26 September 2000 (Newsroom) -- Deep and profound differences separate the worldâ€™s great religions, as a controversial faith document published early this month by the Vatican illustrates.
While some theologians and religious leaders have criticized the statement "Dominus Iesus" (Jesus is Lord) as arrogant, divisive, and a threat to the ecumenical movement, others insist that it articulates long-held Roman Catholic doctrine and raps the post-modern view that all religions are alike. They further contend that ignoring the differences between religions makes true ecumenism difficult.
"Having a clear definition of who you are is prerequisite to coming to the table," argues the Reverend Robert A. Sirico, a Catholic and president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "â€¦ Authentic pluralism is not a bland mixture."
Critics of the statement who claim that it violates the spirit of ecumenism miss the point, some theologians say. The point, they contend, is that ecumenism ought to be based on conviction, not accommodation.
"John Paul II has not abandoned his commitment to genuine ecumenism or improving relations with other world religions, but he continues to understand now, as he always has, that meaningful dialogue never requires a betrayal of one's core beliefs," Kent R. Hill, president of Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, wrote in a letter to the Boston Globe earlier this month. He also is a Protestant participant in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project.
"Dominus Iesus," published September 5 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reaffirms traditional Catholic teachings and responds to the spread of moral relativism by which one religion is deemed as good as another.
"Iâ€™m glad the Vatican is speaking on this sort of matter," says Drew University professor Tom Oden, who leads the Ancient Christian Commentary Project and is a United Methodist. "In the Protestant tradition, people are blurring the lines all the time." He pointed to the Wiccan movement -- a neo-pagan religion created from ancient Celtic beliefs and practices -- which he asserts is embraced actively by a small percentage of Protestant clergy. "... I do trust the Catholic teaching tradition to help Protestant evangelicals. Stating Catholic doctrine clearly helps Protestants clarify their own doctrine."
"Dominus Iesus" does not assert that only Catholics can be saved and that non-Catholics are, at best, second-rate Christians, contends Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and editor of First Things, a journal published by The Institute on Religion and Public Life. "The message of â€˜Dominus Iesusâ€™ is that to say that Jesus is Lord is necessarily to say that no one else and nothing else is lord," he writes in the November issue. "This has been and always will be â€˜controversial,â€™ and is thought outrageously offensive in a culture whose highest truth is tolerance, with tolerance understood to mean that all truths are equal, which is another way of saying there is no truth."
Media coverage of the Vatican document "badly misrepresented" its content and omitted the context in which it emerged -- concern over a growing sense of relativism among theologians about religious doctrine, says Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, a Washington-based, nonprofit organization that promotes liberty and democracy throughout the world. Shea criticized what she calls a tendency, particularly among Western European academics, to "equate claims of religious truth with a form of racism."
"Those who resist the document in the name of tolerance are themselves intolerant," Sirico responds. To assert a truth claim is not to be intolerant, he argues. "It is necessary before I can tolerate anotherâ€™s viewpoints."
That view resonates with theologians and religious leaders of other faiths whom Newsroom interviewed around the world.
"Every religion thinks this way," argues Eliahu Shride, a retired professor who taught Christian-Jewish relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "â€¦ Theology of exclusiveness is legitimate, unless unfair ways of implementing it are used." If there is respect between people of different faiths, "it's absolutely acceptable to have a dialogue in which every side is convinced that it is better than the other."
It is crucial, Neuhaus contends, to distinguish between tolerance and truth, and to recognize that "tolerance is most securely grounded in the truth that we are all made in the image of the one God who, Christians claim, has revealed Himself in Jesus the Lord, who alone is true God and true man."
"In ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue, as also in encounters with those of no religion, all participants are of equal human dignity but their beliefs are not equally true," he says. "If our different understandings of the truth made no difference, there would be no point in dialogue."
Every religion has the right to its truth claims, agrees Kenyan religious scholar Nahashon wa Muthai Ndungu. A religion "must have a well-defined stand if its followers are to have faith in its teaching."
"If all religions are the same, why should one believe in Christ?" asks Father Eldo Edappattu, a Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox priest at St. Peterâ€™s Cathedral in Delhi.
The perception that oneâ€™s religion is superior is essential to faith, asserts A. Wassey, head of the Islamic Studies department at Jamia Milia University in Delhi. "â€¦ (The) all-religions-are-equal theory does not mean equality of all religions, but harmony of all the religions."
