The Roman Catholic Perception of other Churches and other Religions after the Vatican’s Dominus Jesus

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2001 »2001 3 »The Roman Catholic Perception Of Other Churches And Other Religions After The Vaticans Dominus Jesus

Aloysius Pieris, S.J.

Aloysius Pieris, S.J., Director of Tulana (Dialogue Center) in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka, earned the first doctorate in Buddhist studies ever awarded a non-Buddhist by the University of Sri Lanka. An indologist and theologian, he has held Chairs in Theology in many universities and has taught in both Catholic and Protestant theological faculties. His many writings include An Asian Theology of Liberation, God’s Reign for God’s Poor, Mysticism of Service: A Return to Jesus Formula.(A talk given at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, Colombo, Sri Lanka on 30 September 2000.)

A Point of View


The document that has appropriated the Name which we all revere and adore, Dominus Jesus("The Lord Jesus"), comes from a Vatican source which does not necessarily coincide with the whole Roman communion. The Vatican is an organ of administration at the service of the Bishop of Rome who functions as the visible symbol of unity among the local churches that constitute the Roman communion. Whether what is held and proclaimed by a particular department or ministry of the Vatican (known as a "dicastery") perfectly coincides with what the universal church holds and believes is not something that is always self‑evident. A Catholic who is in communion with Rome has to discern the nature and the force of a statement emanating from the Vatican before giving it his or her assent.

Hence I wish to assure all of you, my Catholic as well as Protestant sisters and brothers gathered here, not to be disturbed or discouraged by what a particular Vatican dicastery says because, as I shall demonstrate soon, one must derive one's conclusions only after discretely examining the undercurrents of "ecclesiastical politics," that is to say, after discerning the dynamics of the movements and counter‑movements that turn the Roman communion into a whirlpool of pastoral and theological creativity. This methodology would help one to situate the document in its proper ecclesiastical context and consequently give it the value it deserves. This is how I intend to proceed with my analysis and I hope you will share my optimism.

I strongly believe in and respect the Petrine office of the Bishop of Rome but I deeply regret that the manner in which this office is being exercised today is vitiated by a power‑structure that had developed over many centuries. John Paul II himself has made a formal request in his Ut unum sint that we help him to re‑discover ways and means of exercising his Petrine role according to the mind of Christ. It is in union with Rome's Pastor in his own search for the right type of leadership that I offer this criticism. For the document, Dominus Jesus, offers me the opportunity to show where and how the “See of Peter and Paul” fails in its mission of acting as the bond of unity in faith among the churches. Hence I shall not waste time in analyzing everything that is said in that document; rather, I shall discuss how such documents should be read and understood in the spirit of Vatican II, the great ecumenical council of the last century.

I grant that there may be a great number of Catholics who would agree with Dominus Jesus even without reading it, because, as we can reasonably suppose, they identify the Vatican Curia with the infallible papal magisterium! Similarly, there may be a second group of believers who have read it and have given their assent to it without any hesitation because they have been catechized to think in the same wavelength. But what is more significant is that there is also widespread negative reaction registered among a third group of the faithful comprising lay Catholics, lay and clerical theologians, bishops, and even a couple of Cardinals! The existence of this third group shows that even the Catholics who have reservations about the tone and some of the contents of the document regard themselves faithful members of the Roman Communion. This would not have been possible in the pre-Vatican II era.

The feedback that Dominus Jesus registered in the Church, therefore, has once more confirmed that the Roman Catholic Church is not unanimous with regard to the following two points (among many others):

(a) on the way Jesus and his mission is understood with regard to the salvific role of other religions, and
(b) on the way the Roman Communion is understood with regard to the one and true Church that Jesus established.

The first disagreement poses a Christological question with regard to the practice ofinter‑religious dialogue and the second indicates an ecclesiological problem revolving roundinter‑church communion or ecumenism. The Vatican document Dominus Jesus tries to settle the two questions once and for all. Hence the question: Are its teachings definitive and irreformable?


Before I deal with these two questions (Christological and Ecclesiological) against the background of how Dominus Jesus handles them, I would like to make a few observations on the Vatican dicastery from which the document emanated, namely, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (henceforward CDF)

The CDF is the name by which the ancient Roman office of the "Holy Inquisition" (abbreviated Holy Office " till as late as 1965) comes to be known today. Paul VI baptized it “CDF” on 7 December 1965 in his Integrae Servandae (a kind of papal decree known as motu proprio) by which he introduced a reform that modified the modus agendi of the CDF. Thenceforward its task of "defending the faith" would be balanced by one of "promoting the doctrine".

This relatively positive approach suggested by Paul VI reflected something of his predecessor John XIII's intention to convoke Vatican II as a pastoral council which would promote renewal rather than define and defend doctrines against heretics and heresies, in contrast with the previous two Councils. The documents of Vatican II (e.g., in Gaudium et Spes) were characterized by an openness to the Word of God spoken in the world even outside the Catholic Church. This means that the church's belief and practice had to evolve in response to that  Word,too.

Thus the negative word "defense" (which made the Office of the Holy Inquisition resort to many unchristian methods of coercion in the remote past) was counter‑balanced by a positive exhortation to "promote" true doctrine in the light of the Council's openness to the World. As a result of this new trend, the watch‑dog mentality of the Holy Office (which manifested itself not only in barking at any new appearance on the door‑step of the church but also in biting the inmates who welcomed it) seemed to have disappeared from the CDF  for a while!

