The Sensus Fidelium of the People of God in Asia, 313-327

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Edmund Chia, F.S.C.

Edmund Chia, F.S.C. from Malaysia, a frequent contributor to the East Asian Pastoral Review, is affiliated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC). He is the FABC executive secretary and secretary of its Office of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs. A more comprehensive report of the survey in his article is available upon request at

What’s Becoming of Contextual Theology?

“If contextual theology is not being taught in the seminaries and formation houses, then it will continue to remain mainly in theological journals.”1 This was a comment made by Fr. Michael Amaladoss, which, of course, is by no means prophetic as it is simply a statement of reality.  Ironically, the statement was made during a course which Amaladoss taught and which was entitled, “Living in a Pluralistic World.”  While the course dealt on issues such as the inherent nature and beauty of religious pluralism and multiculturalism, at the back of our minds we were also very mindful of the recent spate of violence perpetuated precisely in the name of religion and culture.  For sure, there is certainly no denying that just as religion and culture can energize people into an appreciation of difference, the same can also poison people into a willingness to kill and also die in the name of difference.  This applies, of course, to every single religion, Christianity included. 

As leaders of Christian churches, therefore, ours is to educate our own into an appreciation of difference.  The crucial target group of this education is none other than the grassroots, the ordinary lay Christians who fill up the pews of churches, as these are the very people whose attitudes towards persons of other religions can either lead to relationship-building or relationship-destroying.  In this regard, contextual theologies have significant roles to play since they take the context as starting point for theological reflections.  Needless to say, in Asia, the context has to include the fact of religious and cultural pluralism, ordained by God, but hitherto still largely alien to mainstream theological thought.  Because contextual theologies are not really permeating the seminaries and formation houses, pastors and pastoral workers are in the main passing on traditional theologies, most of which were developed in the West where religious pluralism is either absent or totally ignored.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the grassroots have also been indoctrinated with these theologies, which have the potential for leading Christians to feeling superior about their own religion and at the same time willing to denounce the religions of their neighbors of other faiths in Asia. 

Dominus Iesus

An example of such a theology is none other than the recently released Vatican documentDominus Iesus.  As a “declaration” its aim is to merely reaffirm Christian doctrines, something which is indeed very noble and useful.  However, in so doing, the document also makes comments and passes judgment upon other religions as, for example, that they are in a “gravely deficient situation,” or that they “contain gaps, insufficiencies and errors,” or that the true religion can only reside in the Catholic Church.  Such judgments can only lead to attitudes that since “ours is right and theirs is wrong” there is no need for respect of them as ours is from God and theirs is not.  Such “we versus they” attitudes cannot but fuel interreligious and intercommunal tension.  A comment by the Organizer, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) which is linked to India’s nationalist political party, is instructive here:  The newspaper alluded to the Vatican Declaration being filled with “16th century papal arrogance” and so is bound to create tension in pluralistic societies such as India.”2

Released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in September 2000, Dominus Iesus has become the most talked-about document in recent Church history.  No other Church document has commanded such interest and attention, perhaps, not since Pope Paul VI’sHumanae Vitae.3  Like Humanae Vitae, whose impact continued to linger on for more than a decade, the repercussions brought forth by Dominus Iesus may be equally far-reaching, especially for the Church in Asia, since its major concerns focussed on interreligious dialogue and the advances made by contextual theologies.4

The Sensus Fidelium

A significant criticism of the document is that it seems out of touch with the ground realities of how Christians relate with persons of other religions.  In an article written for an issue ofJeevadhara specifically dedicated to Dominus Iesus, American theologian Paul Knitter even suggests that, on the basis of these many and varied criticisms, “the ‘sense of the faithful’ (sensus fidelium) in regard to other religious believers has been clarified, thanks to the CDF’s declaration” (Knitter 2001:183).  Knitter then went on to specifically point out that among the issues raised and clarified is the issue of “the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one redeemer and mediator of salvation for humankind.”  He was actually quoting from an article by his fellow American Richard McBrien who in his article also advanced the thesis that among the Asian theologians there is the possibility that some may have erred: “In two or three cases, theologians may have gone too far in collapsing any meaningful distinction between Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of faith and other so-called ‘Christ figures’” (McBrien 2000). 