Pope John Paul II "has done more than any other" to promote harmony and tolerance among the worldâ€™s religions, according to Shea, a commitment he reaffirmed with a formal dialogue commission of Catholics and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches last week. "He authored the Catholic Churchâ€™s document on religious freedom; he was the first pope to go to a synagogue; he apologized to the Jews for anti-Semitic speech and so forth on the part of the Catholic church," she says. "This (â€˜Dominus Iesusâ€™) is not at odds with any of that but is saying the Catholic Church has a unique role."
Tolerance requires understanding anotherâ€™s faith and how it defines their worldview without giving up your own beliefs, contends Rabbi Daniel Lapin, co-founder of Toward Tradition, a U.S. educational movement of Jews and Christians based near Seattle, Washington.
"I have no problem at all when a Southern Baptist says the only way to get to God is in Jesus Christ, as long as he is not coercive, and I think it's outrageous for some Jewish organizations to protest that view as bigotry," he says. Some Jewish organizations, and their leadership, he maintains, are guilty of secularism and moral relativism. "Their dislike for Christians who are fervent and faithful is exceeded only by their dislike of observant Jews."
Humanity cannot afford to ignore the differences between religions, cautions Tunde Akanni, a Muslim scholar and human rights activist in Lagos, Nigeria. "We have to learn to admit that we have differences. â€¦ We have to take ourselves for what we are as Christians, Muslims, whatever religion we profess."
"Religious tolerance does not mean making the other one helpless," Omkar Bhave, a spokesman for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) in India, believes. "The Hindu religion believes that every religion leads to God. This is the basic principle of our tolerance."
Muslims and Christians are well aware of their differences, "and we are able to conduct a respectful dialogue in spite of it, building mutual trust on the basis of truth delivered by all the messengers of God," insists Abdul Rahman Abbad of the University of Ramallah.
Many Muslims have come to realize that "we cannot force our belief on others," concedes Hamid Kassim Mohammed, the chief kadhi or highest ranking Islamic judge of Nairobi. "We have been teaching tolerance to our followers."
Sirico agrees that coercion to enforce a truth claim is unacceptable. The Catholic Church, he insists, is trying "to propose the truth, not to impose the truth."
"The claims of religion are eternally important," Sirico contends. Alluding to Christian writer C.S. Lewis he says, "The most sacred thing next to the blessed sacrament itself is our neighbor. We must be honest and ruthless in searching for truth, but always gentle in conversing with our neighbors. We may not disrespect the dignity of our neighbor."
Some level of tolerance is necessary for dialogue to occur, insists Pastor Sunday Adeleke, assistant secretary of the Baptist Media Practitionerâ€™s Forum in Ibadan, Nigeria. "Thereâ€™s nothing we can do without tolerance. We have different opinions, different faith. â€¦ For the Christian faith the common ground is Jesus Christ."
The pope has a right to articulate his beliefs, just as people of other faiths have a right to state theirs, argues the Reverend Boniface Adoyo, a Pentecostal pastor overseer in Nairobi. "We have no problem with the pope stating their stand on salvation," he says. "That is his prerogative. â€¦ I have no problem with the Catholic Church propagating what their tradition is; let them do so. But I have to, by Godâ€™s grace, declare what is in the Bible, the authority and basis of our faith. â€¦ We can count on what Jesus said about salvation, not what a church, or tradition or institution says. Salvation is through Jesus and Jesus alone."
Baldeep Singh, a 13th generation musician among Sikhs in India, contends that ego creates a barrier to tolerance between religions. "When the ego goes off, there will be tolerance."
Individuals control how they respond to religious differences, insists Pastor Sam Adeyemi of the Daystar Christian Centre in Lagos. "We must learn to respond to each other in love. â€¦ We must learn to communicate our conviction with respect for one another."
Pope John Paul II has done just that, some Protestant theologians contend. Despite doctrinal differences, he has become an important instructor of classical Christian teaching for Catholics and Protestants, argues Drew Universityâ€™s Oden. "He is a traditional Catholic who sees in traditional Protestants brothers and sisters in Christ," he says. "... We have a real but imperfect union. ... Our unity is in Christ, not in our institutions."
The tendency to blur the lines between religions -- what might be called an embrace of the doctrine of universal salvation -- can be found in the writings of Origen, a third-century commentator on Scripture, Oden notes. The doctrine, he contends, "is essentially saying that God in His mercy will find a way to save all despite passages in the New Testament that state some will be saved and some reprobated."
"For Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, the doctrine of universal salvation has never been widely affirmed," Oden explains. "It has always been rejected as heresy, though it has been given more attention over the last 200 years, even more in the last 50 years. There has been a politicization of the doctrine. Those left out of the process of salvation ... feel left out â€¦ there is a direct analogy to egalitarian arguments in political life."