One more thing is worth mentioning regarding that motu proprio. It invited bishops to have doctrinal commissions to work with the CDF in defending and promoting true doctrine. In other words, the CDF must presumably collaborate with local churches (rather than just issue decrees to them?). To facilitate the new positive approach, Paul VI introduced a new Profession of Faith, which replaced for good both the Tridentine formula (with its anti‑Protestant thrust) and the anti‑Modernist oath. This was a step forward.

Paul VI (who had reinstated some progressive theologians who had been earlier debarred from teaching by the "Holy Office") also appointed an International Theological Commission, which included names such as Schillebeeckx, Rahner, Congar and other theologians that prepared the ground for Vatican II and collaborated with it. It served the CDF as its dialectical counterpart.

All this seemed too good to be true. Could millennial habits be broken within a mere decade, even by a papal decree? There began to appear several reversals in the new policies introduced by Paul VI as the conservatives in the Vatican Curia continued to lobby against any form of renewal. The compromises were noticed already during the last years of the pontificate of Paul VI and climaxed under John Paul II. In his Apostolic Letter Pastor Bonus, dated 28 June 1988, John Paul II, while specifying that "promotion of doctrine" meant the promotion of theological studies as well as assistance supplied to bishops, did nevertheless invest the CDF with disciplinary powers even over areas which come under other Vatican dicasteries, such as deviations in matrimonial, sacramental and other matters. Thus the CDF resumed the character of a tribunal. From this point onwards, says one commentator (Giuseppe Ruggieri), the CDF remains the same old Holy Office of long ago!

No wonder the ancient methods of inquiry have reappeared: the author does not know his/her accusers and has no recourse to a proper forum of defense. The CDF has become the Absolute Final Word. This was so in many cases from Curran through Balasuriya to Dupuis. This is where we are today. Furthermore, how could the International Theological Commission serve as the dialectical counterpart of CDF if the members of that Commission are also appointed by the CDF itself?

Now we have an absolute authority in the Vatican issuing decrees and warnings to local churches in the name of the papal magisterium, without any dialogue and discussion with bishops and theologians of other local churches, especially with those with whom it disagrees. Are we returning to medieval ecclesiolatry and Roman centralism? Juvenal's question about ancient Rome's power‑wielders and arbitrators needs to be asked again with regard to Vatican's guardians of Faith: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians (of Truth from falling into error)?

3. The CDF’s Anxiety about the Asian Church

The CDF has been pursuing—both in the sense of following closely and in the sense of hunting down—Asians who have been trying to grapple with religious pluralism. Dominus Jesus is one among many documents that reveals this phenomenon. The concern is understandable though not justified because old categories seem inadequate and the Asians are looking for new ones. The polarization of the two approaches makes a Roman intervention almost inevitable. I personally expected a document such as Dominus Jesus to appear sooner or later. Unless there is a radical change in the attitude of the CDF towards the development of doctrine, there will be more of the same in the future.

As a matter of fact, a trend has been set by the CDF issuing a series of cautionary statements of a similar kind during the past decade or more. If we study these "warning signals," one sees that the target of its critical concern is inter‑religious dialogue (and, only by extension, inter‑church ecumenism). As I shall demonstrate in the last part of this discourse, this concern of the CDF is based on the following implicit presupposition that (1) "Salvation, " (2) "Jesus Christ" and (3) "the Roman Catholic Church " form the Trinity outside of which no other religion is adequately a way of salvation [and no other Christian denomination is authentically a church].

Here, then, are the recent warnings sent out by the CDF and/or its head Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (as enumerated by John L. Allen in "Perils of Pluralism", National Catholic Reporter,Sept. 15, 2000):

  1. December 1989: a warning against Christian adoption of Eastern Meditation practices
  2. March 1993: In a speech delivered in Hong Kong, Ratzinger warns the Asian theologians about the danger of emphasizing the centrality of the Reign of God in contrast with Christ and the Church.
  3. May 1996: Ratzinger warns that the danger posed by the Theology of Liberation in the 80s is replaced by the danger of the Theology of Religious Pluralism in the 90s.
  4. January 1997: Ratzinger excommunicates Tissa Balasuriya after the latter refused to sign a "Profession of Faith" formulated by the CDF, despite Balasuriya having signed the Profession of Faith formulated by Paul VI.
  5. March 1997: Ratzinger, in an interview given to a French journalist, describes Buddhism as a kind of "spiritual auto‑eroticism", and aligns himself with the opinion expressed by someone in the fifties that the greatest threat to Christianity in the 26th century comes from Buddhism and not from Marxism.
  6. February 1998: The German Catholic theologian Perry Schmidt‑Leukel, an advocate of the Theology of Religious Pluralism, is denied permission to teach by the Cardinal of Munich, allegedly, in consultation with Ratzinger.
  7. April‑May 1998: The Roman Synod on Asia records a clash between Asian Bishops' Conferences and the Vatican on the question of "salvation" of non­-Christian religions. The Asian position was diluted in the final document issued from Rome.
  8. August 1998: Ratzinger censures certain ideas of the Indian Jesuit, Tony de Mello, for uncritical blending of Christian and Eastern religious teachings, and thus paving the way to "Religious Indifferentism."
  9. October 1998: Investigation into another Jesuit, Jacque Dupuis for advocating a theology of religious pluralism in a book which most Asians consider very orthodox based as it is on Church documents!
  10. November 1999: Pope John Paul II, in India, reads out the official declaration of the Roman Synod on Asia, calling for what many commentators understood as "religious conversion."
  11. July 2000: American Jesuit Roger Haight comes under CDF's investigation for his book,Jesus Symbol of God, also advocating a theology of religious pluralism.
  12. September 2000: Dominus Jesus, the one we are discussing, here, today.

