Dominus Iesus

(The Furrow, April 2001, pp. 169-171)


The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, (CDF), on 6 August 2000, published the declaration Dominus Iesus, on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. It is good to have a statement about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, the mediator between God and humanity. Without Christ, there is no Christianity, no Christian church, nothing but an empty promise.

The document addresses three different groups, those outside the Christian community, Christians of other denominations, and Catholics. Let us ask ourselves a question: how would those groups feel on reading Dominus Iesus?

Those outside the Christian community

They are told: ‘If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely defective situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation’. (n.22) I think they could hardly avoid the feeling of being belittled and having a door closed against them. What of the Holy Spirit ‘who breathes where he wills’? (John 3.8) There is a wider theology on this issue but Dominus Iesus does little justice to it. It seems concerned to lessen its significance. What is missing from it is the spirit that imbued a letter of Pope Gregory VII to Anzir, the (Moslem) King of Mauritania, in 1076, ‘We and you… believe and confess one God, although in different ways, and praise and worship him daily as the creator of all ages and the ruler of this world’. (Letter 21, PL 48, 450-452)

Christians of other denominations

Consider for a moment the Orthodox. They are told that they ‘derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’. (n.16) That sounds like saying that they live on the crumbs that fall from Mother Church’s table. What is missing from Dominus Iesus is the spirit found in Vatican II’s Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches: ‘Nothing more should be demanded of separated Eastern Christians who come to Catholic unity under the influence of the grace of the Holy Spirit than what the simple profession of the Catholic faith requires’. (n.25) And, in a similar spirit, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote on this that ‘Rome must not require more from the East with respect to the doctrine of primacy than what had been formulated and was lived during the first millennium’. (See his Principles of Catholic Theology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1987, p.199.) Perhaps it is not very surprising, even if disappointing, that the Russian Orthodox Church reacted to Dominus Iesus by issuing a statement to the effect that the one true Church of Christ subsists in the Russian Orthodox Church and that other churches participate in that fullness to a degree. One is prompted to ask how Christian unity is advanced by this type of debate.

Closer to home, how are Christians of other Christian denominations, such as Anglicans or Presbyterians expected to feel when they are told that ‘They are not churches in a proper sense’? It seems the message to them here is that their Christianity is of a second class. What the document does, implicitly, is to define on its own terms what a “proper” church is, e.g. one with apostolic succession through a college of bishops. Then, in terms of that definition, some are excluded. Could that same process not equally well be applied to us? What if the “improper” churches were to say to us, ‘We believe that a church is a community of faith. That faith is expressed in prayer. It seems self-evident to us that the shared prayer of a community of faith should be intelligible to its members. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used in its liturgy a language which was unintelligible to its members. Sorry, but that means that, in our eyes, you are not a “proper” church. We don’t like to say this but respect for the truth compels it.’ Or again they might say, ‘A church is a community. A community is a body of people who share a commitment to a common goal and the activities proper to its achievement. All the members should be free to participate in those. But, in the Roman Catholic Church, laypeople, who constitute 99.98% of the membership, are excluded from a say in the decision-making processes of the church. For us, that is a defect from which the Roman Catholic Church suffers. It cannot therefore, be considered a “proper” church. Sorry, but the charity of Christ compels us.’

They are also told that ‘They suffer from defects’ (n.17). Yes, they do. What Church does not? Are we Catholics free from defects, either individually or as a community? Could anyone look at a summary of Church teachings in, let us say, Denzinger, and say that there are no defects in it? The spirit of Dominus Iesus is foreign to that of Ut Unum Sint, which said ‘If Christians, despite their divisions, can grow ever more united in common prayer around Christ, they will grow in the awareness of how little divides them in comparison to what unites them’. (n.22)

In the light of Dominus Iesus, other Christians must surely ask themselves whether the last forty years of ecumenical dialogue on the part of the Catholic Church, of agreed statements and prophetic gestures of goodwill, forty years of raised hopes, are not now thrown into doubt. They must wonder if we really meant what we said in our statements on ecumenism. Are we sending them the message that our view of the project of Christian unity is that it will come about only through the conversion of other Christians to the Catholic Church? Are we back to Mortalium Animos of Pope Pius XI in 1928 who wrote, ‘There is but one way in which the unity of Christians may be fostered, and that is by furthering the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it; for from that one true Church they have in the past fallen away’. (pp.20-21 of CTS edition.) That approach did not bring us one step closer.

