A Jewish Response to
On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church
by Michael A. Signer
On June 16, 2000 the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph
Cardinal Ratzinger published a technical document that set out the boundaries of proper
teaching about the Catholic Church and world religions. When the document was announced
publicly on September 7, 2000, the rather strident tone of the document unleashed a
whirlwind of confusion among Jews, Protestants and Orthodox Churches. Over the past two
weeks major bishops of the American Catholic Church have issued a number of clarifications
about the document and its intended audience. These American statements have been augmented
by announcements from the Vatican as well.
Why publish Dominus Iesus?
This twenty six-page document is a summary of theological teachings of the Second Vatican
Council about the relationship between Catholic teaching and religious truth outside the
Church. During the Council the bishops decided that the Catholic Church would open itself up
to the world. This was a major revolution from the position that had been espoused at the
end of the nineteenth century. In the First Vatican Council the Church had described itself
as a fortress against the tendencies of modernity. The Church was identical to the hierarchy
and the priesthood. Vatican II opened the windows of the Church to the world. It declared
that human dignity and human rights were compatible with the message of the Roman Church. In
Nostra Aetate [No 4], a document that Jews associate with a major shift in Church policy
towards Judaism, there is an even more revolutionary statement about the grace of God
extending to all of humanity. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are declared to be "worthy
of respect." The approach to the world in general and Judaism in particular was to be
"dialogue" no longer "disputation." However, the Council asserted that
the primary source of truth — where God"s grace was most clearly understood — remained
the Catholic Church.
Asserting this primary truth did not stop Catholic theologians and the popes since the
Council from engaging in serious dialogue with Protestant and Orthodox Churches. Major
theological documents that indicate areas of profound agreement have been signed with the
Anglican Church, Lutheran Church and Eastern Orthodox Church. As Jews we are well aware of
the work accomplished by the Vatican"s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
The rapid growth of dialogue with non-Western religions and the expansion of Christianity
in Asia and Africa posed different problems. Roman Catholics are tiny minorities in those
countries. In China and some parts of Southeast Asia, Catholics have been persecuted. On the
other hand, the constant dialogues with members of Hindu and Buddhist faith have produced a
theological literature that enters under-explored areas.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been evaluating this literature. From
their perspective some of the trends in this literature are in serious contradiction to the
teaching of the Church. Therefore, they set guidelines for theologians in these countries.
However, when "Dominus Iesus" was issued, it made universal claims. Its language
was juridical — like a halakhik pesaq din (legal decision).
How have American Catholic bishops received Dominus Iesus?
After almost forty years of dialogue with Catholics, we American Jews should have learned
that we wait until we discern how American bishops interpret technical documents from the
Vatican. We should restrain our comments, especially when the document in question is not
issued by an agency that consults with Jews on a regular basis such as the Commission on
Religious Relations with the Jews.
Within days of the public announcement the American bishops indicated that Jews and
Protestants had nothing to fear from Dominus Iesus. Bishop Fiorenza, president of the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated that the Jews had a unique relationship
to the Church. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles cited that enormous efforts had been
made by Pope John Paul II to engage in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. His examples
included Pope John Paul II"s visit to Yad VaShem and his tireless efforts to speak with
Muslims and Hindus.
Further clarifications of Dominus Iesus are available in Origins: CNS Documentary
Service, September 21, 2000 [Cardinal Law of Boston, Archbishop Levied of San Francisco;
Archbishop Theodore McCormick of Newark NJ; Archbishop Alexander Brunet of Seattle]
What should Jews do?
- We should not be worried by this document. It does not mention Jews and Judaism. There
is no retrenchment of the position of the Vatican or the American bishops toward
dialogue with Judaism. In fact, the papal trip to Israel and the many occasions of
penitence expressed by American Bishops ought to be an opportunity to move forward in
dialogue and educational projects with the Catholic Church.
- We ought to learn how to react to assertive and exclusive claims by the Vatican
congregations. Our initial response should be to ask for clarification: What is the
audience for this statement? Does the statement apply to the Catholic-Jewish
relationship? How can we engage in continuing dialogue in a climate that seems to narrow
the windows of clear conversation.
- We can appreciate the difference between a religious community that has an Orthodoxy
and our own. It is too simple to dismiss the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
as attempting to shut down dialogue. In the Jewish community we also have problems of
boundaries and syncretism: many of our congregations are discussing the problem of
"Jewish-Buddhism" or "Jewish-Christianity." We too sometimes make
proclamations that set boundaries and guidelines.
© Copyright 2000 - With kind permission of Rabbi Dr. Michael Signer, Abrams Professor
of Jewish Thought and Culture, Notre Dame University.