I want to add two more interesting developments:

a) the pronouncement of Cardinal Biffi that Italy should allow only Catholic immigrants and not Muslims and that Europe should remain Christian and Catholic;
b) Warning (given in Mid‑October, 2000) by some Catholic Bishops of Italy against the use of non‑Christian methods of medication, like acupuncture as they inculcate a non‑Catholic philosophy.

So there is a Catholic fundamentalism raising its head among some members of the hierarchy in Europe, which is at once defensive against what is non‑Christian and what is non‑Catholic. In fact the Irish Catholic ecumenist, John D'Arcy May, sees traces of such Catholic fundamentalism in Dominus Jesus itself!   


There is a Catholic fundamentalist backlash, which prevents Vatican II from taking root in the center of the church. The Lefebrists, who rejected Vatican II and were subsequently excommunicated by Paul VI, have gained sympathizers in the Vatican. Other movements such asCommunione e liberazione, the Neo‑Catechumenate, etc., which are very reactionary and rightist both theologically and politically enjoy the favor of many Vatican officials. The lavishly printedTrenta Giorni (which carries regular articles of Giulio Andreotti, the demochristian politician with a dubious reputation) is almost the mouthpiece of certain Vatican officials, including the CDF. Furthermore, it openly defends the Lefebrist schism, which resulted from a point‑blank refusal to accept the renewal of doctrine and practice advocated by Vatican II.

This conservative backlash against Vatican II becomes understandable only if we realize how this Council differed from its two predecessors, Vatican I and Trent. We must exercise a degree of compassion on the many who had to give up so many doctrinal interpretations and ritual practices which they had taken for granted for so long. I myself am a product of the process of transformation that Vatican II was both in itself and in what it promoted in the church and, therefore, I feel obliged to explain the significance of this event to those who are disoriented by it! After all, my theological studies, which I made in Naples, just two‑hours' train journey from Rome during the years 1962‑66, coincided exactly with the period in which the Second Vatican Council was in session. As someone who followed the dynamics of the Council at close quarters and had the privilege of meeting many of the periti (experts) of the Council during their week‑end visits to our beautiful residence in Naples, I understand the massive upheaval it created in the minds of those who really failed to appreciate its character.

Let me take some of your time to introduce some important features of the Council. The new generation is blissfully ignorant of this event and may not understand the full implication of those of us who express our dissent without compromising our fidelity to the church. They do not really know the difference between the Pre‑Conciliar and the post‑Conciliar era. When we mention Vatican II, they think of the Vatican City‑State. Let me cite two examples:

  • Just before the National Pastoral Synod, a questionnaire was sent round by some group of investigators with a view to monitoring Catholic opinion on various issues. One question was meant to find out whether the average Catholics were receptive to Vatican II (as the Council is called). The response in some answer‑forms was a very caustic "no", indicating an aversion to the very idea of the Vatican controlling their lives. It was not difficult to detect a big mix‑up in the mind of the respondents. They mistook the Vatican Council to be the Vatican power ­structure in Rome! The modern youth know no other Vatican!
  • Recently a writer was reported in The Tablet as saying that the latest generation of youth studying for priesthood thought Vatican I was where the Pope normally resides, whereas Vatican II was the summer residence of the Pope in Castel Gondolfo!

Let me, therefore, place before you three significant features of Vatican II which explain the present conservative backlash:

(I) The first is that it was a Council of renewal rather than reform! There is a vast difference between these two options. Reform is a controlled and graduated process of change that keeps the institutional set‑up of the church intact. It comes from top to bottom, from the center to the periphery. Such was Vatican I and Trent. Rome issued decrees and they were followed far away. But renewal is exactly the opposite process. It irrupts from below and works its way up to the top volcanically. It is initiated in the periphery where fresh and new ideas flow in more freely than in the center of the establishment. Renewalist currents that begin to whirl in the margin of the church surge into centripetal waves that dash on the fortified ecclesiastical structures. The resistance at the center is inevitable. Yet there is a transformation to which  the center has to yield.

Between the inception of the renewalist process and the final accommodation to it at the center there is an intermediary stage of confusion. During this interval, the conservatives try to seek security in the clarity of the past because they cannot as yet anchor themselves in thevague future of a renewed Church. But the renewalists persevere in their struggle to push their practice and thought until they pressurize the center to give it legitimacy. That is why the great liturgical renewal that the church experienced during the post‑Vatican II era is humorously described as a legitimization of illegitimate practices!