The Catholic Church has never claimed that its relationship with other religions is one of equals, observes Orthodox Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel and a leading figure in inter-faith dialogue. "It declared a special relationship with Judaism: we've done away with the theology of contempt, and with all negative attitudes towards Jewish people, and we have a new relation of mutual respect," he says. "Nevertheless, the Catholic Church always maintains that only through belief in Jesus and through the Catholic Church one can get a ticket to heaven."
Youssef Sidhom, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church and editor-in-chief of Egyptâ€™s only Christian weekly newspaper, El Watani ("My Homeland"), fears that the Vatican statement could produce resentment among other Christians and other religions. "We highly respect and appreciate the word that his Holiness spoke, that in spite of any differences in beliefs, any grounds separating people, he spread the word of love and peace," Sidhom says. "But to compare and classify beliefs -- which comes first and which is right or wrong -- this is a very dangerous way. We have been paying a dear price in Egypt lately when we forgot ourselves and went deeply into that."
Christians live in an increasingly pluralistic world, notes Delhi Bishop Karam Masih of the Church of North India. "We have to work with all kinds of people to get our target. We have to have the feelings of an inclusive society. Here the Christians themselves disagree in every second matter. How can we ask the other religions to be in harmony with us? We accept, claim and believe (we are) the ambassadors of the peace. If we do not reconcile within our society, how can we reconcile to the world?"
Bishop Dimitrios, the ecumenical officer of the archdiocese of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, says that through the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCCOBA), the Orthodox churches in the United States have been holding a collective dialogue with the Catholic church for some 30 years, longer than the international-level dialogue between the two churches has been taking place. "In our dialogues, we try to find things we can agree on," he explains. "We know the differences, but if we concentrate on the differences, we donâ€™t get very far. We try to find things that are similar -- we have 10 centuries of common life. The differences are a hindrance to the final unity which we are seeking."
Yakov Krotov, a Russian Orthodox Church historian in Israel, calls the Vatican document unfortunate from the perspective of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation and argues that it inadvertently bolsters Russian Orthodox leaders who are anti-Western hard-liners. "It justifies their infringing upon the rights of not only Russian Catholics but of Russian Protestants as well, because of their connections with the West," he insists.
"Dominus Iesus" is a blow to efforts to unify churches, asserts Job Mar Philexenos, the Metropolitan of Delhi of the Orthodox Church. "Nobody outside the Roman Catholic Church would agree to the supremacy of the pope," he argues. "St. Peter was only primos inter paris (prime among equals). How could the Vatican say it was the Catholic Church which possessed and had been entrusted with the â€˜fullness of grace and truth?â€™ â€¦ The only way to have a bright future for Christianity is to accept all the Christians as equals and bring them together."
The time is right, Oden believes, for "serious, intensive dialogue between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (Christians). We are rediscovering our unity in Christ, partly because we are finding the early interpreters of Scripture -- particularly from the first five centuries -- built a consensus, and that is called orthodoxy, to which all Christians can appeal. ... I donâ€™t think anything from the Vatican or John Paul II would derail the dialogue that is emerging. Itâ€™s already having a significant effect."
It is possible to find common ground in which people of different faiths can acknowledge their differences with respect and yet find ways to work together on the things they agree on, says Ali Samman, vice president of Al Azharâ€™s Permanent Committee for Dialogue with Monotheistic Religions in Cairo and adviser to the grand imam for interfaith dialogue. Sheikh Mohamed Al Sayyid Tantawi, the grand imam of Al Azhar, is the highest authority in Sunni Islam. "Religions are not made to be a subject of conflict and wars," he argues, "but a message of peace."
Regarding Al Azharâ€™s on-going dialogue with the Vatican, Samman says there is "no dialogue about religious dogma, instead the dialogue goes to find common values." He argues that people of different faiths should understand their relationship to each other by laying a basis of respect. "We must never ignore the difference," he warns. "We recognize it but all the efforts must go to find common values, such as justice and the dignity of man."
"Dominus Iesus" changes nothing with regard to the Catholic Churchâ€™s ecumenical efforts, insists Shea of Freedom House. "It is meant to steer Catholics toward the Churchâ€™s evangelizing mission in the face of the globalization of religion. With eastern religions showing up in Western Europe, and Protestantism showing up in Western Europe and Latin America in places it has never been before, the Catholic Church is saying weâ€™re not all the same. Catholics have the opportunity to evangelize based on church teaching. That doesnâ€™t mean we pull back on dialogue or say that (Christians) are not all brothers and sisters in Christ."