Edmund Chia, FSC
The Asian Church in Dialogue With Dominus Iesus


The present paper is written in response to a request made by a Missionary Society wishing to know more about the Asian Church in the context of interreligious dialogue. Specifically, the request reads: "We would like to know more about the formal institutional response to dialogue, specifically the agreements and tensions that exist between what’s happening in Asia on a regular basis and the statements coming out of Rome about dialogue". I am not exactly sure what was meant in reference to "the agreements and tensions that exist" and also the part about "the statements coming out of Rome". But, I would hazard a guess that in speaking of "the statements coming from Rome" it was probably in reference to the recent Vatican Declaration Dominus Iesus, issued about a year and a half ago, since that has been the most talked-about document in recent times. Thus, I have entitled my presentation as "The Asian Church in Dialogue with Dominus Iesus". The presentation will then not only talk about dialogue but will also look at the dialogue between Asia and the Vatican, in the context of Dominus Iesus. It is interesting that Dominus Iesus has become very much associated with Asia. It is as if it were a document written specifically for the Church in Asia.

Ecumenical Reactions

However, for those who might have missed it, I think the most vociferous reactions came not from Asia, but from peoples in the West, especially those from Europe and America. Also, the most critical and negative comments were against what the document had written about the inter-Church relationship of ecumenism and not what it had to say about interreligious dialogue. Hence, the reactions were more about issues such as whether the Church continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, as Dominus Iesus has put it, or whether those who have "not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharist" can be referred to as Churches or should be relegated to what Dominus Iesus calls "ecclesia communities", or whether these Churches are by nature "imperfect" or "suffer from defects", as Dominus Iesus suggests they do.

Hence, it was not surprising that the media’s reports, particularly in the West, had headlines such as "Catholics Are The Best", "Catholics the Only Ones Who Will Be Saved", "Dominus Iesus Exalts Her Throne", "Not All In The Family", and "Kiss of Death for Ecumenists". Moreover the statements which came from our Ecumenical partners, from George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to the Rev. Konrad Raiser, the General-Secretary of the World Council of Churches, had a note of regret and disbelief. "What has happened to the 35 years of ecumenical dialogue?" was a question many of them asked. On the part of the Catholics, of course, many bishops and cardinals had to do a lot of damage-control work. Cardinal Roger Mahony, for example, had to reassure us that the dialogue will go on. Cardinals Edward Cassidy and Walter Kasper regretted that the "tone and timing" were not appropriate. These reactions, coming from both outside as well as within the Catholic Church, were so strong that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself was taken aback. In an interview published by a German newspaper,1 Ratzinger said: "I would like to first of all express my sadness and disappointment at the fact that the public reaction, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, has completely disregarded the Declaration’s true theme. The document begins with the words ‘Dominus Iesus’; this is the brief formula of faith contained in the First Letter to the Corinthians (12:3), in which Paul has summarized the essence of Christianity: Jesus is Lord". The Cardinal then laments: "The ecclesiological and ecumenical issues of which everyone is now speaking occupy only a small part of the document, which it seemed to us necessary to write in order to emphasize Christ’s living and concrete presence in history".

Interreligious Reactions

This brings us, therefore, to the real intent of the document. If the ecumenical concerns occupied only a ‘small part’ of the document, then for sure the ‘big part’ of the document had to do with the issues surrounding interreligious dialogue. There was no camouflage on this, as far as Ratzinger was concerned. In fact, his primary thesis in the entire document was that the spirit of "relativism" is not only dangerous but has become widespread as well. This, Ratzinger believes, is on account of the liberal views postulated by theologians, especially those exploring the issues of interreligious dialogue. To be sure, he specifically identifies Asia as the hotbed for these relativistic theories. Thus, it was necessary to promulgate the document Dominus Iesus in order to reaffirm the Lordship of Christ, and to reiterate the main tenets of our Christian faith. That was the professed aim of the document: to spell out in unambiguous terms, what can and must be believed. In fact, Dominus Iesus used very strong language, such as, it must be "firmly believed" (nn. 9, 20), or we must offer "full submission", or our response is the "obedience of faith" (n. 7), or that something is "contrary to the Catholic teachings" (n. 12), etc.