Knitter agreed with McBrien that the issue of the uniqueness of Jesus was a point of contention but disagreed with the latter’s suggestion that this had arisen as a result of the work of “two or three” theologians.  Knitter, who himself has been very much engaged in interreligious dialogue and is also a keen observer of Asian theology, asserts: “I find that there are many Catholics who are painfully struggling with the traditional teachings that Jesus is the one and only savior of all other people.  In view of their encounter with the depth of religious experience in their non-Christian friends, many Catholics, both Asian and American, find it difficult to continue insisting, to these other religious friends and to themselves, that a saving experience of God must come only through Jesus and find its fulfillment only in him and his church” (McBrien 2000).

Even if McBrien’s “two or three” is not taken literally but understood to mean that an insignificant number of Asians have “denied the uniqueness of Jesus Christ,”5 one wonders how he arrived at such a conclusion.  Has he met enough Asians to come to that conclusion?  Has he read enough Asian books—not only those available in the West, but also those by Asian publishers—to surmise that only very few Asians have problems with Jesus’ uniqueness?  On the other hand, one can also ask how Knitter arrived at his own conclusion that McBrien is probably wrong?  Does he have any data to substantiate his claims that “many” Catholics in Asia find it difficult to profess Jesus as the one and only savior?  Does he know anything about what the ordinary lay Catholic in the pews of Asian churches—not just Asian theologians —believe? 

Need for Pan-Asian Experience and Theology

These questions, asked of McBrien and Knitter, could also be posed to everyone else writing on Asian theology.  Few, or none, of the Asian theologians actually have any data to substantiate their hypotheses, be it in support of McBrien’s position or Knitter’s, or the CDF’s, for that matter.  At best, theologians project their personal theological orientations onto their Catholic brothers and sisters and suggest it to be the sensus fidelium of the People of God in Asia.  This “false consensus bias” influences much of the theological writings of Asia, especially when one attempts to speak on behalf of the Church in Asia. 

Moreover, many Asian theologians do not have too much contact with the Church and Christians living in other Asian countries other than their own.  In fact, it is not surprising to find more Asian theologians who have visited and/or lived in European and American cities as compared to those who have done the same in another Asian city.  Consequently, when the Indian theologian speaks of “Asian theology” s/he is in fact speaking from her/his own experience of India rather than of Asia as a whole.  Likewise, when a Taiwanese theologian claims something to be “not in harmony with Asian beliefs,” chances are that s/he has never ever been to Manila, Delhi, or Jakarta but has often visited Paris, New York, or Rome.  In a way, theirs is really a comparison between the West and their experience of their own particular country rather than the West and Asia as a whole.  To confound the problem, there is little valid data on what Catholics in Asia believe, just as there is little literature written from a truly pan-Asian experience. 

An Empirical Survey

It was in view of this absence of data that an empirical survey was conducted to get a feel of the sensus fidelium of the Asian Church on the issues raised by Dominus Iesus.  Thus, a questionnaire survey was sent out by means of email to persons from all across Asia. 

For a period of 8 weeks between January and March 2002, a total of 394 responses were received from nearly twenty countries, from as far West as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to as far East as Indonesia and the Philippines to as far North as Japan, Korea and even Mongolia and China. 

For the sake of easy reading, the results of the descriptive analysis of the data of the survey, in light of the themes raised by Dominus Iesus (DI), are presented in Table 1 which follows: 

(Table 1)





Yes, Jesus is God’s revelation

(382)   97 %



Jesus is fullness of God’s revelation

(284)    72 %



Jesus is fullness of God’s revelation,but God’s revelation also given elsewhere

(172)    44 %



God’s revelation given only in Jesus and not in other religions or elsewhere

(66)      17 %



Jesus is God’s revelation (not fullness) and God’s revelation also given elsewhere