What is especially significant to me are the reactions to Dominus Iesus that I have heard from Catholics. We all know of critical opinions that have been expressed through the media. But the approving voices I have heard – and there were more of them than critical ones – were from people who have never had any ecumenical involvement, and who, I believe, regard ecumenism as something between a waste of time and a dangerous nuisance. They say simply that we are the one true Church of Christ – and that’s all there’s to it. Others are outside until they agree to join on our terms – in other words, unconditional surrender. I believe that many of the people I have heard on this would breathe a sigh of relief if a pope were to say, in effect, that the ecumenical venture is over and we will now go back to square one. Those are the people I have heard speaking in support of Dominus Iesus, and they feel reinforced by what it said.


The document addresses a third group of people, those within the Catholic Church who lean towards a separation of the kingdom from the Church. It says, ‘They stress the image of a Church which is not concerned about herself, but which is totally concerned with bearing witness to and serving the kingdom. It is a “Church for others,” just as Christ is the “man for others”… Furthermore, the kingdom, as they understand it, ends up either leaving very little room for the Church or undervaluing the Church in reaction to a presumed “ecclesiocentrism” of the past and because they consider the Church herself only a sign, for that matter a sign not without ambiguity. These theses are contrary to the Catholic faith because they deny the unicity of the relationship which Christ and the Church have with the kingdom of God’. (n.19)

The document speaks of ‘a presumed “ecclesiocentrism” of the past’. I don’t know about that, but I am keenly aware of being alienated by the actual ecclesiocentrism of the present. The Church has largely spent the years since Vatican II talking to itself about itself – and the world has stopped listening. There is indeed a reaction to such “ecclesiocentrism”. What else can be expected? The problem referred to here – and it is a real one – will not be met on the terms outlined in Dominus Iesus. The theologians of the CDF see reality in theological terms and they respond to it on that level. In this document they do not see that the problem they are here describing is one of leadership, which has to be met on that level, that is to say, through a type or quality of church leadership, one which is inclusive rather than exclusive, which engages in dialogue and welcomes participation in decision-making by all believers. There is indeed widespread alienation from the Church. In Ireland we have largely lost the young, the liberals, the poor, educated women and some of the left. (We would have lost all of the latter but for CORI). Many of those people have not rejected Christ or the Gospel; they have not ceased to search for human values and a human way of living. But they have not found the Church a source of help in that quest. Perhaps, though, they are ‘not far from the Kingdom of God’. (Mark 12.34) I cannot see anything in Dominus Iesus that would encourage them to have second thoughts.

To speak of leadership is not to speak only of pope and bishops. In one way or another everyone is called to leadership. It is the kingly aspect of our baptismal vocation, as the search for motivation, vitality and enthusiasm is part of the priestly aspect, and the search for meaning is part of the prophetic. I can see that kind of leadership and search going in the “the world”. I don’t see it in the life of the Church at present, except at the margins. It has been said that ‘If change is to come, it will come from the margins… it was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.’ (Wendell Berry.)

Broadening the picture

Let us look for a moment at a much broader picture, which, at first sight, may seem to have nothing to do with Dominus Iesus. I ask the reader’s patience for a seeming digression.

I believe that our ecological sins are catching up with us human beings; there is evidence that the world is moving towards an ecological crisis. Global warming, regarded as a hypothesis only a decade ago, is now accepted as fact. It is just one alarm signal. Others call for attention.