Of course, I would be the first to grant that there is certainly nothing wrong with this. Every religious community is entitled and even has the duty to reaffirm its own faith and reiterate teachings which serve to encourage greater discipleship. But, the problem comes when the document begins to distinguish between the Christian religion as "faith in revealed Truth" while other religions are regarded to have only mere "beliefs". Moreover, these beliefs are then said to be "still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God" (n. 7). Also problematic is when the document describes other religions as containing "gaps, insufficiencies and errors" (n. 8). However, it is when the document asserts unequivocally that "it is also certain that objectively speaking [other religions] are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation"(n. 22), that a declaration of war on other religions seems to have taken place. Unfortunately, such assertions cannot but evoke a situation where civilization is dichotomized into "we versus they" or "us versus them". "We are the saved, and they are the unsaved", "we are the believers, they are the infidels", "ours is the true faith, theirs is merely a belief". Such sentiments, I suppose many of us would agree, cannot but fuel the "clash of civilization" which Samuel Huntington speaks about.

Thus, it is not surprising that even if the reactions from the peoples of other religions were few and far between, — mainly because they don’t read our Church documents — those who did give feedback were generally very negative. Let us look at a few responses from India. C.S. Radhakrishnan, a Hindu from Goa, lamented that the Vatican’s Declaration would probably foster "unnecessary animosity and frivolous irritations".2 Shiekh Jamal, a Muslim journalist from India, remarked that the Dominus Iesus Declaration has a "language of antagonism", and therefore cannot be useful for dialogue. J.P. Singh, a Sikh by religion, commented that the Document leaves "no room for other religions to exist" and simply goes against the Sikh religious teachings which is unambiguous that the various religions are alternative routes to God. The Indian media reports were no less critical. The Organizer, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS (National Volunteer Corps) which is linked to the nationalist BJP political party of India, said the Vatican Declaration filled with "16th — century papal arrogance" is bound to create tension in pluralistic societies such as India. Suggesting that Dominus Iesus goes against "the basic philosophy of the Indian constitution" that regards all religions to be equal, the Organizer called on the Federal Government to launch a protest on the Vatican document as it "may cause communal disturbance in the country".3 Such reactions, coming from a country which has seen a rise in anti-Christian violence perpetuated by religious fundamentalists alleged to be associated with the RSS movement, is certainly a useful warning.

The Dialogue of the Pastoral Magisterium

In view of such negative reactions coming from peoples of other religions, the Church leaders and theologians of Asia were quick to offer their own responses. If anything, these responses were more of a distancing of the Asian Church from the Vatican document. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, for example, circulated a letter aimed at "toning down" the Vatican’s Declaration.4 The introduction to the circular noted that Dominus Iesus was "hotly debated" in India. As implied earlier, some of these debates could have led to catastrophic consequences, especially given the Church’s minority status in predominantly Hindu India. Thus, the Bishops saw fit to explicitly affirm the importance of Indian Catholics to remain patriotic and ensure the preservation of the best of the local cultures and other religions, all of which, the Indian Bishops’ circular asserts, God uses as instruments for salvation.

Fr Saby Vempeny, a scholar of Islam in India, compares the Declaration to the "fatwas" or religious edicts of the Taliban.5 To be sure, it was a fatwa specifically directed against the Church in Asia, since they are the ones most engaged in the activity of interreligious dialogue. Vempeny expressed fear that the document would be used as proof that Christians are fundamentalists, and so deserves to be curbed, if not extinguished altogether. Another priest, Fr Thomas Kuriakose, the former secretary of the Jesuit secretariat for dialogue in South Asia, regretted that the Declaration appears insulting to those engaged in the mission of dialogue. His appraisal is that the Vatican document seems to ignore the human and pastoral dimensions of interreligious dialogue, making it seem that the authors of it are simply "not living in dialogue".6 This sentiment was echoed by another Jesuit, Fr Sebastian Painadath, who asserted that "this document hasn’t grown out of lived experience".7 Referring to Dominus Iesus’ aloof and detached language, Painadath, who is founder-director of Sameeksha Ashram, a centre for Asian spirituality in Kerala, said, "It is a Western ‘desk experience’".