(245)     62 %



Jesus is savior for Christians

(359)    91 %



Jesus is savior for all

(357)     91 %



Jesus is the only savior for all but there are also other saviors for all

(196)    50 %



Jesus is savior for all,

(99)      25 %



The Church is a means of salvation

(329)    84 %



The Church is necessary for salvation

(140)    36 %



Other religions are not means of salvation

(49)      12 %



The Church is necessary for salvation, but other religions are also means of salvation

(79)  20%



The Church is a means of salvation (but not necessary), and other religions are  also  means of salvation

(22) 58%



Christians have the fullness of the means of salvation

(246)    62 %     



Christians do not have the fullness of  the means of salvation

(96)     24 %



Other religions are deficient, as compared to the Church

(139)    35 %



Other religions are not deficient, as compared to the Church

(139)   35 %



The Bible is the Word of God

(362)    92 %



The Bible is the only Word of God

(88)      22 %



The Bible is the Word of God, but other scriptures are also Word of God

(184)    47 %



Christianity is a true religion

(357)    91 %



Christianity is the only true religion

(120)    30 %



Christianity is a true religion, but there are also other true religions

(178)    45 %



One religion is as good as another

(142)    36 %



One religion is not as good as another

(191)    48 %



It is God’s plan that there be different religions (pluralism de jure)

(195)    49 %



It is not God’s plan that there be different religions

(79)      20 %



Yes, to Interreligious dialogue

(374)    95 %



No, to Interreligious dialogue

(5)        1 %



Discussion On The Results

From the results of the survey, a few observations can be made.  Firstly, it is clear that the following items yielded very high percentages, viz. more than 90%: No.1, No.6, No.7, No.19, and No.22.  In other words, more than 90% of the 394 respondent sample affirm that Jesus is God’s revelation (97%), that Jesus is savior for Christians (91%), that Jesus is savior for all humankind (91%), that the Bible is God’s Word (92%), and that Christianity is a true religion (91%).  Since these are the most fundamental and basic faith affirmations which distinguish Christians from those who are not Christians, it is safe to say that more than 90% of the respondent sample are believing Christians.

That only five of the numbered items received such unanimous affirmations speaks volumes of the sensus fidelium of the People of God in Asia.  In particular, it reveals that amongst Asian Catholics, only these five doctrinal assertions are widely adhered to.  In a way, if Dominus Iesuswas re-written for Asian Catholics, this is probably how it would begin its first article: “The fundamental contents of the profession of the Christian faith for Catholics in Asia are expressed thus (cf. DI, 1): I believe in one God, the Father, Almighty. I believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ, who is God’s revelation and who is savior for Christians as well as for all of humankind.  I believe that the Bible, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, is the sacred Word of God.  I believe that the true religion exists in Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.” That’s it. There will probably be no affirmation of Jesus as the only savior or of the Church as necessary for salvation.  On the other hand, of course this does not suggest that Asian Catholics do not affirm other doctrines of faith.  It only implies that as far as the theological themes raised by Dominus Iesus are concerned, these are the only ones which they overwhelmingly subscribe to. 

A second observation is that even if more than 90% of the respondent sample are decidedly Christian, a significant proportion amongst this same 90% are also decidedly open to and receptive of other religions.  For example, 62% believe God’s revelation is also given in other religions (No.5), 25% allow the possibility of other saviors (No.9), 58% acknowledge that other religions could be means of salvation (No.14), 35% do not believe persons of other religions are deficient as compared to Christians (No.18), 47% allow for other scriptures as God’s Word (No.21), 45% believe that there could be other true religions besides Christianity (No.24), and 49% accept religious pluralism as within the plan of God (No.27).  Averaging these seven percentages would give a figure of between 40 and 50%. Hence, in very general terms, one can say that about 40-50% of Asian Catholics have a sense of openness to other religions.  Indeed, contrary to the presuppositions and demands of Dominus Iesus, this significant proportion of Asian Catholics do not believe that either Jesus, the Church or Christianity is the sole, unique or normative repository of truth. It is important to be reminded that these same respondents also affirm the basic beliefs which Dominus Iesus postulates, except that they reject some of the more extreme and exclusive assertions, especially those which seem to question the integrity and authenticity of the other religions.