Let us take another instance. Vatican II redefined the church as a "people of God" with a "universal call to holiness" and placed the ministries and hierarchy as an important dimension of that people‑hood. It was an attempt to redeem ecclesiology from centuries of "hierarchology", to borrow Yves Congar's expression. This new perception of the church (actually the old one of the Scriptures) removed the multi‑tiered picture of holiness in the church. It is only when this vision began to be translated into practice on the periphery that the old and new clashed and caused confusion in the center. This new definition of the church is, therefore, what sociologists call a typical "crisi‑genic decision". For, it relegates to the post‑conciliar era the task of re‑defining the various traditional roles of priests, bishops, religious in the light of the new vision of the church. This results in a massive conflict between the "literalists" who stick to the old roles as "unchanged by the Council" and the "renewalists" who begin to change the contours of church functions as “implied by the Council's decision.”  This conflict has not been fully resolved as yet.

Such conflicts between the status quo and the renewalist attempts can be noticed in every area in which Vatican II has offered a new perspective. One such area, which is relevant to our discussion, here, today, is that of  ecumenism and inter‑religious dialogue. As I shall explain in detail later, the Council's understanding of other churches and other religions were transposed into an ecumenical and dialogical praxis on the periphery in a manner that almost took the center by surprise. Dominus Jesus is the inevitable manifestation of the "center‑periphery conflict" in these two areas. The Second Vatican Council is responsible for this precisely because it opted for renewal rather than reform. Those who mistake the Council to be a "reformist synod of bishops" fight back for a restoration of the old order in place of the present chaos. This is the conservative backlash I am speaking about.

(II) The second characteristic also flows from the renewalist nature of the Council, namely, that its documents opened up new perspectives but did not as yet have a new theological idiom to express this new vision. Thus there is a conflict between the intended content of its teachings and the inadequate mode of expression. Today, the conservatives would repeat texts from the Council in the sense given to them by a literal interpretation of the theological language used by the Council. The progressives have been faithful to the Council in supplying the teaching of the Council with a new language that corresponds to the intention of the Council. Thus a language barrier separates the Vatican Curia from the theologians working in the frontiers of the Church! This is the plight of both Asian theologians and Liberation theologians.

(III) The third characteristic is the most unfortunate. Though the Curial drafts presented to the Council were rejected in most cases and fresh working papers were presented by "mixed commissions" (i.e. by groups of drafters representing non‑Curial progressives sitting with some of the Curia‑backed conservatives, thanks to Pope John XXIII's intervention), the conservative minority among the Council Fathers employed the strategy of proposing so many amendments during the general assembly that there are loopholes now in those documents which allow them to make the Council say what they want to say. These conservatives who resisted the conciliar renewal have their stronghold in the Vatican Curia.


From the moment the saintly Pope John XXIII announced his intention to summon an Ecumenical Council (to be later named Vatican II), the Vatican Curia (as the Papal Court which governs the local churches centrally) had been openly opposing it. When the Pope summoned it, he expressed the desire that it be a pastoral council rather than a defensive meeting of heresy‑hunters, and that its hope was to be anchored in a New Pentecost, an outpouring of the Spirit renewing the church, an updating (aggiornamento) of its medieval structures, obsolete practices and outdated language. The Vatican Curia lost no time in launching a counter‑movement. They drafted the Council's "working papers," re‑affirming the antiquated structures and obsolete practices in an out‑dated language, and even attempted to pre‑arrange their approval and enactment.

But this "conspiracy" was undermined by pastorally oriented bishops and their theologians during the very first sessions of the Council, by a counter‑move that reflected the prophetic vision of Pope John XXIII. The Council became an arena of a massive struggle between these two forces. Naturally, the Pope who remained a non-­interfering observer, did nevertheless intervene to resolve a couple of deadlocks by appointing "mixed commissions" of drafters, as mentioned above. Thanks to the influence of the majority, and despite the amendments proposed by the conservatives, the conciliar documents show a hitherto unknown openness to the world outside the Catholic Church, the world of other churches and the world of various religions and ideologies.

But in both these areas, namely, in ecumenism with other churches and dialogue with other religions, the Vatican Curia remained hostile to the Vatican II's perspectives as I am about to illustrate.

Let us take ecumenism first. The Vatican Council advocated an ecclesiology in whichcollegiality of bishops is upheld, together with a concomitant decentralization whereby the autonomy of the local churches is guaranteed. The Vatican Curia, on the contrary, continued, despite Vatican II, to issue decrees and commands to bishops of local churches as if it were vested with a power above them. In fact, the Vatican Council has taught that each local church is endowed with the right and a duty of self‑government because no local church is a mere extension of Rome:

Hence it [this Synod] solemnly declares that the churches of both east and west enjoy the right and are bound by duty to govern themselves in accordance with their own particular rules [emphasis added]:Quamobrem solemniter declarat ecclesias orientis sicut et occidentis jure pollere et officio teneri se secundum proprias disciplinas peculiares regendi ... .... (Decree on Oriental Churches, no. 5)

This solemn declaration (the only one of its kind in the conciliar documents) on the autonomy of the churches which are in communion with Rome, clearly indicate an important principle of ecclesiology: that in order to be in communion with Rome a local church does not require to be governed by rules and disciplines dictated by the Roman Curia. This is a precious inheritance preserved in the statement cited above, albeit the principle is invoked in a decree that deals with the Eastern Rite churches. In fact the non‑RC churches, which would have willingly entered the Roman Communion today, are deterred by the sight of the Curia exercising pressures on the Oriental Churches that are already in communion with Rome, not to mention the curial control over Latin Rite churches such as ours in Sri Lanka.

