.  Yet, whether we happen to accept it or not, it is well to know just what it is that the Church maintains to be the structure of man=s relation to God as it is revealed to it not by some human but by a divine source.  If revelation has any hope of persuading us, it must first be what it is.

In recent years, it often appears that some philosophers and theologians would like the Church to be something other than it is, other than it describes itself to be.  In order to accomplish this wish, it is possible to propose certain, what first appear to be slight, changes in emphases or teaching.  Thus, if Christ is not the unique savior, we might be able to postulate that there were many Asaviors@ all on an Aequal@ level.  We would need no real mission ad gentes, to the world.  This equality would mean that it is not necessary to confront in a reasonable and orderly way other philosophies or religions with the truth of their position.  The Church has no difficulty in accepting any truth from whatever source if it be a truth, but it cannot be true to itself and approve the doctrine that there are many saviors.  Thus, in this current document, Cardinal Ratzinger is quite careful to state what it is we must believe on the grounds that something definite has been presented to us about our relation to God in Christ. 

One is struck in reading this document by how frequently such phrases as Amust be firmly believed,@ often in italics, appear.  In fact, I counted some twenty-six times that such words or their equivalent appear.  Often in our relativistic world, any attempt to state a definitive truth will be rejected on the theoretical grounds that no one can know or affirm any truth.  Since the Church has often dealt with this classical skeptical argument, now also so very modern, Ratzinger does not go into its dimensions.  Rather what he has done is to state the nature of the problem and what the Church=s response has been.  The Declaration is rather brief, full of citations from Scripture, the Councils, the Popes.  However other faiths or philosophies might appear, Ratzinger here states what is to be held and held on the grounds of the truth of revelation.  Moreover, as he points out, these are not his private opinions or those of any Pope or theologian.  They are what the Church teaches on a given issue.  We might not like what it is obliged to hold about itself perhaps, but it would be perverse of us, no matter who we are, to want the Church to state something other than what it is in fact obliged to hold and teach. 

The Document further indicates where there is legitimate room for further speculation on one or other issue.  The spirit of the document is positive.  It is a service to intellect, to truth.  When it tells us what we must firmly believe it is separating out certain confusions and errors.  It is good to know them, but it is also good to know what it is that faith says of itself, good to see why thinking is more unified, more forceful, more truthful when we know what exactly it is we hold.

What I propose to do here is to go through the twenty-six passages or sentences in which Ratzinger points out that here is something that we must Afirmly hold.@  It is illuminating, I think, to recall that the Church teaches most clearly when, as it were, she teaches negatively, when she says of this or that opinion, after stating what it is, that the Church does not hold this opinion.  The human mind seeks clarity.  Indeed, in a passage near the end of the Declaration, one that recalls something Paul VI added to the Vatican II=s Declaration on Religious Liberty in order precisely to obviate the problem of subjective relativism, we read, AEspecially in those things that concern God and his Church, all persons are required to seek the truth, and when they come to know it, to embrace it and hold fast to it@ (#23, Dignitatis humanae, #1).  These words reflect an urgency that is found in revelation about what is presented to mankind.  Nothing in revelation is indifferent; knowledge must lead to action.

1) The first time the phrase Amust be firmly believed@ comes up in the Document concerns the Adefinitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ@ (#5).  Cardinal Ratzinger had previously simply repeated the Nicene Creed as what it is we are to believe (#1).  There is not going to be some Anew@ and more definitive dispensation from God.  The Gospel is the fullness of truth.  The self-revelation of God is itself the reason the Church is Amissionary.@ 

2) From this fullness it follows that other religions do not Acompliment@ what is lacking in Christianity (#6).  AThe theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ ... is contrary to the Church=s faith.@  The full and complete mystery of God is present in Jesus Christ.  Christ=s words and deeds have a divine subject.  They do not need to be supplemented by other revelations.

3) Simply because God is transcendent and inexhaustible, it does not follow that the spoken words of Christ coming in a human form reduce or abolish the relation of God to this particular revelation.  Thus, Athe 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 fulfilment of every salvific revelation of God to humanity@ (#6).  The Holy Spirit, as Christ=s spirit, will teach this Awhole truth.@  The effort to reduce the significance of Jesus= words because they are in human form cannot be justified if, as He is, Jesus is a divine Person from whom such words come forth.