Thus, if Dominus Iesus were to be re-written for Asia, it would probably not begin—as doesDI, 1—with the mission mandate: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.  He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16: 15-16).  Instead, it would probably begin with: “Stop judging, that you will not be judged” (Mt 7: 1)6 or “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7: 12).  Such is the respect Asian Catholics have for their neighbors of other faiths and such is the respect they expect others to have for them in their belief of Jesus, the Church and Christianity. 

A third observation is that a very small percentage of the respondent sample affirmed the more exclusivistic assertions of Dominus Iesus.  Specifically, only 17% of the 394 respondents affirm that God’s revelation is given only in Jesus and not in the other religions (No.4), 50% affirm that Jesus is the only savior and that there can be no other savior figures (No.8), 12% affirm that the other religions are not means of salvation (No.12), 35% affirm that the other religions are deficient as compared to those in the Church who have the fullness of the means of salvation (No.17), 22% affirm that the Bible is the only Word of God and that other scriptures are not God’s Word (No.20), 30% affirm that Christianity is the only true religion (No.23) and 20% affirm that it is not within God’s plan to have many religions (No.28).  Leaving aside No. 8, where a significant 50% of the respondents affirm Jesus as the only savior, the percentages of the other six items average about 20-25% of the respondent sample.  In other words, in very general terms, only about 20-25% of Asian Catholics would subscribe to the very exclusivistic aspects advanced by Dominus Iesus which do not acknowledge that truth can also be found in other religions. 

It cannot be glossed over that a significant 50% of the respondent sample affirm the assertion that Jesus is indeed the one and only savior for all of humankind.  To be exact, it was 49.7% as 196 out of the total of 394 respondents affirm this theological doctrine.  On the other hand, 198 (50.3%) did not affirm the doctrine.  This, however, does not mean they reject the doctrine.  Out of this 50.3%, about half or 25% affirm the possibility of other savior figures while the other half are undecided on the issue.  The finding is significant as it is primarily this issue of the possibility of other saviors which has been most sensitive and controversial.  That 25% of the respondents were unable to declare their position on the issue is also significant.  To be sure, the theory of the plurality of saviors remains ambiguous and is not as definitive as Dominus Iesus has made it out to be.  The sensus fidelium of the People of God of Asia certainly reveals that.  Moreover, evenDominus Iesus is not as definitive as it seems.  In fact, article 14 of the document invites the Church “to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of [the other] religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation” (DI, 14).  The findings of the research, therefore, call to question the very strong reprimands—such as “it must be firmly believed” or “it is contrary to the faith”—which Dominus Iesus employs.  To be sure, the issues are far from firm and final.  Moreover, if the sensus fidelium does not correspond to these doctrinal positions, no matter how insistent the Vatican is about them, such beliefs cannot be forced upon the People of God, especially in Asia, where Christians experience other religions everyday of their lives. 

In summary, therefore, one can say that amongst Asian Catholics, more than 90% believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith.  Amongst these, about 40-50% also display a theological openness to other religions while only half that number, or 20-25%, harbor theological positions which exclude the viability of the other religions. 

Sensitive Theological Issues

As can be seen from the results of the survey above, there is still much ambiguity about the theological issues raised in Dominus Iesus.  To be sure, the issues raised by the document are by no means ordinary or mundane.  Some of the questions of the survey, based solely on Dominus Iesus, had some respondents finding them bothersome and even sensitive. A Religious Sister from the Mekong Valley had this to say: “May I not answer the questionnaire.  It’s very catching.  My superior in the house told me in a joking manner she is afraid she might lose her faith while reflecting on the questions asked!”  Other friendly messages also advocated caution as, for example, one message which read: “This could be controversial so brace yourself for some negative feedback by some well meaning Catholics.” Two messages, however, were particularly pointed.  The first, which had responded to the questions half-way, had this to say: “I don’t like to answer your questions anymore.  If you like to know more, it is better you ask the bishops, especially those who have doctorate degrees.  Please excuse me if I am too rude.”  The second, with a similarly angry tone, was even more direct in his challenge to me:  “To Edmund.  I come straight to the point.  Why are you doing this survey?  Why is it necessary for you to do this survey?  Why are you targeting Catholics?  Who authorized you with those questions in your so-called survey?  Are you trying to doubt the Catholics’ faith, or create confusion?  What’s your objective?” 