Fr Bao Tinh Vuong Dinh Bich, a commentator on Church-society relations in Vietnam, intimated that Dominus Iesus would present cultural problems for Vietnamese Catholics. Proposing that respect for the other’s culture is a basic value incumbent upon followers of Jesus of Nazareth, he then observed that even if Jesus was an Oriental, "the magisterial apparatus of the Catholic Church is located in Rome and its personnel are almost exclusively Westerners".8 This accounts for the lack of understanding on the part of the drafters of the document on sensitive cultural issues. Fr Bich then remarked, "If the drafters of the Declaration Dominus Iesus had spent a few weeks in the Asian region where Catholics are mostly a minority, they would have realized the cultural stakes brought about by the magisterial document that was written for the sake of the Church". Xavierian Fr Franco Xottocornola, director of Tozai Shukyo Koryu, an interreligious centre in Japan, which he co-founded with a Buddhist monk, resounded Bich’s comments by suggesting that Dominus Iesus has an "Occidental" tone.9 The "Oriental way", he continued, is more concerned about creation of "human relationship first as preparation for dialogue". The importance of building relationships was similarly echoed in Indonesia at a seminar organized by the Widya Sasana School of Philosophy and Theology in Malang. Vincentian Fr Petrus Maria Handoko suggested that it was probably a conservative theologian afraid that the Catholic Church was becoming too friendly with other religions who formulated Dominus Iesus.10

As is clear from the various voices which have just been highlighted, the response from the leaders of the Church in Asia to Dominus Iesus was generally negative. In some instances, this negativity was not a negativity for the sake of criticism. To be sure, they can be a matter of life and death. The already tense interreligious relations in some countries can certainly be exacerbated by declarations such as these, which pronounce negative judgements upon other religions. Negative judgements not only insult but can be lethal as well, thus inviting equally lethal reactions. For instance, they could be used blatantly by peoples looking for an excuse to scapegoat Christians. Yes, the stakes are high, especially in places where people are studying Church statements for the primary purpose of using them against the Christian community. For example, when the Pope came to New Delhi in November 1999 to proclaim the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, he made a comment about wishing and hoping that in the third millennium a great harvest of faith would be reaped in this vast continent of Asia. Shortly after, a very prominent Indian journalist-politician picked up that statement as proof that the Catholic Church’s ultimate goal was to convert Asia to Christianity. Hence, because the Church is out to destroy the Hindu and other religions, they ought to be stopped. He then brought out a book entitled, Harvesting Our Souls.

In view of these very sensitive and explosive reactions, when a group of bishops from Asia met for the purpose of discussing the document Dominus Iesus, they issued a statement saying that in case the Vatican was not aware of it, it is the local Churches which have to "bear the brunt" of any anger generated on account of Vatican documents. They urged Vatican officials to be aware that in some countries "groups inimical to Christianity are making use of Vatican documents to attack the Church and to build a climate of suspicion and antipathy".11 In other words, it is all too easy for the members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be promulgating documents while they themselves are hidden behind the protective walls of the Vatican, far removed from local realities. But, it is the local Churches, some living more than 10,000 miles away from Rome, who will be the ones having their churches burnt, nuns raped, and priests murdered. And, at times, the evangelistic and aggressive tone of Church documents have given the excuse for such crimes. Thus, Dominus Iesus, as a document promulgated to safeguard the Catholic faith could well be the very document used for the destruction of Christianity and the Church in Asia.

The Dialogue of the Grassroots Magisterium

Thus far, we have looked at how some of the leaders of the Church responded to Dominus Iesus. In a sense, it is the response of the Magisterium of the Asian Church, or more appropriately, it is the response of the pastoral Magisterium of the Church in Asia. We will now look at yet another Magisterium of the institutional Church — indeed, a much more significant one at that — and see how they have responded to Dominus Iesus. In particular I am referring to the ordinary laity, the Catholics on the streets of Asia, sometimes referred to as the grassroots Magisterium. This, we shall do, by looking at data I collected from a questionnaire survey which I conducted over the past month. Because I am still receiving a lot of responses, what I shall be sharing with you is therefore not the final analysis but a very basic and preliminary report on data I already have in hand.

