FABC’s “Response” to Dominus Iesus

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Edmund Chia, F.S.C.

Edmund Chia, F.S.C. a frequent contributor to the East Asian Pastoral Review, is affiliated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC). He is the Executive Secretary and Inter-religious Secretary of its Office of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs., This article was originally published in Jeevadhara: a Journal of Christian Interpretation, India (May 2001)


When asked to write the present article, the first thing I did was to do a Yahoo! search, and, to my delight, found 303 websites which carried the entry 'Dominus Jesus. " I looked at more than half of these and noticed that the majority of the articles were critical, and at times even condemnatory, of the Vatican's document, made public by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 5 September, 2000. Even as six months have passed, more articles continue to be churned out and many regard the Dominus Jesus document as a "pastoral disaster." A look at some of the article headings on the Yahoo! sites is revealing. For instance, one article begins with "The much maligned Vatican document..." and another had this for its title: “Dominus JesusExalts Her Throne." Yet another hit the nail right on the head by entitling it explicitly as: "Catholics are the Best: I know you mean it, but did you have to say it that way?" Others carried titles such as "Negative Reactions to Dominus Jesus,”  "Vatican Declaration Provokes Churches," "The Vatican Magnifies Divide Among World's Religions," "Rome, Relativism, and Reaction," and "A Kiss of Death for the Ecumenists. "

Of course, there were also articles, though few and far between, which came to the Vatican's defense. Among them was a report which stated that "Carey, (Archbishop of Canterbury) recently elevated to Cardinal status, dismisses attack on "'deficient' faith" and another which emphasized the theme of "Preaching the Gospel to Non‑Christians." One article unambiguous in its support for Dominus Jesus was entitled: "An Overdue Reminder that Not All is Relative." Moreover, one can also find the "Answers to Main Objections against Dominus Jesus” areport of an interview given by Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, the main person behind the document.


One cannot help but notice two very distinct traits in the responses to Dominus Jesus.Firstly, the majority of the negative reactions came from Christians who belong to the other Christian churches, or "ecclesia communities" as Dominus Jesus would insist they be called. For instance, the General Secretary of the World Alliance for Reformed Churches has his response entitled: "Disappointment and Dismay." Others were mainly articles, which criticized Dominus Jesus for suggesting that their own churches "are not Churches in the proper sense" and that there only "exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church" (DI, n. 17). The avalanche of negative reactions pertaining to this particular issue surprised many, not the least being Ratzinger himself, as, in the words of the Cardinal, the ecumenical issues "occupy only a small part of the document." These Christians have simply "disregarded the Declaration's true theme," the Cardinal laments. Dominus Jesus is about the Lordship of Christ, whereby “the Pope wanted to offer to the world a great and solemn recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord."1 In other words, Dominus Jesus was not really targeted towards the other Christians as it is to peoples of other world religions. This is a Christian document, meant to assert the supremacy of the Christian "theological faith," vis-à-vis the "belief" of the other religions (DI, n. 7).

A second observation is that most of the responses, at least those posted on the Internet, were from peoples of the West. If they were Catholics they were mostly Catholics from Europe or America. Considering that the primary intent of the document was to counter the "religious relativists," in particular those postulating "relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism" (DI, n. 4), the Westerners, then, were not really the prime targets. To be sure, the document then goes on to point out that the "relativistic mentality" is rooted in certain "philosophical and theological" presuppositions and specifically suggests that the "logical mentality of the West" is in "radical opposition" with the "symbolic mentality of the East." Dominus Jesus,therefore, does not conceal who its targets are with regard to this particular issue. They are the fledgling theologians of the East, the seminal thinkers of Asia in general and of India in particular. Thus, Dominus Jesus is in effect a document meant for the Church in the "East" (= Asia). Yet, the observation is that there has been little response from the many bishops and theologians of Asia. It seems that the Asians, to whom Dominus Jesus was targeted, have not been altogether vociferous in rebutting it. Or, have they?


