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Catholic Fundamentalism? Some Implications of Dominus Iesus for Dialogue and Peacemaking

  • John D'Arcy May (a1)


Can the Catholic Church be fundamentalist? Contemporary scholarship has shown that fundamentalism can take other forms than scriptural literalism. It consists in a rationalizing of traditional certainties in the face of pluralism and change. Its Catholic form could be described as “morphological,” residing in the structures of authority and power. Protestant reactions to Dominus Iesus missed the fundamentalist logic implicit in its synthesis of christology and ecclesiology. They praised the reaffirmation of Christocentrism but were dismayed that Methodists and Muslims were portrayed as inferior for essentially the same reasons. The document not only fails to reflect Vatican II's program for decentralizing authority but also overlooks the implications of Nostra Aetate 4 for interfaith dialogue. Its assertion of soteriological and theological superiority raises ethical questions. Dialogue is a religious act of welcoming the Stranger. Its refusal contains a potential for violence.



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1 This is a slightly edited version of a contribution to “Dominus Jesus”: Anstössige Wahrheit oder anstössigne Kirche? ed. Rainer, Michael J. (Münster-Hamburg-London: LIT Verlag, 2001), 112–33. I should like to thank Geraldine Smyth, John Pawlikowski and Paul Knitter for helpful comments and Gavin D'Costa for a detailed critique. Needless to say, the views expressed are my own.

2 See Barr, James, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 342.

3 This theme is developed extensively by Lawrence, Bruce B., Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt Against the Modern Age (New York: Tauris, 1990).

4 Liechty, Joseph and Clegg, Cecelia, Moving Beyond Sectarianism in Northern Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2001).

5 See Responding to Communalism: The Task of Religions and Theology, ed. Arokiasamy, S. (Anand, Gujarat: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 1991); Frykenberg, Robert Eric, “Hindu Fundamentalism and the Structural Stability of India,” in Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance, ed. Marty, Martin E. and Scott Appleby, R. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 233–55.

6 Frykenberg, , “Hindu Fundamentalism,” 249; see 238–40, 244–45.

7 Protestant reactions as reported by ENI Bulletin 17, 20 September 2000, pp. 18–23, and Publik-Forum 18/2000, Dossier, Wir lassen uns die Okumene nicht kaputtmachen”, pp. IV–V. Even Edward Cardinal Cassidy could not refrain from remarking that Dominus Iesus was mistaken “in tone and timing” and that “The same things could have been said differently,” while Bishop (now Cardinal) Walter Kasper saw the problem as one of “der Sprache und der Akzentsetzung … ein Sprach- und Kommunikationsproblem,” Publik-Forum 19/2000, p. 51.

8 In addition to Barr, Fundamentalism, and Lawrence, Defenders of God, see Barr, James, Escaping from Fundamentalism (London: SCM, 1984); Sandeen, Ernest R., The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Hollenweger, Walter J., The Pentecostals (London: SCM, 1972).

9 In what follows I refer to paragraph numbers in the text of Dominus Iesus issued on the Vatican's website.

10 See in particular the volumes of the Fundamentalism Project edited by Marty, Martin E. and Scott Appleby, R.. The Introduction to Volume 1, Fundamentalisms Observed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), vii–xiii, and the concluding Chapter 15, discuss the validity of extending the term “fundamentalism” to cover all instances and agree that there is as yet no better alternative; see also Lawrence, Defenders of God, Introduction.

11 See Jansen, G.H., Militant Islam (London: Pan Books, 1979); Sivan, Emmanual, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

12 This is particularly evident in areas of rapid social change such as the Pacific; see May, J.D., Christian Fundamentalism and Melanesian Identity (Goroka: Melanesian Institute, 1986); id., Christus Initiator. Theologie im Pazifik (Düsseldorf: Patmos, 1990); Ernst, Manfred, Winds of Change: Rapidly Growing Religious Groups in the Pacific Islands (Suva: Pacific Conference of Churches, 1994).