Dialectical Tension of Faith and Life

The preceding comments suggest the survey questionnaire was viewed with a certain degree of suspicion and trepidation, probably in view of the questions which seemed to have hit at the core of the Christian’s being. To be sure, the questions, because they questioned the respondent’s faith in relation to her/his lived reality of religious pluralism, seemed to have caused much tension to some.  It was as if there is tension between what is believed as taught by the Christian faith and what is experienced as evidenced in the contextual realities of Asia. 

Of course, one way to deal with such tension is to be indifferent about the differences present between the religions, a position which Dominus Iesus warns against.   For example, one respondent, an accountant, expressed sentiments along these lines:  “As long as I believe that mine is a true religion, it is not important to me whether the rest are true or not.”  Another, a young female TV producer, advises: “To each his own.  I believe if it works for you and makes you a better person, that’s cool.”

Yet another way to address the tension is to simply relegate persons of other religions to the “unsaved” and be content that Christianity is the superior and only true religion.  Such sentiments were shared by one respondent, working as a Management Support Officer, who asserts:  “The other religions are man-made religions which may teach their followers to be good, but ours is the true religion where our God comes down to mankind to live as one of us, to show us the way and to die in order to save us.  No other religion can boast of this and that He rose again, which proves His divinity.”

The sincere seeker, however, will find such strategies of dealing with the tension untenable.  However hard they try balancing between what they have learnt and what they feel in real life, often times they still end up being even more confused and vulnerable.  An emotive comment from one undergraduate respondent captures this sense of vulnerability well:  “I believe that only Christianity is for me, and it is different from the rest in a special way.  However, I feel uncomfortable in saying my religion is the best, simply because that would imply that the other religions are not good and doing something wrong.  That is difficult to say because a lot of religions preach goodness, and it is difficult to say goodness is wrong, just because it is of a different religion.  Yet, I also am torn by the fact I’ve learnt all the time in Sunday School that Christianity is the true religion.  It is true, but does it necessarily mean that others are not?  What is religion anyway? Common beliefs? Ultimate truths?  Argghh... this is confusing.”  Another response, from an employee of a shipping company, which expressed a similar dialectical tension, had this to say: “This is what I believe, although deep in my heart I wish this is not 100% right, so more people can be saved from hell.” 

Experience versus Knowledge

These last few comments seem to indicate that there is a continuous struggle between what is being taught to the ordinary believers and what they experience of other religions in their day-to-day living.  It is as if Asian Catholics have to struggle with their contextual reality of the experience of truth and beauty in the other religions which is then juxtaposed against their catechism which insists that these are not from God. Put another way, their experience and heart seem to be perceiving reality one way while their knowledge and head suggest otherwise. This is probably what Paul Knitter was referring to when he said many Catholics are “painfully struggling” with the dichotomy between the teachings of their faith as against their day-to-day experience of very positive relations with persons of other religions.  This struggle adheres as the catechism and theological formation imparted in many Asian seminaries and Sunday Schools continue to be those which are borrowed from the West, where the phenomenon of religious pluralism is absent or ignored.  Hence, it comes as no surprise that the masses, the grassroots, are in the main indoctrinated with theologies which are alien to their contextual experience and which do not resonate with their lived realities. 

This is not to suggest that contextual theologies are not being developed in Asia.  As suggested by Amaladoss, they are at present primarily in the academic realm, and hence influence only the intellectuals and the theologians.   The ordinary lay grassroots Christians is in the main oblivious of such endeavours.  These final comments seem to imply that perhaps Richard McBrien was also accurate in his assertion that only an insignificant number of Asians are involved in advocating what is seen as “relativistic” theories which attribute as much value to other savior figures as to Jesus Christ.  These are mainly the theologians and scholars who constitute a tiny minority of the Catholic community in Asia. 