Even if many may not be aware, the Asian Church had actually "anticipated" Dominus Jesusin that she was working out a response even before the Vatican's document came into being. In fact, soon after the Vatican Declaration was issued in September 2000, the Asian Church, through the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), and specifically its Office of Theological Concerns (OTC), issued a document on "Doing Asian Theology in Asia Today" within a month. The FABC’s Central Secretariat in Hong Kong published this document in October 2000. The issues addressed in Dominus Jesus are the very same ones addressed in the FABC‑OTC document, entitled "Methodology: Asian Christian Theology." It is worthwhile to note that an FABC‑OTC document is not simply a theological treatise produced by one or two theologians, but one, which has undergone a highly consultative process with its members, comprised of theologians appointed by each and every Episcopal Conference represented in the FABC. Together with the bishop‑members (who are also theologians in their own right), the OTC members work through a topic over a period of several years before it is finally approved for publication. The present document under discussion was worked through over a period of three years and was finally approved in May 2000, shortly after the CDF Plenary Assembly which met a month or two earlier, and whose product is Dominus Jesus. Thus, in a way, one can say that the FABC‑OTC document is Asia's highest ecclesial body responding to the Vatican's document,Dominus Jesus. The response, of course, was being worked out even before the Vatican's CDF began work on Dominus Jesus! But, perhaps, that is how the Holy Spirit works, in ever-mysterious ways! It will do us well, at this juncture, to look at the nature of this FABC‑OTC document, and compare it with that of Dominus Jesus. In view of the limitation of space, the survey is necessarily cursory.

If the central concern of Dominus Jesus was with religious relativism, the FABC‑OTC's paper on "Doing Theology in Asia Today" actually begins its 99‑paged document by addressing the threat of relativism. Pointing out that pluralism in theological method "need not always entail a radical subjectivism or relativism, in the sense of claiming that all points of view are equally valid," it then goes on to say that "just because certain persons and groups are misled in their search for truth, and just because they tend to perceive pluralism as relativism, or just because they tend to relativise all reality, we cannot conclude that all pluralism leads to relativism" (p. 6). The document's starting point, therefore, is that there is a plurality of methods in doing theology, just as "...the world created by God is pluriform" (p, 4). Moreover, the Church itself has already "a long history of pluralism, especially in theology." This was evident from the very beginning as "both within the Old and New Testaments themselves, there is a rich variety of theologies" (p. 6). The document then points out that "the Second Vatican Council promoted pluralism in theology, when it said that the gospel message needs to be adapted according to each culture" [ref GS 44] (p. 7). It also reminds that ever since its birth in 1970, FABC has always advocated pluralism in theology and has even asserted that "pluralism should not be a threat to our Christian unity, but on the contrary, a positive and creative sign that our unity is deeper than whatever the concrete technical analysis or viewpoints might show: a genuine value that emphasizes unity in diversity" (p, 8). The FABC‑OTC document then responsibly points out that "the Church cannot allow doctrinal irresponsibility or indifferentism" and that "...legitimate theological pluralism ought to meet the basic standards of revelation [as conveyed through Scripture and Tradition], of sensusfidelium [as contained in the faith of the People of God as a whole], and of the Magisterium of the Church" (p. 10).