So also the Council's Decree on Bishops (Christus Dominus) admits that "bishops are assigned to their position by the Holy Spirit" (n. 2) and that "they receive this Episcopal function of theirs by being consecrated as bishops" (n.3). They are not vicars of the Pope and their churches are not a mere ecclesiastical extension of the local church of Rome. Vatican II goes to the extent of treating each bishop as a vicar of Christ, a title once reserved only to the pope ever since he virtually replaced the Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously the bishop is not expected to break communion with Rome. On the contrary, Communion with the Bishop of Rome as the visible bond of unity ensures a visible communion of churches, which is what the universal church means: Ecclesia Eclesiarum, a Church composed of a union of churches.

Nevertheless, the history of past schisms indicate that Rome, although called to be the visible bond of union among churches, had appeared, at least in part, to be the source ofbondage that ultimately broke all bonds of unity. Hence any ecumenical effort at Christian unity around the local Church of Rome should not result in a Roman absorption of the other local churches!

One of the fears that the Vatican Curialists entertained about the ecumenical trends in the Council was that it was opening its doors to the "Protestant heresy." As a matter of fact, the role of the Scriptures in revelation and in the life of the church (a controverted issue among Catholics and Protestants) was discussed amidst a fierce debate that spilt over to the secular press, resulting in a sinister tar‑campaign against those who advocated an ecumenically sound approach to this ecumenically sensitive issue. For it had divided Catholics and Protestants sharply for four centuries. Finally, when the draft text of this document, Dei Verbum, was passed by a majority vote, the Jesuit Review Etude in Paris celebrated the event as the "End of the Counter‑Reformation.” Compared to Vatican I and its predecessor Trent, this Council was truly ecumenical. This is the first observation to be underlined.

At the same time, Vatican II was also what Rahner called the first ever Council of the World Church, since the majority of bishops were from non‑European countries. The Asian bishops, in particular, were vocal about their concerns. Thus we have Nostra Aetate, the Roman Church's first ever official document that makes a positive evaluation of non‑Christian religions. This is the second observation to be borne in mind.

Corresponding to these two characteristics, two important changes came over the Vatican Curia itself during the Council, and these deserve to be mentioned: the establishment of a special "Secretariat for Christian Unity" and a special "Secretariat for non‑Christian Religions.” Thus two new administrative structures were introduced to handle, respectively, ecumenism andinter‑religious dialogue, and they functioned under the Pope in a manner that gave them a certain amount of distance from the dicasterial structures of the Curia. These two concerns (ecumenism and inter‑religious dialogue) were born directly out of the Council.

To head the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Pope John appointed a renowned Scripture scholar and ecumenist, Augustine Bea. Today it is known as the "Pontifical Council for Christian Unity". After the death of Pope John, his successor Paul VI (who had bravely resisted the Curial pressure to discontinue the Council) instituted the Secretariat for non-­Christian Religions and put it, unfortunately, in the hands of two highly incompetent men who mistook inter‑religious dialogue to be a secret strategy for proselytism and even issued rather naive statements that have undermined not only the Vatican Curia's credibility but also the Roman Church's good faith. Both of them (the Cardinal President and his Secretary) were removed from office by the same Pope in 1973! Today, this institution has been renamed "Pontifical Council for Inter‑religious Dialogue."

Note, therefore, that the statements issued by the CDF on other religions and other churches do not always agree with what comes out of these two special institutions of the Vatican, which were born out of the very nature of Vatican II. As a matter of fact, the leadership of the "Pontifical Council for Christian Unity" has expressed its displeasure when Dominus Jesus was published. Thus the tension between the CDF and the advocates of Vatican II continues even within the Vatican! It is in the light of this internal conflict about ecumenism and inter‑religious dialogue that we must read Dominus Jesus.


The death of Pope John XXIII during the Council and the arrival of Paul VI changed the atmosphere of the Council. Paul VI resisted Curial pressures to discontinue the Council, but tried to do a balancing act, giving into the conservative minority through fear of a schism, a schism that actually took place after the Council when the followers of Lefebre were excommunicated by the same Pope! Caught between the two trends, this Pope made certain moves, which halted the general trend of the Council. Among them, two are cited today as great blunders, namely his failure to allow the Council to make provisions for the following two reforms:

  1. The re‑form of the Curia (including the role of Apostolic Nuncios, i.e., Vatican Diplomats), a reform, which the Council Fathers demanded, in conformity with the new ecclesiology of Vatican II;
  2. A Synod of Bishops empowered to decide with the Pope on all crucial matters pertaining to the universal church, taking away such responsibilities from the hands of the Vatican Curia which would remain a mere civil service working under the Synod.

Both these suggestions were removed from the Council's agenda as decisions that the Pope would have to take personally. Obviously, the two "reforms" took place according to the wishes of the Curia and not according to the desire expressed in the Council.