I had e-mailed this questionnaire survey to all my friends, and what I am using for the present analysis are responses from 180 Asian Catholics from countries as far West as Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka, to the East such as Indonesia and the Philippines and up north to Korea, Japan and even China and Mongolia. This, therefore, can be regarded as the sensus fidelium of the Church in Asia. Put another way, it is the instinct, the sixth sense or spiritual sense of the Catholic faithful, the People of God, of the Church in Asia. Let me now delineate seven main themes which Dominus Iesus speaks about and look at these in the context of the responses I received through the survey.

First, Dominus Iesus insists on the fullness and definitiveness of the revelation of Jesus Christ. The survey showed that out of a total of 180 respondents, 174 (97%) believe that Jesus is God’s revelation, while only 130 (72% of the total population) believe that he is indeed the "fullness" of God’s revelation. However, of these 130, 78 (43%) of the respondents, while believing that the fullness and definitiveness of the revelation is given in Jesus Christ, also believe that revelation is given elsewhere, for example in the other religions. Only 40 (22%) of the respondents who believe in the fullness of Jesus’ revelation assert that this revelation is given "only" in Jesus and not anywhere else. Whereas, 105 (58%) believe not so much in the "fullness" of Jesus’ revelation but that revelation is given in Jesus as well as in the other religions. Second, Dominus Iesus postulates the unicity and universality of the salvific mystery of Jesus Christ. The results of the survey showed that out of a total of 180 respondents, 165 (92%) believe in Jesus as saviour for Christians. Of these, 158 (88%) believe in the universality of Jesus’ saviour-hood. However, only 93 (52%) believe that Jesus is the "only" saviour for humankind, while 44 (24%) of the respondents believe in Jesus’ universality as well as the possibility of other saviours for humankind. Third, Dominus Iesus insists on the necessity of the Church for salvation, while at the same time stating that those who do not belong to the Church can also be saved through the Church, even if it is not known how that happens. Ignoring the apparent ambiguity these statements raise, the survey, nevertheless, showed that 149 (83%) of the respondents believe the Church to be a means of salvation. However, only 70 (39%) of the respondents believe in the "necessity" of the Church for salvation. Of these, however, 30 (17%) would rule out absolutely the possibility of salvation through other religions, while 33 (18%) admit of that possibility while also holding on to the necessity of the Church for salvation. More significant is that 91 (51%) of the respondents hold that the Church is indeed a means of salvation — albeit not a necessary means — and at the same time hold that other religions could also be a means of salvation.

Fourth, Dominus Iesus asserts that those who are in the Church have the fullness of the means of salvation. 119 (66%) of the respondents believe in the assertion, while 45 (25%) oppose it. The document then goes on to contrast this with the followers of other religions who are regarded as being in a gravely deficient situation. Of the 119 respondents who believe the first assertion that those who belong to the Church have the fullness of the means of salvation, 53 (29%) also believe in this second assertion that the followers of other religions are indeed in a gravely deficient situation, while 40 (22%) disagree with this second assertion. Fifth, Dominus Iesus posits that the Church reserves the designation of inspired texts only to the Bible. Of the 180 total respondents, 164 (91%) believe the Bible is inspired but only 47 (26%) would go as far as Dominus Iesus to insist that the Bible is the "only" inspired text or sacred Word of God. Whereas, 79 (44%) accept the Bible as God’s Word and at the same time accept the possibility of other sacred texts as God’s Word. Sixth, to the question whether the one true religion exists in the Catholic Church, 168 (93%) of the respondents responded in the affirmative. However, of these only 55 (31%) would assert that there can be no other true religion while 80 (44%) assert that there can be other true religions, just as Christianity is a true religion. Seventh, of the 180 respondents, 168 (93%) agreed that the Catholic in Asia should be engaged in interreligious dialogue.

