Holy Mother Church has done it again. Amid all her brilliant statements on economic liberation in the year of Jubilee, defense of human dignity, and the imperative of confession (see the pope at Yad Vashem), one of the highest ranking cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church recently released documents that deemed the rest of the Christian family as "suffering from defects."
I'd like to be able to say that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, didn't really mean his declaration that all non-Catholics are in a "gravely deficient situation in comparison with [Roman Catholics] who have the fullness of the means of salvation." But he did mean it that way. The question is why?
For those of you who don't know Cardinal Ratzinger, he is affectionately known as "The (doctrinal) Enforcer." Every church has at least one. He has poked, prodded, reprimanded, defrocked, and silenced anyone who has suggested a model of church that is not clerical, dogmatic, and rule-bound. Inclusive language makes him queasy. Liberation theology and women's ordination give him hives. Now his shields are up against religious "relativism."
A little context is helpful. Cardinal Ratzinger is upset with some Asian bishops engaged in interfaith dialogue with Buddhists. He's also afraid of closer relations with the Eastern Orthodox church, which invests much greater authority at the level of bishop than Catholics do. He is also, undoubtedly, making political overtures to increase the conservative climate within the Vatican as he anticipates a successor to Pope John Paul II.
The Vatican released two related documents in a short time span, both causing an uproar. The major one on religious relativism was written principally for Catholic bishops and theologians as a giant reminder notice that Jesus Christ is "savior and Lord" and that the lineage of Peter is the rock on which they stand. The second smaller document, titled "Note on the Expression 'Sister Churches'," was written to tell Catholic bishops to heed their semantic Ps and Qs, especially when talking about Orthodox and Anglican churches. The Roman Catholic church wants to be known as the "mother" of all churches, Ratzinger reminds them, making all other communions "daughter" to her. The Catholic church cannot therefore be "sister" to any other communions. This "clarification" from Cardinal Ratzinger appears to contradict language used by the last four popes to advance reconciliation among churches, particularly Orthodox and Anglican, which have preserved the apostolic creed and Eucharist.
CAN ANYTHING GOOD come from Rome? The answer's an unequivocal yes. Most of what comes from the Vatican is very good indeed. And it is possible, even with these documents, to surface some rigorous, faith-provoking questions.
For Christians, is one religion just as good as another? The Vatican document says that the true faith of salvation in Jesus "does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out...the mentality of indifferentism 'characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another.'" (Ironically, evangelical leader Billy Graham recently issued a statement saying virtually the same thing.) At the same time, the Vatican acknowledges that followers of other religions can and do receive divine grace.
Can we talk about the divine mystery of creation, "which is reflected in the diversity of cultures and beliefs," without talking about the mystery of redemption, which has at its core the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? For those engaged in interfaith dialoguean essential component of peacemaking in many parts of the worldthis is a critical question. We must respectfully and authentically carry forth both.
So how are non-Catholic Christians to interpret this vox vaticani? First, I hope with mercy toward some of the Vatican's more-blatant narrowness of view, and remembering that the charges of relativism are not really leveled at other Christians. Second, Protestant theologian Martin Marty reminds us that no non-Catholic ever enters ecumenical conversation unaware that Rome thinks of itself as the one true church. And never, Marty says, did a Protestant, Orthodox, or Anglican ever regard their own truth, salvation, or fullness of grace as inferior to Catholicismeach church has a right to define itself.
Finally, the Vatican document closes with an important blessing for the third millennium: "The Christian mystery overcomes all barriers of time and space and accomplishes the unity of the human family....Jesus destroys the walls of division and creates...unity so deep that we can say with St. Paul, 'You are no longer strangers, but saints and members of the household of God.'"
ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of Sojourners.