Thus we shall have to put up with these two crippling limitations for some time to come. With regard to the first problem, we have a Curial dicastery issuing warnings, with the audacity and the authority of a supreme Magisterium, which it is not. In fact it has even qualified certain teachings as "definitive" and "irreformable." With regard to the second, the Synod of Bishops, which is being summoned periodically to continue the Conciliar renewal, has remained a mere consultative body whose Episcopal members do no more than air their views, with absolutely no authority to decide on any matter collegially cum el sub Petro (with and under the Pope) as envisaged in the ecclesiology of Vatican II. The papal primacy retains its absolute character at the expense of collegiality, thus giving the Curia an independent power to act in the Pope's name over local churches. In these circumstances, we must expect the Curia to issue more documents of the nature of Dominus Jesus in the future too, further accentuating the polarization.

Things have even become worse since the election of Pope John Paul II. The Curia has strengthened its position as never before. Some of the Pope's leading appointees to the Curia are very conservative bishops who have links with right‑wing dictators and are avowed enemies of liberation theologians. The names and the facts are published in NCR 2, June 2000.

Add to this the gradual infiltration into the Vatican of another right‑wing movement of a wealthy and secretive organization known as the Opus Dei. The Opus Dei had reportedly redeemed the Vatican from a financial crisis after the scandalous Marcinkus affair, and this Pope is widely believed to have reciprocated the favor by giving the movement a powerful place in the Vatican and in the hierarchy. The Vatican's Weekly, the Osservatore Romano, is now in the hands of the Opus Dei.

According to the church historian Pierre Pierrard, the statutes of this secretive organization treat the Pope almost blasphemously as the "Vice‑Christ", a term dear to papists during the period immediately following the First Vatican Council, which defined papal infallibility. The Second Vatican Council tried to balance papism with an emphasis on collegiality of bishops. But the Opus Dei retains its pre‑Vatican II stance even now.

Not surprisingly, the Pope's ecumenical gestures and dialogical approach to people of other faiths are emptied of their significance by the counter‑witness of this powerful lobby. There are fears about the Curia running the church, and the Opus Dei running the Curia. The Opus Deispokespersons have periodically tried to deny these charges without success. Ecumenism and inter‑religious dialogue together with liberation theologies have been the first casualties of this take‑over.

It may not be a coincidence that when Ratzinger presented Dominus Jesus on 5th September 2000, restricting contemporary trends in ecumenism and in the theology of religions, he was flanked by two of his close associates one of whom was, Fernando Ocariz, the Vicar General of Opus Dei.

The only solution to this sad situation lies in the election of a courageous and charismatic Pope who could collaborate with the college of bishops in introducing the two aforementioned reforms, which the Vatican Council was not allowed to introduce. Until then we must live in hope, trusting in the Spirit who alone can make this miracle happen, the same Spirit that gave us Pope John XXIII and Vatican II.

This hope is kindled by the negative reaction that greeted Dominus Jesus and other earlier documents of that nature. This reaction registered even in high places (for instance Cardinal Koenig's public defense of Jacques Dupuis against the CDF) has simply plunged the Curia's claim to be the final authority in a deep crisis. I think it has overplayed its role and is now suffering the consequences of losing its credibility.


Let us begin with the famous conciliar dictum that the true church of Christ "subsists" in the Roman Catholic Church. For the CDF, the meaning is clear: The True Church of Christ does not subsist anywhere else. Therefore other denominations are not churches in the proper sense. Catholics should not refer to them as "sister churches".

But if the spirit of the Council were to be understood in the light of the debates that determined that formula, one sees that there was an ecumenical concern among the Council Fathers to acknowledge the ecclesial character of other sister churches (a word used by popes, as many critics have averred). There was reluctance on the part of the Council to exclude other denominations from the Oikumene of Churches. Even the word est ("is") was avoided and the word subsistit was chosen in order to leave open the possibility of a communion of churches in which the Bishop of the Roman Church would play his indispensable role as the "Vicar of Peter" (a title going back to early centuries, and later dropped in favor of "Vicar of Christ", a title borrowed from the Holy Roman Emperor).

Thus a communion of churches, an ecclesia ecclesiarum, (a church composed of churches) as the true living Communion or koinonia was the project of the Council. The carefully worded statement that the true Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Communion—a wording which exploits the capacity of the Latin tongue to express ideas with precision thanks to Rome's long jurisprudential tradition—indicates a humble and God‑fearingly non‑judgmental openness adopted by the Council vis-à-vis the other churches.

In other words, the Catholic Church in Vatican II documents is modest, referring to itself as sinful, needing constant reform (semper reformanda) and ecumenically open to other churches. The Curial image of the Roman Catholic Church as reflected in Dominus Jesus, by contrast, is triumphalistic and tainted by spiritual pride. Here, I feel that beneath all its rhetoric, there is a medieval ecclesiology that refuses to be dislodged, an ecclesiology, which I shall describe in a while, an ecclesiology that the Opus Dei advocates. This will become very clear when I handle the other problem, namely that of inter‑religious dialogue as well as the theology of religions which such dialogue presupposes, affecting both Christology and ecclesiology.