I will not attempt to analyze the results of the study at this point, but will only make some general observations and raise some questions from the data of the survey. First, a cursory look at the data would suggest that the affirmations of faith outlined in Dominus Iesus do not seem to be as firmly adhered to as Dominus Iesus might have expected or wanted it to be. Thus, one would have to raise questions about the relevance of Dominus Iesus’ very strong language such as "it must be firmly believed", "we must offer full submission", and "it is contrary to the Catholic teachings", if a significant percentage of Catholics in Asia do not even seem to believe in its basic affirmations. Does it mean that these Catholics are not being faithful to the Church’s tradition and does it mean they could be excommunicated or could it be that Dominus Iesus is just not in touch with the lived reality of the people, especially those living in societies where religious pluralism is an existential reality? Second, one would notice that many of the responses seem to display a sense of openness to complementarity or the both-and option rather than the mutually exclusive either-or attitude. For example, 58% of the population accepts the revelation in Jesus while being open to other revelations; 51% believe the Church to be a means of salvation and at the same time believe that other religions could also be means of salvation; 44% of the 180 respondents accept the Bible as the Word of God while also accepting that there could be other scriptures which are also God’s Word. This observation, therefore, raises questions about the nature of Church teachings — which by and large are generally exclusive rather than inclusive — especially in the context of societies where there are other religious teachings, which many Catholics are not only aware of but also subscribe to.

My next observations have to do with information received surrounding the survey research. First, I found it interesting that many of the respondents sent me additional messages suggesting to the effect that this is the first time they were seeing questions such as those used in the survey. Many also said they found it an interesting study, even if they had never ever discussed such issues with others before. Some asked me why I was doing the study and how I came up with such questions. My own conclusion from these inquiries is that most of them are probably not aware of the document Dominus Iesus. If they were, they would certainly have recognized the issues raised in the questions. A handful, of course, did recognize Dominus Iesus in the survey. But more important, this seems to suggest that Dominus Iesus had not trickled down to the masses, the ordinary Catholics (lay as well as Religious) in the dioceses and parishes. Perhaps the bishops who received the document did not deem it important or necessary to pass it on to the laity and Religious. It was probably too complex or too technical for bishops to want to disseminate it. Or, perhaps, the document was regarded as simply irrelevant to the faith of Catholics in Asia. Whatever it was, it probably did not rank very high on the priority of the Church’s pastoral programme, even if it was, in a sense, directed towards the Church in Asia. This observation, therefore, raises questions for the theology of reception of Dominus Iesus in particular and Church teachings in general.

Another observation which strikes me as important is the fact that many of the respondents suggested they had never ever discussed such issues before. Thus, it was something very new for most of the respondents. Nevertheless, they found the questions very interesting and thought provoking. This may come as a surprise to many of us since religious pluralism is so real in Asia. How can Catholics not be engaged in discussions about the impact of religious pluralism upon their faith? How can they not have seriously thought about the meaning of their faith claims in the context of other religions? Is there something gravely deficient in the theologies and catechisms which we are imparting to the common faithful? Or, could it be that these issues — such as the possibility of salvation or revelation in other religions, or the question of whether Jesus or the Church is universal or unique — are simply not relevant to the peoples in Asia. To be sure, many of these questions have arisen in the West only in the last fifty years or so, on account of the rising pluralism in Western societies. But for us here in Asia, religious pluralism has been present in societies for as long as we can remember. It is, in a sense, already deeply ingrained in our psyche, thus they no longer pose as questions. Thus questions surrounding religious pluralism are in a way irrelevant since they are regarded as givens in society. An analogy might help to illustrate this: Western societies in the last fifty years or so have also seen an increase in the different types of cuisine. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear someone say "today I had rice in the Chinese restaurant" or ask "how many times a month do you have rice for meals?" However, if that same question was asked of us here in Asia, one would probably get a stare. It’s an irrelevant question. We don’t ask such questions. It is a given. Everybody knows the answer and everybody’s answer would probably be the same. This is because most Asians eat rice everyday, and several times a day too!