4) Faith requires obedience  B Athe proper response to God=s revelation is >the obedience of faith@ (#7, Rom. 16:26).  Granted that faith is a gift and that it must be freely accepted, still it is a knowledge, a truth.  Faith rests on the authority of God.  The fourth thing that must be held, then, is that Athe obedience of faith implies acceptance of the truth of Christ=s revelation, guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself.@  What God is like, how He is, is thus not up to us to establish.  It is first  given to us.  Truth is not just freedom.  It also includes obedience because it is not something we create ourselves.  But revelation is addressed to us as true.  We are to hold it.

5) Theological faith and the Abelief@ of other religions are qualitatively different.  AThe distinction between theological faith and belief in other religions must be firmly held@ (#7).  What is at stake here is the difference between human wisdom that is gathered from experience and theological faith that is not a product of human wisdom but results from grace.   The latter could not be arrived at by ordinary rational processes, even though faith is not presented as Airrational@ but as leading to more rationality even at the philosophical level.

6) The sixth doctrine that must be firmly believed is that AJesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, and he alone, is the Son and the Word of the Father@ (#10).  This is stated against a current theological speculation that would stress Jesus= finiteness and historicity to such a degree that He is not divine in any Aexclusive way.@  Since Christ is so minimized and God so exalted, this would leave room, it is held, for the AMystery of God to be manifested in many ways.@  This thesis would get rid of the uniqueness of Christ as something with which to be specifically reckoned.

7) A further way that some higher religion might replace Christianity would be to evolve a thesis that separated the Word and Jesus.  Christ=s humanity would not be identified with the Word as it affirms in the Prologue to John.  There would be possible a AWord@ of God that is present in the world that is not connected directly with Christ.  To this position, the following text of John Paul II (Redemptoris Missio, # 6) is cited: ATo introduce any separation between the Word and Jesus Christ is contrary to the Christian faith@ (#10).  The revelation handed down to us does not make any such distinction. 

8) This position leads to a further, more specific issue.  Some want to make the Word to be active in some sort of redemptive operation apart from the Word made flesh.  Thus, Ait is likewise contrary to the Catholic faith to introduce a separation between the salvific action of the Word as such and that of the Word made man@ (#10).  The Incarnation means that all actions that are saving are through Christ=s human nature which is directed to all people.  God is not at work against Himself with, as it were, two Awords@ out there.  The divine means whereby the Word was to reach all was through the Incarnation.

9) The ninth clarification merely restates the previous one in more specific terms: AThe theory  which would attribute after the incarnation as well, a salvific activity to the Logos as such in his divinity, exercised >in addition to= or >beyond= the humanity of Christ, is not compatible with the Catholic faith@ (#10).  Such a theory obviously could be used to argue that other religions are founded by the Logos outside the Logos made flesh, as the humanity of Christ.  This thesis would reduce the uniqueness and necessity of Christianity in the world as the sole instrument whereby men are to get to God, however they do get there.

10) Many of these questions arise through the actions of the Church in relation to dialogue with non-Christians.  It would thus seem to many that salvation can be achieved without any relation to the core of the Christian revelation.  The tenth affirmation has to do with intrinsic unity of the Church and the fact that the way to God is given to us by God.  Thus, it is not up to the Church to formulate some different means.  AThe doctrine of faith regarding the unicity of the salvific economy willed by the One and Triune God must be firmly believed, at the source and center of which is the mystery of the incarnation of the Word, mediator of divine grace on the level of creation and redemption@ (#11).

11) The next effort to find revealed truths in other religions or philosophies would be to attribute some activity of the Holy Spirit functioning outside the activity of the Word made flesh.  Again what is at stake is the orderly relation within the Trinity and its action ad extra.  The Second Vatical Council posed this fundamental truth about what is taught.  In Ratzinger=s words,  AThe entire work of building the Church by Jesus Christ the Head, in the course of the centuries, is seen as an action which he does in communion with his Spirit@ (#12). 

12) There is not then a multiplicity of ways or systems whereby different people are saved.   AThe recent Magisterium has firmly and clearly recalled the truth of a single divine economy.@  Thus, there is no separation between the Word and the Word made flesh.  Moreover, Athe action of the Spirit is not outside or parallel to the action of Christ@ (#12).

13) Some effort has been made to separate the universality and the uniqueness of Christ.  Ratzinger bluntly states that Asuch a position has no biblical foundation@ (#13).  Christ is the only savior.  In His life, death, and resurrection, He had fulfilled the history of salvation.  He is the fullness and center of salvation.  This must be firmly believed as Aa constant element of the Church=s faith.@  God is not concocting some other mode of salvation, nor has He previously developed any outside the confines of His revelation.  Again, Ait must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God@ (#14). 