Let us, then, come to this other problem, the theology of religions. In this regard, too, Vatican II has to be interpreted in the light of its internal history. The most outstanding contribution of this Council was its clear teaching that the Reign of God is not restricted to the Catholic Church, leave alone Christianity. The great medieval heresy of the Roman Church was to believe that the Church was co‑extensive with the Reign of God. Vatican II has abandoned this dangerous presupposition.

God's Reign was Jesus' term for salvation that was available in the world from the beginning. Hence it follows that to say "there is no salvation outside the Reign of God" would be as tautologically true as saying "no salvation outside salvation.” To believe that the Reign of God stretches beyond the church is to say that salvation is available outside the church. This conviction of Vatican II has made it possible for John Paul II to acknowledge with frankness that "religious systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism have a clearly soteriological character" (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 30, and repeated in Ecclesia in Asia, no. 2). In other words salvation isclearly possible in those religions! For, "God’s Reign" (our term for salvation) stretches far beyond the confines of the church.

Note that the recognition of the coming of the Reign of God in the person and mission of Jesus began to lead the early church to affirm something very basic to the church's faith: namely that Christhood which is the fullness of the realized Reign of God can be predicated of Jesus the Risen One. Thus to say Jesus is the "realized reign of the Maternal Father of Jesus" is to say "Jesus is the Christ" or "Jesus is Salvation in its finality".

And yet, Christ (= the realized reign, or the final salvation) is a larger reality than Jesus. Hence the famous axiom: Jesus is totally Christ; not the totality of Christ. (Totus Jesus est Christus, sed Jesus non est totum Christi, which means, "Jesus is wholly Christ, but not the whole of Christ'). Jesus will become the whole of Christ when what He had embodied in his ownperson (the Reign of God) will be realized by all i.e., when his Christhood will embrace the whole body of the fully redeemed humankind at the end­ time. Jesus who is wholly Christ is still in the process of gathering us and the cosmos to become the whole of Christ, not without our co‑redemptive or covenantal partnership.

This process of Christogenesis, in which we participate both as contributors and recipients, through the Covenant, constitutes our mission today. Our task is to bring to birth theTotal Christ in and with Jesus who is totally the Christ. This is the Christology of Mission that has emerged in Asia, a further development of the conciliar view. This is the vision of Christ that impels us to seek total salvation in solidarity with those who follow other "paths of salvation" or soteriologies.

This Frontierless Christ is the Dominus Jesus that we believe in and proclaim in a spirit of ecumenical fellowship; a fellowship that binds us to our sister churches with whom we share this faith; a faith exercised in the context of an inter‑religious dialogue; a dialogue of life that makes us humbly search for him outside our familiar ecclesiastical frontiers.

The fruit of our quest for the Frontierless Christ is not as immediately visible as the cost of leaving behind neat categories into which we had tried to reduce this Mystery in the past. It is a long march through the desert of renewal, with our eyes glowing with hope in the future that is not as clear as the past we have abandoned.

Whatever results from this pilgrimage will be appreciated only if the universal church will understand the new theological language in which it will have to be couched. It will require a new Pentecost to break all barriers of incomprehension—incomprehension that some ecclesiastical documents, such as the one that goes by the name of this great mystery, portend.

In this Christic vision, all religions in so far as they are expressions of salvation (which wecall Christ or Reign of God), are to be treated as collaborators in a common mission rather than rivals in a conversion race. For these religions "have a clearly soteriological character" as the Pope has declared! Clearly soteriological means that they are truly paths of salvation! Now, salvation cannot be measured in decimals. It is either salvation or it is not. But its full expression or its final manifestation is believed to coincide with the replacement of this present age with the New Eon, which is anticipated already in Jesus the Christ. Thus Jesus is believed to accomplish the end‑time salvation in its totality (in our terminology, Total Christ or realized Kingdom), not alone but with others.


Probably it is the thesis posited above, or perhaps its caricature that Ratzinger has attacked in his Hong Kong address mentioned above, as well as in his Dominus Jesus. His fear, I presume, seems to be that Asians have separated Jesus Christ from the Kingdom of God on the one hand, and the church from Christ on the other. This is not what Asians say, as is evident from what has been explained above.

His other fear is the way we relate the church to the Kingdom of God. We know that the Reign of God is mentioned about 104 times in the Synoptics (which record the teachings of  the earthly Jesus), whereas the "church” is mentioned only twice, and that, too, in Matthew. Jesus never proclaimed a church; he proclaimed God's Reign in view of which he gathered a community around him, which later became the church witnessing to his resurrection.

The church, therefore, cannot and should not preach itself, it must preach the Reign of God, not only as that which has come in Jesus, but as that which the church is only in germine(“in seed form”) as Vatican II puts it. The church is not the realized Reign of God (= Christ = salvation in its final form) but only its sacramental expression. This is why Vatican II would have the church constantly reform itself, it has to grow continually into God's Reign. It must continually test itself against the ideal: the realized Reign of God, which it will be only at the end‑time. It must ever tend towards that goal (See Lumen Gentium, no. 5, and passim).

