Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian and native of Germany, is Professor Emeritus at the Religious Studies Faculty of McGill University in Montreal. He has been the editor of the Ecumenist since 1962.

Culture et Foi > Dossiers  > Dominus Jesus > The Theology of Cardinal Ratzinger

The Theology of Cardinal Ratzinger. A Response to Dominus lesus  
Gregory Baum


The Declaration Dominus Iesus, published on August 6, 2000, by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, deals with the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his holy Church and strongly emphasizes the difference rather than the similarity between the Catholic tradition and other Christian traditions and between the Christian religion and the other religions. The Declaration offers a harsh criticism of Catholic theologians who try to deal with religious pluralism in a manner that seems to relativize the uniqueness and universality of Godís self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

The positive aspect of the Declaration is that it affirms, with one exception, the teaching of Vatican Council II on the universality of Godís redemptive presence in the world. Embracing the theology of Maurice Blondel and Karl Rahner (at one time minority voices in the Catholic Church), the Vatican Council proclaimed in several of its documents that operative in the whole of history is the mystery of salvation, fully revealed in Jesus Christ. It offers rescue and new life to people wherever they are and aims at the transformation of humanity into a community of justice and peace. God is graciously at work in the whole world. Godís kingdom is pressing upon peoples and their institutions, urging and empowering them to leave their destructive side behind and move creatively into a new future. This is a new and startling reading of the Christian message, one that sheds light on the prayer ďThy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.Ē

This teaching of Vatican Council II leads to an understanding of Christian faith that inspires openness to people of other religions or of no religion at all, an openness that is sensitive to the drama of personal and social transformation taking place in their lives. The new Declaration reaffirms this teaching Ė not with joy, but with fear. Cardinal Ratzinger is afraid that this new openness to the transformative religious and secular ex-periences may prompt Catholic theologians, eager to account for religious pluralism in Godís world, to relativize Christian truth and regard all religions as true in their own way. Ratzinger is also afraid that the new ecumenical friendship between Christians of different traditions may lead Catholic theologians to relativize the Roman Catholic tradition, regard one Church as being as valid as another, and overlook the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be the one, true Church founded by Christ. Instead of rejoicing in the new openness of the conciliar theology, Cardinal Ratzinger is fearful that theologians, wrestling with the issue of religious pluralism, make too many concessions.

It may well be that some Catholic theologians, wrestling with new questions, do not sufficiently protect the teaching of Scripture and tradition. When new ideas emerge, they are often articulated in an overstated manner, until a more moderate formulation is found. But because Ratzingerís theology is inspired by fear, it has a fault-finding and scolding tone that has made this document singularly unattractive.

On one issue Cardinal Ratzinger does not follow Vatican Council II. While this Council stresses the universality of Christís redemptive work, it also acknowledges, for the first time in the Churchís history, that the Jewish people remains a covenanted community, the recipient of the divine promises, and a worshipping assembly in which Godís Word is heard and Godís grace received. Not only in Nostra aetate does the Council acknowledge Godís abiding covenant with the Jews; it also states in Lumen gentium (no. 16) that ďthe people to whom the covenants and the promises were given... remain, on account of their fathers, most dear to God because God does not repent of his gifts.Ē The Catholic Church here respects the Jewish faith, which holds that the Torah is Godís definitive, never to be surpassed self-revelation. The Church no longer tries to convert Jews to the Christian faith since they are already in a covenant relationship with God. This acknowledgment does call for a certain rethinking of Christology, even if a theology acceptable to all Christians has not yet been found. Because Cardinal Ratzinger makes no mention of this conciliar teaching, relevant though it is to his topic, his theology remains defective.

The Declaration has other defects. One of them is the idea that dialogue with the world religions is compatible with the intention of making converts. Dialogue is a conversation based on trust and mutual acceptance, in which the partners feel free to reveal their own problems and unresolved questions. Dialogue is an unguarded conversation. Dialogue is an exchange that transforms both partners, leading them to a better self-understanding, revealing to them the prejudice mediated by their own tradition, and making them aspire to a more authentic and enlarged possession of their own religion. It would be utterly deceitful to lure a partner into dialogue, attempt to create a community of trust in which the partner is willing to expose the weakness of his own tradition, and then abuse this confidence in an effort to persuade the partner to change his or her religion. It may happen, of course, that in such a trusting dialogue a partner decides to move to another religious tradition. But interreligious dialogue would be a form of manipulation if its aim were to make Christians of the participants. The proposal that dialogue and convert-making can go together is unethical. This seems to me such a basic moral conviction that if a person does not sense it Ė like Cardinal Ratzinger Ė one cannot explain it to him.