Having said that, it would still be important for us to look at the issues surrounding religious pluralism. Like it or not, Asian Catholics cannot run away from the fact of their reliance, dependence and connectedness to Western and especially Roman theologies. Until not so long ago, that was the only form of theology known to Catholics in Asia. Even if these theologies may not be adequate for Asians to address issues of religious pluralism, they continue to be the only ones taught and disseminated in many seminaries and formation houses throughout Asia even until today. Hence, at best, the Catholic in Asia will probably not have any theological basis by which to make sense of her/his lived experience of religious pluralism. At worst, s/he espouses a fundamentalistic view of religion and regards other religions as "gravely deficient", "insufficient", or "in error". In this sense, faith is compartmentalized and has nothing to do with their lived experience of relations with persons of other religions. Their exclusive Christian beliefs are confined to the church walls, while their lives are lived with utter respect and love for not only their neighbours, spouses, children or parents who belong to other religions, but for their religions and religious beliefs as well.

This, therefore, raises questions about the importance of a rethinking and/or reformulation of the Church’s teachings. The teachings have to be relevant not only for the Catholic within the church walls, but outside of it as well. They have to teach Christian doctrines which are at once authentically Christian as well as interreligiously sensitive. This simply means that Church teachings can no longer be regarded as "in-house" teachings (as some proponents of Dominus Iesus suggested it was), but must adequately address issues posed by religious pluralism as well. For this to happen, it is important that Catholics in Asia be consciously engaged in discussions about religious pluralism. This not only helps clarify Church teachings, but could also help in the evolution of a theological sense of the faithful in Asia. In a sense Catholics in Asia have the responsibility and duty in helping to evolve a Christian theology more appropriately related to and in harmony with their experience of religious pluralism. Such a theology must, with time, be integrated and adopted as a theology not only for Christians living in Asia, but for all Christians throughout the world as well, since every community on the globe is becoming more and more religiously pluralistic.

The Dialogue of the Theological Magisterium

This brings me to the final part of my presentation, namely, to discuss the response of the third Magisterium of the Institutional Church, namely, the academic Magisterium of the theological community. As alluded to earlier, in general, the response of the theologians of Asia to Dominus Iesus was mainly critical and negative. In fact, an entire issue of the Jeevadhara theological journal from India was dedicated to these responses. The various articles, written by scholars from across Asia, dismissed Dominus Iesus for its incompatibility with the experience of Asian Catholics with religious pluralism.

Perhaps one of the most critical and at the same time hopeful responses came from Aloysius Pieris of Sri Lanka. One of Asia’s foremost thinkers, Pieris spoke on Dominus Iesus when presenting a talk at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue in Colombo on 30 September 2000.12 Instead of discussing the Vatican Declaration, he chose to discuss the background to how the Church operates and why a document such as Dominus Iesus was promulgated. Specifically, Pieris looked at the Vatican Declaration in the context of the renewal of the Second Vatican Council and the concomitant "ecclesiastical politics" surrounding the Council, and which continues until today.

Pointing out that the "dynamics of the movement and counter-movements" within the Church today has its roots in the Second Vatican Council, Pieris then reminds us that Vatican II was a "renewal" Council and not so much a "reform" Council. A "reform" Council, Pieris suggests, would be a "controlled and graduated process of change that keeps the institutional set-up of the Church intact".13 Thus, reform is a "top-down" process, or change evoked from the "Centre" moving out towards the "Periphery". The First Vatican Council and the Council of Trent were reform Councils. The Centre — more specifically the Vatican Curia — issues decrees or procedures and the local Churches, or the Periphery, implements them. Change is smooth, predictable and well-managed. A "renewal" Council, on the other hand, is a movement in the opposite direction. "It irrupts from below and works its way up to the top volcanically", remarks Pieris. Renewals are initiated mainly by those at the peripheries "where fresh and new ideas flow in more freely than in the Center of the establishment". Pieris further elaborates it as follows:

"Renewalist currents that begin to whirl in the margin of the church surge into centripetal waves that dash on the fortified ecclesiastical structures. The resistance at the Center is inevitable. Yet, there is a gradual transformation to which the Centre has to yield".14

The first irruption from the Periphery, as is well known, was that which irrupted in Latin America. We are probably quite familiar with the rise of liberation theologies in the 1970s and 1980s and the subsequent assault on it by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, resulting in the investigation of theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Jon Sobrino, and the silencing of Leonardo Boff. Then, with the appointment of conservative bishops to head the Latin American Church, liberation theology was more or less arrested.