The others, and especially the grassroots, have practically no access to contextual theologies which could help them apprehend the religious pluralism of the Asian context. These latter group have only Western theologies such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Dominus Iesusto go by and hence experience a dialectical tension between what they believe on the head level and what they experience at the heart level.  Thus, on the theological and cognitive levels they might articulate theologies which assert the superiority of Catholicism, but on the affective and experiential levels—as evidenced by the results of the survey—there are only a few Asians who can dogmatically pronounce the possibility of other saviors and the truth of other religions, there are many who actually feel and experience such a reality from the depths of their being even if they may not be able to intellectually assert that conviction. 

Contextual Theology for Grassroots

The preceding reflections point to the urgent need for contextual theologies to be taught and especially made available to the grassroots.  In a way, the results derived from the survey based on Dominus Iesus seem to indicate this as an imperative.  Perhaps, that could be the long-term contribution of Dominus Iesus to theological developments in Asia. In other words, contextual theologies have to move from the academic realm to the pastoral.  They have the potential of changing lives, especially the lives of the ordinary believing Christian.  Besides being able to help them appreciate and live peacefully and harmoniously with their neighbors of other faiths, contextual theologies can also provide them with understandings of the Christian faith which harmonizes with their lived experience and help them live with peace of mind.  In this regard, initiatives and projects which usher in a greater integration of contextual theologies into mainstream theological institutions and formation centers ought to be priorities and encouraged. 

A recently-conceived initiative by the Institute of Missiology Aachen (MWI), Germany, offers much hope in this direction.  Its long-term project which spans all the developing continents, seeks first to evaluate the present academic curricula of theology, and especially to find out what we teach?  how we teach? and for whom do we teach? “The ultimate purpose of the evaluation is to transform theology into an inter-cultural and inter-contextual process.”7

One can only hope that more such efforts will not only be developed, but successfully implemented.  Only then will we see contextual theology reaching the seminaries and formation houses, which, hopefully, will then seep down to members of the laity at grassroots levels.  When that day comes, Amaladoss will probably say, “Now that contextual theologies is a lived reality in the minds and hearts of our Catholics, they ought to be given no more space in theological journals!” 


1. Private conversation between Fr. Michael Amaladoss and the author on 20 February 2002 at Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

2. “Media Say Vatican Document Threatens Dialogue, Communal Peace,” Union of Catholic Asian News UCAN (3 October 2000) [].

3. Pope Paul VI promulgated this 1968 encyclical on birth control reasserting the traditional ban on the use of artificial methods of contraception, much to the chagrin of the specially constituted commission of lay, medical and theological advisers who had recommended that the ban be provisionally lifted.

4. The American Catholic sociologist, Andrew Greeley, cites Humanae Vitae as the prime factor for the subsequent decade’s significant decline in Sunday church attendance in the United States. Moreover, Greeley further discovered that the document helped facilitate the Church’s loss of credibility in that it spurred Catholics along to be selective in their allegiance to Church teachings. Thus, not only did Humanae Vitae backfire in its aims, it even transformed Catholic morality permanently. See Greeley 1995). Dominus Iesus could very well play such a role for Catholics in Asia, and, perhaps, transform interreligious dialogue permanently!

5. Knitter argues that Asian theologians do not actually “deny” Jesus’ uniqueness. To be sure, they have no difficulty accepting Jesus as savior. They only ask if Jesus is indeed the “only” savior. “Truly but perhaps not only,” is Knitter’s mantra.

6. This is the title of Amaladoss’ article in response to Dominus Iesus. See Jeevadhara: A Journal of Christian Interpretation, (Vol. XXXI, No. 83, May 2001), p. 179-182.

7. “Teaching Theology in Asian Contexts: A Conference to Evaluate the Curricula,” Call for Papers, Institute of Missiology Missio, Aachen (MWI), Germany, (1 March 2002).



Greely, Andrew

1995 American Catholics Since the Council (Chicago: Thomas Moore). Knitter, Paul

2001 “Dominus Iesus and the Hermeneutics of Reception,” Jeevadhara: A Journal of Christian Interpretation (Vol. XXXI No. 83, May).

McBrien, Richard

2000 “’Finding’ Christ in Other Religions” National Catholic Reporter (22 December).

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