With that as framework, the FABC‑OTC document then speaks of the "great flowering of theological thinking evident all over Asia" as a "continuation of the tradition of the Church, a living tradition which today in Asia experiences an encounter with other Asian religious traditions and Asian cultures" (p. 2). Hence, if Dominus Jesus is apprehensive about the influence of the other religious traditions and relegates them to "belief' and "religious experience still in search of the absolute truth" (DI, n. 12), the FABC‑OTC document informs that "...today Asians are doing theology and draw nourishment from their Asian cultures" where a "sense of the Sacred is fundamental" and where there is "a respect for the Sacred and for the experience of the Sacred of various communities and religious traditions" (p. 2). It then goes on to say that given the overriding value of harmony, Asian Christians will be looking for ways to integrate the experiences of Asia, the experience of their own forebears, and hence their own psyche, into their Christian faith" (p. 3). It is clear, therefore, that "the Asian Christian is open to dialogue, a dialogue based on profound respect for individuals, communities and their religious traditions" (p. 3). Compare this with Dominus Jesus which, first of all, looks at dialogue instrumentally, in the service of the Church's proclamation of Jesus Christ (D1, n. 2) and which, secondly, will only grant the respect and equality to the “personal dignity of the parties in dialogue" but "not to doctrinal content" (DI,n. 22) and certainly not to the religions, especially when they "contain 'gaps, insufficiencies and errors"' (D1, n. 8) and when "it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation" (DI, n. 22).


The FABC‑OTC document then goes on to discuss the various sources and resources of theology: "The cultures of peoples, the history of their struggles, their religions, their religious scriptures, oral traditions, popular religiosity, economic and political realities and world events, historical personages, stories of oppressed people crying for justice, freedom, dignity, life, and solidarity become resources of theology, and assume methodological importance in our context" (p. 29). These sources and resources, of course, far surpass those of Dominus Jesus, a theology conspicuous in its absence of any discussions on the poor and marginalized or the contextual realities of the peoples. On the other hand, the FABC‑OTC document not only regards the cultures, religions, and contexts of the peoples as resources of theology, but also "sees in them the action of the Spirit" (p. 37). Unlike Dominus Jesus, which sees the action of the Spirit in the cultures and religions as "a preparation for the Gospel" (DI, n. 12), the FABC‑OTC document sees the action of the Spirit in the context of the "enrichment of human life, and in the resurrection of the humiliated and the downtrodden" (p. 37).

As if to demonstrate its seriousness about taking the cultures and religions seriously, the document "Doing Theology in Asia Today" then spends about half the total number of pages of the entire document exploring how followers of other religions interpret their own scriptural texts, with the view of learning from them as "these ancient approaches to texts developed in the various cultures of Asia are [also as much] part of the heritage of Asian Christians" (p. 40). UnlikeDominus Jesus which "reserves the designation of inspired texts to the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments" (D1, n. 8), the FABC‑OTC document asserts that "Asian Christian exegetes accept the inspiration of [the Scriptures of other religions] as a mystery that harmonizes with the Incarnation of the divine Logos in Jesus Christ" (p. 40). This follows from the principle that "the Asian way is one of integration and inclusion" (p. 3), and certainly not one of absoluteness or exclusion principles, which Dominus Jesus seems to suggest "is simply being faithful to revelation" (DI, n. 15). For Asians, "...rather than saying 'A is true, so B must be false,' the Asian tends to say 'A is true, and B is also true in some sense'" (p. 3). Lest the charge of relativism be levied here, the FABC‑OTC quickly points out that "...there is but one Truth; but Truth is a Mystery which we approach reverently" (p. 3).

It is this reverence of Mystery, expressed in the other religions, their cultural traditions, their scriptures, and their followers, which Asian theology has to display. It is a reverence, which does not pass apriori judgment, calls upon the "other." It is also a reverence, which respect the maturity and integrity of its own members of the faith, trusting that life is but a pilgrimage and a never-ending journey of discovery. Asian theology, therefore, is not absolutist and acknowledges that it is far from being a "finished product" (p. 3). It is certainly not a theology, which requires its faithful to "firmly believe" or to respond in "obedience of faith" or to offer "full submission." It is but a theology, which encourages the Church, the people of God, living amongst all of God's people (Eph. 1: 15), to continue "the search for holiness or harmony with the mystery of God, the mystery of Jesus Christ, [and] the mystery of the Church" (p. 43).



1.From Interview with Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, published on 22 September 2000 by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Quote here taken from http://www.ewtn.com/