If there is any doubt as to whether liberation theology had been arrested, an address by Cardinal Ratzinger to the presidents of the Doctrinal Commission of CELAM held in Mexico in May 1996 will clear such doubt.15 Ratzinger begins his speech by saying that "in the 1980s, the theology of liberation in its radical forms seemed to be the most urgent challenge for the faith of the Church". He then went on to assert that the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe "turned out to be a kind of twilight of the gods for that theology of redeeming political praxis". As is crystal clear, this 1996 statement was in reference to liberation theology and more or less represents the final nail into its coffin. In a way, an era of campaign in the CDF’s history had closed. Liberation theology no longer posed an urgent challenge for the faith.

However, if this 1996 address ended the war of the CDF against Latin America, it was in this very same address where the CDF’s guns were turned and pointed in the direction of Asia. For, in that same address in Mexico, Ratzinger also said that "relativism has thus become the central problem for the faith at the present time". Getting straight to the point, Ratzinger then remarked that "the so-called pluralist theology of religion has been developing progressively since the 1950s. Nonetheless, only now has it come to the centre of the Christian conscience". Aiming his guns even more pointedly, Ratzinger continues: "On the one hand, relativism is a typical offshoot of the Western world and its forms of philosophical thought ... on the other it is connected with the philosophical and religious institutions of Asia especially, and surprisingly, with those of the Indian subcontinent".

Thus, when Dominus Iesus was issued, it came as no surprise that many suspected the targets were the theologians from Asia in general and India in particular. Aside from Ratzinger’s specific mention of the "negative theology of Asia" in his introductory comments, a statement by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, was also revealing. Cassidy, in appealing to Jewish leaders who had decided to boycott a Judeo-Christian function on account of the insensitive posture taken by Dominus Iesus, tried to explain: "The text is not directed to the ecumenical and interreligious realm, but to the academic world". Cassidy then hit the nail on the head when he continued, "Above all, it was directed to theology professors of India, because in Asia there is a theological problem over the oneness of salvation".16 It seems rather clear, therefore, that in the eyes of the Vatican Asia is the "problem", and hence the need for a document such as Dominus Iesus.

However, if Dominus Iesus was directed at Asian theologians, it is but merely a single event in an overall scheme of many phases aimed at arresting the development of theologies of religious pluralism in Asia. We are probably aware of the various cases in which Asian theologians have been investigated in the past years since Ratzinger’s 1996 address. Three cases stand out as most significant for the Church in Asia. The first is the case of the Sri Lankan O.M.I. priest, Tissa Balasuriya, who, after several years of investigation, was excommunicated in January 1997, only to be reinstated a year later after intense protests from all quarters both of peoples inside as well as outside of the Church. The second case was that of the Indian Jesuit Anthony de Mello, who died in 1987. Nevertheless, this did not prevent his works from being condemned posthumously more than ten years later. Because a dead man cannot defend himself, he remained castigated, when the CDF issued a "Notification Concerning the Writings of Fr Anthony de Mello" in June 1998. The third case is that of Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Jesuit, who had served more than three decades in India. A much respected scholar, very much identified with Indian and Asian theology, Dupuis’ investigation, which began in September 1998, came as a surprise to many since he had always been regarded as mainstream and cautious in his theologizing. If not for the insistent defense put up by Dupuis and his Superiors, he would have been regarded as having committed serious theological errors. In the end, however, he was vindicated in January 2001, but not without having at least to admit to the possibility of leading others to err.

Hence, it is in the context of all these investigations that Aloysius Pieris suggests he was more or less expecting a document such as Dominus Iesus. The Vatican Declaration is but the Centre’s response to the various "irruptions" happening at the peripheries. Irruptions, can by no means be gentle, pleasant, or welcome. If anything, irruptions are chaotic, abrasive and unsettling. Thus, fear, worry and trembling amidst irruptions are anticipated and even understandable responses. Dominus Iesus seems to reveal that the authors are fearful of the irruption which goes by the name of the theology of religious pluralism. The Centre’s response is thus adamant, firm and unyielding. That Dominus Iesus used such strong language — "to be firmly believed", "definitive and complete", "contrary to the Church’s faith", "required to profess", "full submission", etc. — seems to suggest that the irruptions from the Periphery must have been equally strong.