The Declaration does not deal at all with the pastoral problems of the present. I wish to mention two of them. First, there is the awareness among todayís Chris-tians that the missionary movement Ė the European invasion of the other continents from the end of the fifteenth century on and the subsequent creation of the Catholic and Protestant colonial empires Ė was for the most part associated with a political and cultural project. We should not be surprised, therefore, if in many parts of the world people continue to look upon Christianity as a foreign religion introduced under the protection of the conqueror. The unwillingness to honour the religions of the colonized people has been denounced as a sin in Pope John Paul IIís liturgy of repentance on March 12, 2000 (see pp. 16 Ė 18 of this issue). The Canadian church lead-ers, including the Catholic bishops, have repeatedly made apologies to the Native peoples regretting that the Churchís missionary activity did not respect their religious traditions and, even though sustained by faith and love, the mission understood itself as part of a European civilizing endeavour. Many Catholic bishops in Asia have raised the question whether respect for the Asian religions and their contemporary vitality does not demand a rethinking of the Church 's mission and an end to the efforts to make converts. Yet when John Paul II went to India, he announced an alternative policy, namely an intensification of the Churchís effort to convert Hindus to Christianity. Hindu nationalists who feel that their religio-cultural identity is threatened by powerful west-ernizing forces, including the Christian church, have used the Popeís message to justify their hostility to Christians in India. Will Cardinal Ratzingerís Declaration intensify opposition to Christians in some parts of Asia?

Ratzinger develops his theology without asking any question about the weight and power of religious ideas in society. We should have learnt from the devastating cultural impact of the Churchís anti-Jewish rhetoric that religious ideas have practical consequences, and that if these ideas do not promote love, justice and peace, then they are not true reflections of the gospel of Jesus.

A second pastoral issue related to the topic of the Declaration is the troubling awareness that in many situations of injustice and persecution, Catholics are not necessarily the boldest witnesses to the love of Jesus. Research on the persons who, during World War II, helped to save Jewish men and women from violent death has revealed that Christians were by no means more loving and more generous than people indifferent to religion. Research on prejudice in the United States has found that prejudice against. certain groups of citizens is stronger in Christian groups than among secular people. In the Report of the Truth and Justice Commission of South Africa, a special section deals with the churches and reveals that on the whole, apart from a number of courageous men and women, the churches did not offer resistance to the apartheid system. A recent book by Charles Villa-Vicencio, reviewed in The Ecumenist (Winter 2000, p. 17), examined South Africans who took the risk of standing up against the evil structure and concluded that they were a mixed crowd, representing different religions and secular outlooks. Yet all of them felt inwardly compelled to love their neighbour and take risks in doing so. Feeling inwardly compelled to love and resist evil sounds to theological ears like Godís presence in the human heart. But if it is true that Godís Spirit moves where it wills, then how modest must the Church become when it claims a special status before God and at the same time examines its historical record in matters of slavery, colonialism, racism, sexism, the suppression of freedom and so forth, all matters in which the ethical initiative has usually come from outsiders.

Has Cardinal Ratzingerís theology an adequate notion of religious truth? He seems to recognize only its cognitive dimension. Yet redemptive truth is much more than information about God; redemptive truth modifies human consciousness, it makes believers see themselves and their world in a new light, it relates them in a new way to their neighbour and it expresses itself in new attitudes and new actions. Godís truth saves. What Catholic theology must wrestle with is to find a concept of redemptive truth that respects the cognitive dimension and yet relativizes it in the light of its transformative func-tion. In my own writing I have often referred to ďthe irony of the gospelĒ Ė that we encounter people outside the Church who are more trusting, more hopeful and more loving than we are ourselves. Who knows the heretical opinions swirling in the head of the Good Samaritan! An idea of revealed truth remains incomplete if it does not take its salvific power into account.


Gregory Baum

The Ecumenist, vol. 37, no 4, Fall 2000


[ Retour ]