On Dominus Iesus

« Dominus Iesus », the Declaration of Aug. 6, 2000, was published by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, some days before the beatification of Pius IX. It was ratified and confirmed by Pope John Paul II. This declaration is a summary of the theological teachings of the Second Vatican Council about the relationship between Catholic teaching and religious truth of salvation. This summary appears in the Declaration’s subtitle: “The Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.”

Having rejected in Part I, the theses that support “relativistic mentality” (5) and “the theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ”[1] (6), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in “Dominus Iesus” reaffirms “the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ […]that, in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, […] the full revelation of divine truth is given” (5).

The second part of “Dominus Iesus” opposes any relativism that introduces “a separation between the salvific action of the Word as such and that of the Word made man” (10). Here “Dominus Iesus” affirms that Jesus Christ is “ the ‘only begotten Son of the Father, who is in the bosom of the Father’ (Jn 1:18), his ‘beloved Son, in whom we have redemption [...] In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (11). After rejecting the “hypothesis of an economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen” (12) the declaration reaffirms the Catholic faith: “the salvific incarnation of the Word as a trinitarian event.[...] Furthermore, the salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity.” (12)

Using various biblical references the third part expresses that “the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.” (14) Questioning the meaning of “other religious experiences and on their meaning in God’s salvific plan,” (14) the declaration supports that “the content of this participated mediation should be explored more deeply, but must remain always consistent with the principle of Christ’s unique mediation” (14) and should not be “understood as parallel or complementary” (14) to Christ’s unique mediation.  

The part IV is concerned with a typical Roman Catholic Ecclesiology. “Dominus Iesus” affirms that “the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery belongs also to the church, inseparably united to her Lord.” (16). “This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (16). The term “subsistit in” means “on the one hand, that the Church of Christ [...] continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that ‘outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth’” (16). Despise the fact that the fullness of grace and truth of means of salvation is entrusted to the Catholic Church, “these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation” (17). But “Dominus Iesus” still believes that “the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense” (17) even though they share in the communion and are incorporated to Christ through baptism.

The fifth part of “Dominus Iesus” is more concerned about the relation that exists between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Christ and the Church of Christ. The strong bonds that exist among these three realities are expressed in terms of mission and the salvific role of the Church. The Church “is therefore the sign and instrument of the kingdom; she is called to announce and to establish the kingdom. On the other hand, the Church is the “people gathered by the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (18). For “Dominus Iesus”, “‘the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries’ must not be excluded” (19).

In the last part the Church is known as “the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’, since, united always in a mysterious way to the Saviour Jesus Christ, her Head” (20) because she is indispensable for “the salvation of every human being” (20). The Church cannot be regarded as “one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her” (21) even if they all aim at the eschatological kingdom of God. The Catholic Church has “the fullness of the means of salvation” (22) and all members of the Church must know that they will be saved “not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. [...] Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as part of her evangelizing mission, is just one of the actions of the Church in her mission ad gentes” (22).

This Document is very valid and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger does present its teaching in a manner that heeds the attention of those who came across it and read it. To be fair enough to  “Dominus Iesus”, I will say that the document is positively, an essential response to the belief in  religious pluralism and relativism. It does affirm courageously the Unicity and the universal salvific action of Christ that are open to the whole mankind. But contestations could arise from the criteria that define the “One Church of Christ”: the apostolic sucession, the successor of Peter, and the authenticity of the Eucharistic mystery. The valid apostolic sucession cannot be verified historically, the successor of Peter could be contested and authenticity of the Eucharistic mystery remains theological debate.

Placed side by side with other teachings of the Church, “Dominus Iesus” is thought in the light of the major teachings of the Church’s Magisterium. On one hand, it ignores all documents on ecumenical dialogues as if they never existed. On the other hand, “Dominus Iesus” is in agreement with the teachings of Vatican II and “Redemptoris missio”. These two Documents are the most cited ones. However, the Declaration does pass silently on Jews and Judaism while “Nostra aetate” does recognize them in its article No 4. It is true that the Declaration does not mention the name of any particular religion. Such silence is questionable because the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land right before this declaration was well appreciated by Jews leaders.

The tone and timing of this Declaration do not favour an objective reading of the Document. Its authoritative and apologetic tone gives the impression that the Catholic Church has everything to teach and nothing to learn from other religions. Various expressions justify this tone: “it must be firmly believed”, “contrary to the Church’s faith”, “must be firmly held’” and “faithful are required to profess”. The time of its publication was near to the beatification of Pius IX (September 3). Since Pius IX was connected to the definition of papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council, this document could be misunderstood.

The famous expression of reversal of attitude towards other religions, “subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church” (16), carries a lot of weight. This expression affirms that the Church of Christ is not only equated to the Catholic Church. Though the Church is open towards other religions, she still believes that other religions “derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church” (16). Such belief grants easy access of salvation to Catholic Church.

Exploring the fact that the letter to Ephesians 1.9-10 says that “he [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, […] to unite all things in Christ…”[2], and that Jesus assures Jews about the Last Judgment saying “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope,” John 5.45 could we conclude that the whole mankind could be judged according to the law of Love which is common to all religions? Is it God’s plan of salvation that the fullness of grace and means of salvation should be primarily entrusted to the Catholic Church? Is there no need for more openness towards other religions in matters of “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”? To answer these questions, “Redemptor Hominis”[3] which talks of Christ as the Redeemer of each man and woman is to be read together with “Dominus Iesus”.


[1] Any number in parentheses refers to the article from “Dominus Iesus”.

[2] Any biblical reference in this work is from New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Cf. Pope John Paul II, “Redemptor Hominis”, March 4, 1979.

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