In a sense, Dominus Iesus is more or less a verification that the irruptions coming from the Periphery are valid and flowing according to the design of the law of natural social processes. Put another way, Dominus Iesus is the inevitable resistance to the renewalist currents coming from Asia, where religious pluralism is an existential reality. This, of course, is nothing more than the dialectics of change. The fresh and new ideas whirling in from Asia are evoking a backlash from the Roman Centre. This process will continue for a while until such time as the Center is ready to yield. It is in this context that one sees the hope which Dominus Iesus seems to be generating: hope that the Vatican II renewal in the area of the Church’s relations with other religions is slowly but surely being effected in the Church, in which the most significant players can be found in the Church in Asia.


Thus, by way of conclusion, I would suggest that theologians in Asia ought to rejoice at the promulgation of Dominus Iesus, since through the document, their works have not only gained recognition, but affirmation as well. Asian theologies of religious pluralism, have, in a sense, arrived at maturity. Dominus Iesus, therefore, ought to be more fully appreciated by the Church in Asia. It is, after all, a document issued specifically for Asia, even if it was not intended to affirm but to condemn. Whatever it is, the Asian interpretation of it is probably most relevant and truth revealing. Since the main issues in Dominus Iesus are about truth and truth claims, let me conclude appropriately with a story from Anthony de Mello. However, before I share that story with you, I will have to read the Notification which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued on de Mello’s work. So, please be warned that the following story "is incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm!". The story goes that there was once a parachutist who was blown off course from where he was supposed to land. Unfortunately, he ended up caught on a tree and hung up there until a gentleman passed by. The parachutist shouted: "Sir, can you help me?" The gentleman replied, "Sure, but please tell me what happened first". The parachutist told his story and then asked, "And, can you please tell me where I am?". The gentleman replied, "Sure, you are up on a tree". The parachutist replied, "Thank you. By the way, you must be a theologian". The gentleman was stunned, taken aback, scratched his head, and then said, "In fact I am. But, how did you know?" The parachutist replied, "Well Sir, what you said is absolutely true. But, it is totally useless".


1 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, "Answers to Main Objections against Dominus Iesus", in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, republished in L’Osservatore Romano (22 November 2000) p.10, [Text also available at http://www.ewtn.com/].

2 "Indians of Various Religions Shocked over ‘unnecessary’ Vatican Document", Union of Catholic Asian News, UCAN (19 September 2000), [http://www.ucanews/].

3 "Media Say Vatican Document Threatens Dialogue, Communal Peace", UCAN (3 October 2000).

4 "Bishops Note Room for ‘Theological Inquiry’ in Toning Down Dominus Iesus", UCAN (3 May 2001).

5 "Some Church People Regret Vatican Language, Others Justify Recent Declaration", UCAN (14 September 2000).

6 Ibid.

7 "Kingdom Values are Core of Church Mission in 21st Century", UCAN (4 January 2001).

8 "Dominus Iesus Brings Cultural Tension for Vietnam Catholics", UCAN (18 September 2000).

9 "Japanese Indifferent to Dominus Iesus, Theologian Regrets Western Approach", UCAN (5 October 2000).

10 "Theology Institute Initiates Public Discussion on Dominus Iesus", UCAN (29 December 2000).

11 "Bishops Call for Episcopal Solidarity, Collegiality to Avert Interreligious Crises", UCAN (10 September 2001).

12 The paper of this talk is published in East Asian Pastoral Review, Vol. 38 (2001),[http://eapi.topcities.com/eapr001/pieris.htm].

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Cardinal Ratzinger, Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today, Address delivered during the meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops’ Conferences of Latin America (Guadalajara, Mexico, May 1996), [http://www.ewtn.com/library]. All of Ratzinger’s comments in this section are from this source.

16 ZENIT: The World Seen From Rome, 26 September, 2000 [http://www.zenit.org].


Ref.: Text from the Author. (edchia@pc.jaring.my). March 2002.