By contrast, the great error of medieval times was the dangerous equation, "The Church is (identical with) the Christ (=realized reign =final salvation)". It is this heresy that we are fighting against. Since there is no salvation outside the Christ (realized Reign), it was inferred that there could be no salvation outside the church either, since the Church and Christ were regarded as convertibles! The medieval synthesis went further: The papacy was equated with the church in the sense that the pope, as the supreme pastor of all churches, became the embodiment of the whole church's salvific power. Since the church is equated with Christ (realized Kingdom) it follows that papacy (which was presumed to embody the whole church) coincided with the visible manifestation of Christ with all his divine authority over the visible universe. Let me put it in a syllogistic form:

The Major         :       Church = Christ (Final Salvation;  Realized: Reign)
The Minor         :       Pope     = Church
The Conclusion:       Pope     = Christ (Final Salvation; Realized: Reign)

The Church, the Christ and papal jurisdiction were all members of a perfect equation. This medieval heresy is well documented in some of the strong statements made by medieval popes.

For instance, Gregory VII's stance that no appeal is possible from a sentence pronounced by the pope and that no human creature is exempt from his jurisdiction cannot be understood except in the light of this false equation. To be the Vicar of Christ would mean that the personal power of the pope is co‑terminus with the salvific agency of the Church, which, in its turn, coincides fully with Christ as the Divine Author of Creation and Salvation. The argument is better set forth in Innocent IV's declaration:

We believe that the Pope, who is the Vicar of Christ, has authority not only over Christians but also over all the infidels because Christ has power over all beings! (Credimus quod Papa qui est Christi Vicarius potestatem habet non tantum super Christianos sed etiam super omnes infideles cum Christus habuerit super omnes potestatem)

Thus, the title "Vicar of Christ" had been interpreted to mean that the pope exercises the powers that Christ has over creation. This species of papal absolutism (or papism, as the Protestants called it), based as it is, on an absolutized notion of the church, is even more tellingly expressed in the famous dictum in Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII:

We declare, affirm and define that indeed it is absolutely a requirement of salvation for every human creature to be under the Roman Pontiff [porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus el difinimus omnino esse de necessitate salutis].

These solemn words (declaramus, dicimus et difinimus) seem to have the resonance of a dogma binding on the conscience of the faithful, more binding than that which the CDF has recently declared "definitive" and "irreformable"! And yet, we have a serious question to ask: If the church, which has changed its understanding of Christ vis-à-vis the church and Roman primacy, has consequently discarded Boniface VIII's solemn "definition" to the limbo of oblivion, holding the opposite view today, what shall we make of definitive and irreformable doctrines that the CDF offers to the local churches? If history is a teacher to learn from, we must not be intimidated by ponderous words that qualify these documents. Rather, we must study such literature with a respectful distance and a critical deference, but always in the light of Vatican II.

We rejoice that Vatican II has erased every trace of medieval ecclesiology by means of the following proposition (where "<" means "smaller than):

                     The Major:                  Church     < Christ
                     The Minor:                  Pope         < Church
                     The Conclusion:          Pope         < Christ

We are truly relieved to know that in this Conciliar ecclesiology the Church is a larger reality than the pope, and Christ larger than the church. The papal magisterium, which acted as the magisterium for, so long a time must learn to think and act collegially as part of the church rather than as a power over and above the Church. A fortiori should the Curia cease to act as a super‑power placed over local churches as agents of the papal magisterium and refrain from returning nostalgically to the medieval absolutism, which Vatican II has done away with.

For, the tone and the insinuations of the document Domnus Jesus seems to smack of an ecclesiology and a Christology that cannot accept the logical consequences of the Conciliar option to treat the church and other religions in the perspectives of God's Reign (Christ). The Asians have to continue their search for a theology of religions that respects what Pope John Paul II calls "the clearly soteriological character" of such religions. The Asian local churches of the Roman Communion have had centuries of experience in being the church amidst other "clearly soteriological" systems, and further more, in being a church among other (denominational) churches struggling together ecumenically in the mission of inter‑religious dialogue and collaboration.


While we appreciate the fears and anxieties of the Curial theologians who are not in the field with us and cannot perceive things from afar, we wish to assure our brother Ratzinger and his concerned collaborators that our mission, here, is both worship of and witness to afrontierless Christ whom we recognize and proclaim in the lives of millions of people who receive guidance from "clearly soteriological" beliefs and practices of their ancestors. Being co‑pilgrims, what we offer one another is not salvation (which is available to all) but mutual encouragement amidst sin and failure. This is the aim of inter‑religious dialogue. The Lord Jesus (Dominus Jesus)whom we adore as our Lord, love as our Savior and follow as our brother, cannot be talked about exclusively in terms of human-made doctrinal formulae except at the risk of blasphemy. We have taken Him much more seriously than we have been given credit for.

Therefore, let us continue the search we have begun centuries ago and greet the warnings from the Curia with charity and understanding. For, the ecumenism which we have initiated among the sister churches here in Asia is not merely "inter‑ecclesial" (churches facing each other to discuss doctrinal differences and agreements) but "trans‑ecclesial" (Christians facing the other religions together, cutting across denominational boundaries, and experiencing the common challenges coming from their dialogue and collaboration with other religions). We have a task to perform, which the Western Patriarchate is not equipped to undertake or prepared to appreciate at this moment of history. A comparison between the documents of the Federation of the Asian Bishop's Conferences and those emanating from the Vatican Curia on ecumenism and inter‑religious dialogue justifies this observation.