Firstly, the world’s supply of oxygen comes largely from three sources, the forests of Siberia, the Amazon and Africa. Regarding Siberia, President Putin of Russia recently signed a contract granting a South Korean conglomerate carte blanche to exploit a substantial part of it without any environmental precautions. To reinforce this point he abolished Russia’s Environmental Protection Agency. (The St. Petersburg Times, 11 July 2000, pp.1-2.) In regard to the Amazon, already substantially reduced through logging, human settlement and slash-and-burn agriculture, the Brazilian Congress recently enacted legislation allowing for half of what remains to be cut down. And Africa lost 10% of its forest between 1980 and 1995. (See Ellen Teague, “Mozambique is a warning”, The Tablet, 11 March 2000, p. 340.) The question is: where is our oxygen going to come from?

Secondly, water. Crispin Tickell, a former British ambassador to the UN, wrote: ‘World demand for water doubles every 21 years, but the volume available is the same as it was in Roman times. Something has got to give. Water will be the progenitor of more wars than oil.’ And King Hussein of Jordan said that the next war in the Middle East would be about water.

Thirdly, population. World population grows annually by the population of Germany, that is, 80 million a year, or 1½ million a week. The rate of growth would be higher if the world had followed the teaching of Humanae Vitae. Each of those 1½ million comes with a head, a heart and a pair of hands – but each needs resources.

Fourthly, resources. ‘From 1950 to 1997, the use of lumber tripled, that of paper increased six-fold, the fish catch increased nearly fivefold, grain consumption nearly tripled, fossil fuel burning nearly quadrupled, and air and water pollutants multiplied several-fold. The unfortunate reality is that the economy continues to expand, but the ecosystem on which it depends does not, creating an increasingly stressed relationship. While economic indicators such as investment, production, and trade are consistently positive, the key environmental indicators are increasingly negative. Forests are shrinking, water tables are falling, soils are eroding, wetlands are disappearing, fisheries are collapsing, rangelands are deteriorating, rivers are running dry, temperatures are rising, coral reefs are dying, and plant and animal species are disappearing’. (Lester Brown, founder and president of the Worldwatch Institute, Washington, quoted by David Willey, “The Pressures on the Planet”, The Tablet, 12 September 1998, pp.1173-4.)

I am not saying that Dominus Iesus should have addressed issues such as those. Clearly that was not its purpose. Instead I have a question: in an increasingly globalized human community, possibly facing the kind of crisis outlined above, what kind of relationships is Dominus Iesus likely to promote? Will they be those in which people of all religions (and of none) will collaborate in mutual trust and respect in facing problems together? If we tell them that ‘objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation’, (n.22) how do we expect them to respond? Surely the ideal of “parity of esteem” has wider application than the politics of Northern Ireland? Dominus Iesus says, ‘The kingdom is the concern of everyone’ and ‘Working for the kingdom means acknowledging and promoting God’s activity, which is present in human history and transforms it. Building the kingdom means working for liberation from evil in all its forms’. (n.19) Those are good statements, but, against the background of an unbalanced and one-sided presentation of Catholic to non-Catholic relationships, they lose their potential for good.


The methodology of Dominus Iesus seems to have been to select from earlier conciliar and papal documents statements which present one side of a multi-faceted picture and then to present that as a comprehensive overview. At least that is how it reads to me.

There are wider issues involved, indirectly, but truly, and ‘Salvation is found in the truth’ (Dominus Iesus, n.22). Yes, all of the truth. Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, of 25 May 1995, wrote, ‘The unity of all divided humanity is the will of God’. (n.6) That is true, and good to hear. But Dominus Iesus has a different spirit: of certitude which identifies itself with truth, of exclusiveness which sees itself as fidelity, and of a narrowness which alienates. It solidifies walls of division.


In conclusion, let us return to the sources. Jesus of Nazareth worshipped in the temple in Jerusalem. Between its outer court, the Court of the Gentiles, and an inner court, the Court of the Israelites, there was a dividing wall, with gateways leading from the outer to the inner. Beside each gateway was a notice in several languages, stating, ‘Any Gentile who enters the Court of the Israelites does so at the risk of his life.’ It was this dividing wall that Saint Paul had in mind when he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, ‘Now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father’. (Eph.2.13-18, NRSV) It is that spirit of reconciliation, of breaking down the walls of division which will bring Christians together in that unity which we need, which the world would welcome as a sign of hope, and to which God calls us in the Lord Jesus.