14) This affirmation is not intended to show disrespect for or to downgrade the noble accomplishments of Ahistorical figures@ and great Areligions.@  They do have a place in salvation history but not independently of God=s general intention in creation and redemption.  Scholars are invited at this point (#14) to see if they can better understand what this role may be.  The fact that Christ is the Aunique mediator@ is not intended to exclude but to Agive rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in the one source.@  These other religious leaders and beliefs acquire their meaning not independently but within the unique mission of Christ.  AHence, those solutions (to why there are other religions) that propose a salvific action of God beyond the unique mediation of Christ would be contrary to Christian and Catholic faith@ (#15).

15) The next issue concerns the Church and its role in salvation.  AThe Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery@ (#16).  Christ and the Holy Spirit founded one Church through which the one redemption is to reach all.  However this full redemption is to happen, we do not fully understand.  What is clear is this: AIn connection with the unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus Christ, the unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith.@  Here Cardinal Ratzinger affirms that there is one Christ, one body of Christ, one Bride of Christ, a Asingle Catholic and apostolic Church.  Christ promised not to abandon this Church.  He promised to Aguide it by His Spirit.@ 

16) The status of the Church is itself a matter of faith.  We do not deal with  some abstract Church, nor some merely invisible Church.  AThe Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity  B rooted in the apostolic succession B between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church@ (#16).  The Church of Christ continues to exist in its fullness in the Catholic Church, but this does not mean that Amany elements can be found of sanctification and truth@ in Churches and ecclesiastical communities@ not in full union.

17) Dominus Jesus distinguishes between those AChurches@ that retain apostolic succession and those that do not.  The first have problems with the primacy Awhich, according to the will of God,  the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the whole Church@ (#17).  Again we have here a statement of what the Church sees itself to be.  Those ecclesial communities that do not preserve apostolic succession Aare not Churches in the proper sense.@  They may have baptism, however, which of its very nature tends to direct those possessing it validly points to the fullness of the Church.

18) With this background, the Church is not just another branch of some larger organization of churches.  AThe Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection  B divided, yet in some way one B of Churches and ecclesial communions; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal, which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach@ (#17, from CDF, Mysterium Ecclesiae, #1).  The Church sees herself both to exist and to be whole.  The idea that the Church will appear in the future or that it is a Acollection@ are in error about the Church itself.

19) Ratzinger spends considerable time on distinguishing properly Christ, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Christ, and the Church.  These descriptions are related to each other and have differing emphases (#18-19).  Here Ratzinger is concerned with a view of the Church that is almost Atoo spiritual.@  In this theory, the Church as we know it historically disappears.  In this view, the Church is wholly Aother@ oriented and Akingdom@ centered.  The Church is not really herself.  While there may be some positive aspects to this sort of thinking, such theories Aare silent about Christ:  the kingdom of which they peak is >theocentrically= based, since, according to them, Christ cannot be understood by those who lack Christian faith@ (#19).  Since these many people can find common ground in AGod,@ then the redemptive nature of the Church is de-emphasized in order to present more universality.  AThey keep silent about the mystery of the redemption.@  Kingdom theses usually leave very little room for the Church, which is a mere sign and an Aambiguous@ one.  AThese 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.@

20) The next question that arises is whether the Church is therefore Anecessary for salvation.@  Ratzinger is very careful in presenting the exact position of the Church here as it is a source of considerable confusion.  First of all, in principle, Ait must be firmly believed that >the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation=@ (#20).  There is one Christ, not many.  But this teaching Amust not be set against the universal salvific will of God.@  There are two truths here that are to be seen together, not opposed to each other.  God wills all to be saved; God wills all to be saved through Christ and the Church.  This must mean that a means is available for those to be saved who are Anot formally and visibly members of the Church.@  But if they are so saved, that salvation is somehow through the Church and the redemptive will of God in establishing it.  AThe grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit; it has a relationship with Christ...@  God wills all to be saved; no one is saved if not somehow through the Church.

21) What follows is that the Church is not merely Aa@ way to salvation.  AIt would be contrary to the faith to consider the Church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions seen as complimentary to the Church@ (#21).  This will seem like a hard saying to those who deny that God established  in this world His particular way for the salvation of all.  This way, no other, was given to the Church to keep in tact.  Neither the Church nor anybody else is free to set up a separate way different from that handed down to it.