13 Merks, Karl-Wilhelm, “De boom der kenntnis van goed en kwaad in eigen tuin: Fundamentalistische argumentaties in de katholieke moraaltheologie,” in Fundamentalisme: Ethisch fundamentalisme in wereldgodsdiensten, ed. Beck, H.L. and Merks, K.-W. (Baarn: Ambo, 1994), 4259.

14 See May, J.D., “Vorbereitende Überlegungen zu einer Konsenstheorie der Konziliarität,” Una Sancta 32 (1977): 94104.

15 See Gaillardetz, Richard R., Witnesses to the Faith: Community, Infallibility, and the Ordinary Magisterium of Bishops (New York: Paulist, 1992). On catholicity see May, J.D., “Realised Catholicity: The Incarnational Dimension of Multiculturalism,” Australiasian Catholic Record 76 (1999): 419–29; Schreiter, Robert, The New Catholicity: Theology Between the Global and the Local (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).

16 Pieris, Aloysius, “Interreligious Dialogue and Theology of Religions: An Asian Paradigm,” Horizons 20 (1993): 106–14. Pieris sees all Western theologies of religion, whether pluralist (Hick) or inclusivist (Rahner), as fixated on the uniqueness of Christ.

17 See May, J.D., “Consensus in Religion: An Essay in Fundamental Ecumenics,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 17 (1980): 407–31. It may be worth reproducing my conclusions:

“(1) There is too much concern with the requirements of institutions as determinants of ‘partial’ consensus and too little concern with discovering the functions and structures of communio as the medium of the ‘basic’ ecumenical consensus.

(2) There is too much indulgence in the ‘elaborated code’ of a theological and leadership elite and too little sensitivity to the ‘restricted codes’ in which the faith is lived in different situations.

(3) There is too much anxiety about control and too little confidence in the theological value of the latent ‘basic’ consensus in Christianity” (430–31).

18 See Kepel, Gilles, Die Rache Gottes: Radikale Moslems, Christen und Juden auf dem Vormarsch (München-Zürich: Piper, 1994), who includes treatments of Catholic movements such as Communione e Liberazione, 97–117; and Lawrence, Defenders of God, for detailed studies of Jewish, Christian and Muslim movements.

19 See in particular Cardinal Ratzinger's speech to the presidents of the doctrinal commissions of the bishops' conferences of America, Latin (May 1996, repeated to bishops from mission countries on 16 September), “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today,” Origins 26 (1996): 309–17, in which John Hick and “the former Catholic priest Paul Knitter” (313) are criticised explicitly for allowing their exegesis of the Bible to be influenced by a predetermined pluralist philosophy (315–16).

20 See Pawlikowski, John, “Vatican II's About-face on the Jews: Not yet fully recognized,” The Ecumenist 37/1 (2000): 46, 4.

21 Ibid., 4.

22 Ibid., 5; see n. 49 below.

23 Collins, Paul, Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism's Third Millennium (London: Fount, 1997), 97.

24 See the excellent analysis of these documents by Knitter, Paul, Jesus and the Other Names: Christian Mission and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996), 127–35, esp. 128–30.

25 Dupuis, Jacques, Jesus Christ at the Encounter of World Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991); Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997).

26 Collins, , Papal Power, 103, using a proposal by Neil and Thea Ormerod.

27 See O'Leary, Joseph S., Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996). O'Leary criticises Derrida for not admitting that “judgement” is a necessary condition for the attainment of truth (103) thereby making it doubtful that he can be called a “postmodern relativist.”

28 D'Costa, Gavin, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000). D'Costa has in fact defended the Declaration in a letter to The Tablet, 4 November 2000.

29 D'Costa, , Meeting of Religions, 27.

30 Ibid., 28.

31 Ibid., 30.

32 Ibid., 32–33.

33 Ibid., 35–36.

34 The argument has been summarized comprehensively by Haight, Roger, Jesus Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), ch. 14. This is one of the first christologies to have been conceived taking full account of the problems raised by the dialogue of religions.