22) None of this insistence on the uniqueness of the Church is intended to minimize the good or valuable insights in other religions or philosophical systems.  They each have something, but they also lack something which cannot be overlooked. AOne cannot attribute to these (other religious institutions) a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy which is proper to the Christian sacraments@ (#21).  However we explain what is unique to the Church, it is not to be confused with other religions or systems.  The Church is not to be seen primarily as >hostile@ to other religions but as something that seeks out and develops what is best in them in the light of its own revealed truth..

23) The Church of Christ is an instrument for the salvation of Aall humanity@ (#22). AThis truth of the faith does not lessen the sincere regard which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism >characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that >one religion is as good as another.=@ Even though members of other religions can be graced, it is certain that objectively speaking, they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation (#22).  It does make a difference to belong to the Church.

24) At this point, the document reminds us that, however valuable and exalted it might be to be members of the Church, however difficult it might be for those outside its confines to save their souls, none the less all of this that is given to Catholics is a grace (#22).  It is not the result of their own merit.

25). AGod wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth@ (#22).  There is not some untrue or false way to salvation.  In other words, the differing ways are not all the same.  These affirmations are not intended to minimize the value or purpose of inter-religious dialogue. AEquality, which is a pre-supposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to the doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ....@  The Church, thus, has an obligation to maintain and make known what it is.  AThe Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord@ (#22).  Thus, the Church is not free not to make known the criteria of its own presence in the world.

26) Finally, Cardinal Ratzinger recalls Vatican II=s affirmation that the one true Church founded by Christ does exist, and exists in the Catholic Church in its fullness. AEspecially in those things that concern God and his Church, all persons are required to seek the truth, and when they come to know it, to embrace it and to hold fast to it@  B words taken from Vatican II=s Declaration on Religious Liberty (#23).  This last Arequirement@ contains some irony.  Truth is not merely some indifferent proposition, but something that demands assent, something that calls out to us.  The notion that there could be a Atruth@ that somehow did not call forth our assent is simply unintelligible.

The Declaration Dominus Jesus comes before us at a time when we actually find efforts to subsume the Church into a Alarger@ religious body and thereby to downgrade its own uniqueness and universality.  Chesterton had said that most religions look rather the same from the outside.  If they do not genuflect, they bow.  Religions primarily differ in what they hold to be true.  In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul tells us to Ashun idolatry.@  AI speak to you as men of sense,@ he us.  He warns about idolatry, about demons.  Some perfectly good things are in fact offered to demons (10:14-22).  Human life itself can be one of these things offered.  The great Aidol@ today is a New World Order, as Cardinal Ratzinger describes it, in which Aa new man@ is proposed, one that is satisfied with himself, one who sees or wants no obligation to others, who wants few or no children.  The new order subsumes all into itself.  This new order does not neglect the force of religion in the world but seeks to direct it to its own purposes. 

The Declaration Dominus Jesus is directed at this mentality as it seeks to substitute itself for what the Church thinks of itself and its own purpose in the world.  The Church is increasingly seen as the primary Aenemy@ of this Anew man.@  Thus, it is not true that there are no idols in our time, no demons.  We just do not recognize them for what they are.  But the Church seems to recognize them.  When, in our freedom, we are pointed to things we should Afirmly believe,@ we are indirectly looking at the idols that would replace the Church.  We are looking at the demons who, as Cardinal Ratzinger told us, would replace love with selfishness, life with sterility, generosity with self-centeredness.  These are momentous issues that are presented to us in terms of what the Church thinks of herself and her universal salvific mission to all mankind. 

There is but one God, one revelation, one destiny for us all.  But these truths are presented to us freely.  Revelation is not ours to reconstruct on our own basis.  The very fact that the scope of this new world order is precisely universal necessarily brings it into opposition with the Church which it seeks to replace or reorganize.  If we think wrongly about the Church and its own purpose, we will think wrongly about the world.  This new world is not presenting itself as a neutral or favorable grounds for revelation.  It appears precisely as an alternative to it.  The Church is willing to understand and accept anything true in other faiths or philosophies, even in a proposed world organization.  But if the conditions of such acceptance means a rejection of what must be Afirmly believed,@ then it seems quite clear that we are again being spoken to as Amen of sense.@  We are again warned about idols and demons that give us a Anew man@ ruling in a manner quite contrary to the destiny we are offered in the Word made flesh..

[1]This declaration appears in L=Osservatore Romano, English, September 6, 2000, Special Insert, italics added.