35 D'Costa, , Meeting of Religions, 33.

36 I find this particular criticism of Knitter manifestly unjust. In One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995) Knitter goes to great lengths—and reports vivid experiences—to show that human suffering is indeed culturally contextualized, and at the recent international conference of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies (Tacoma, Washington, 5–12 August 2000) he gave a paper entitled “A Common Creation Story? Interreligious Dialogue and Ecology” in which he stated quite clearly that the “common creation story” is not transcultural and that in establishing criteria for dialogue ethics has priority.

37 D'Costa, , Meeting of Religions, 37.

38 Ibid., 38–39, with reference to Karl Rahner.

39 Ibid., 39.

40 Ibid., 23.

41 Ibid., 44.

42 Ibid., 59.

43 Ibid., 81, 83.

44 Ibid., 90.

45 Ibid., 100.

46 Ibid., 102.

47 Ibid., 105.

48 Ibid., 103, citing NA 4.

49 “In this section [NA 4] we find the single exclusive use of the term Revelationem (revelation) in regard to other religions, although the sentence in which the term is used refers to the ‘Old Testament’ so that it is difficult to speak here of another religion [Judaism?] bearing revelation per se,” 103. For D'Costa this only underscores the Council's refusal to countenance revelation and salvation not effected by Christ and mediated through the Church. As I mentioned earlier with reference to John Pawlikowski, this interpretation seems to ignore the significance of the Council's abandonment of traditional theological hostility to the Jews and the implications of this about-face for christology and for salvation in all non-Christians religions.

50 D'Costa, , Meeting of Religions, 112–13.

51 Ibid., 109, 114.

52 Ibid., 113.

53 Ibid., 115.

54 Ibid., 117, 136–37. In his letter to The Tablet, with his usual succinctness, D'Costa summarizes the teaching of DI thus: “The document simply opposes the view that other religions are objectively true as such and therefore are equal in truth to Catholicism.” This seems to conflate autonomy and equality; the first is a presupposition for dialogue, the second its—possible—subject-matter.

55 D'Costa, , Meeting of Religions, 128.

56 Ibid., 129.

57 Ibid., 133.

58 Mark Heim, S., Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995) and my joint review of this and Knitter's, Jesus and the Other Names in Mid-Stream 37/1 (1998): 108–13. The ground-breaking work of Lindbeck, George, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (London: SPCK, 1984) also points in this direction.

59 D'Costa, as ever, is precise: “The document makes it clear that God works through the scriptures, rituals and lives of those in other religions,” letter to The Tablet. My point concerns our Christian theological response to these manifestations in themselves.

60 I find this usage vindicated by the critique of Western theology of religions in Sundermeier, Theo, Den Fremden verstehen: Eine praktische Hermeneutik (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993).

61 This and the following paragraphs are adapted from May, J.D., “Strange Encounters: On Transcending Violence by Transcending Difference,” Studies in World Christianity 6/2 (2001): 224–44, 229–31; see also May, J.D., “Verantwortung Coram Deo? Europa zwischen säkularer und interreligiöser Ethik,”in Verantwortung—Ende oder Wandlungen einer Vorstellung? Orte und Funktionen der Ethik in unserer Gesellschaft, ed. Merks, Karl Wilhelm (Münster-Hamburg-London: LIT Verlag, 2001), 115.

62 See Ricoeur, Paul, Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 332–36, and on the implications of Levinas' ethical re-grounding of philosophy for interreligious ethics, May, J.D., After Pluralism: Towards an Interreligious Ethic (Münster-Hamburg-London: LIT Verlag, 2000), 3543.

63 There is a curious circle here: D'Costa accuses Hick and Knitter of apriorism, I accuse Dominus Iesus of apriorism, Dominus Iesus accuses pluralist theologians of apriorism….

64 See Gopin, Marc, Between Eden and Armageddon: The Future of World Religions, Violence and Peacemaking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

65 Ibid., 12.

66 Ibid., 59.

67 Ibid., 47.

68 Ibid., 49.

69 Ibid., 69–70, 80.

70 Ibid., 81, 84.

71 Ibid., 86.

72 Ibid., 193–94.

73 Ibid., 175.

74 Ibid., 201.

75 Ibid., 202; my emphasis.

76 Ibid., 202–03.

77 Ibid., 203; more fully 204–06.

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