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Will Catholics be lonely in heaven?

As the world becomes smaller, and Catholics find themselves living next door to Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims, many can't help but wonder: How can we all go to heaven?

When Sheila McCarthy told her family some 16 years ago that she planned to marry a young psychologist named David Daskovsky, two of her brothers were deeply troubled. One, who had become a bornagain evangelical, argued that, however successful their marriage, David, a Jew, would not be eligible to join his wife in heaven in the next life. The other brother, a conservative Catholic, had similar concerns about David's ultimate destiny and sent Sheila religious audio tapes to help change his sister's mind. Their protests were in vain. Sheila, a graduate of a Catholic high school and university, would not be deterred.

"From the get-go, his Jewishness was never a question for me" she says. "I knew David as a good, compassionate, sincere man, so I had no worries about his salvation"

Today, three children later, Sheila remains as confident as on her wedding day. She and her children are active parishioners at a suburban Chicago parish, and David frequently accompanies them to Mass. The family celebrates both Catholic and Jewish holidays. David, though a nonobservant Jew, says, "We very much value ritual, community, and the sense of history embodied in both of our traditions."

When asked if she is not even a bit concerned about David's salvation in view of his lack of faith in Jesus Christ, Sheila says, "No, no, of course not. Salvation comes in many ways. I think the core of the message is love your neighbor as yourself. As Rabbi Hillel said, 'That is the whole law; the rest is commentary. I'm not at all uncomfortable." She may not be, but Rome certainly is. In recent years a string of Vatican documents has been deploring a trend toward relativism among Catholics and other Christians-the idea that all things are in flux, that all knowledge is essentially subjective, that absolutes do not exist. Last year's Dominus Iesus, produced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is by far the bluntest warning on the subject-so blunt, in fact, that it is having a different effect in some quarters than was intended.

Dominus Iesus was meant to assault a specific kind of relativism, a religious pluralism that views all the religions of the world as different roads leading equally to the same place or as different manifestations of God's outreach to humanity. Those who write favorably about pluralism see this movement as ushering in a "paradigm shift," a whole new way of understanding humankind's relationship with God. Others view the shift as an intolerable watering down of fundamental truths. The debate is as yet in its early stages, and many contradictory voices can be heard. But this many-sided discussion concerning the width and depth of God's merciful love may well prove to be the liveliest religious issue of the 21 st century, leading even to profound changes within Christianity and in other world religions.

Us against them

From its earliest days, the Christian community saw itself as having a unique, exclusive franchise on salvation. The saying "no salvation outside the church" was taken literally by the church fathers, none more so than Saint Augustine, who saw eternal life as unavailable not only to Jews, heretics, and serious sinners, but even to unbaptized babies and pagans who had never even heard the name of Jesus.

This fundamentalist approach was raised to the level of law and embraced in official declarations well into the second millennium. There was no room for ambiguity when Pope Boniface VIII ruled in the 14th century: "We therefore declare, say, affirm, and announce that for every human creature, submission to the Roman pontiff is absolutely necessary for salvation."

The tide soon turned, however, with the discovery of the New World and missionary probes into the Far East. For the first time, Europeans began to grasp the sheer size of the earth's population and learned of the existence of established nonChristian religions. The religions of China, Japan, and India had been apparently providing spiritual nourishment to millions of people for centuries before Christ and were still vigorously active. Meanwhile, Islam had swept through the Arab world, and the Jewish faith was alive and well right in the midst of Christendom. All of this threatened a comfortable Christian exclusivity. It was time for the first paradigm shift.

So theologians developed various theories to grant a measure of very conditional value to these belief systems without going so far as to accept them as legitimate alternatives to the one Christian truth. Perhaps the best known of these, "baptism of desire," proposed that people who seek truth and try to do the will of God in keeping with their own understanding can be saved. The supposition here is that they would have put their faith in Christ and been baptized if they had understood the importance of such things.

Amid lengthy debate and discussion, the church then gradually moved from an exclusive position to an inclusive one. The aim was to somehow gather or include worthy non-Christians under the Christian umbrella, even without their being aware of their inclusion. The great German theologian Karl Rahner called such people "anonymous Christians," and the Second Vatican Council gave official status to an inclusive interpretation when it said in Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), "Other religions to be found everywhere strive variously to answer the restless searchings of the human heart by proposing 'ways,' which consist of teachings, rules of life, and sacred ceremonies. The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways ... which ... often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all." The "Truth," it is understood, is Christ, the light of the world.

The path of pluralism

The 36 years since Vatican II have witnessed more development. Advances in communication and transportation have brought East and West together as never before. Americans and Europeans find themselves in daily contact with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and others their grandparents only read about in books. And this contact has been accompanied by an explosion of interreligious awareness and interfaith dialogue. Many have come not only to understand the beliefs of these others but to respect these beliefs, even to integrate some of their religious practices into their own lives.

Sally Orgren, a retired librarian and mother of six grown children, says she had little contact with non-Christians until she worked with an interfaith women's group in Buffalo, New York earlier this year. The members, including Native Americans, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and others, organized a "faith space" for reflection and meditation for the centennial celebration of Buffalo's World's Fair.

"We worked together so well," says Orgren. "No competition, no power struggle, no attempt to convert-just mutual respect." Each planning meeting opened with a prayer from a different faith, and Orgren found these prayers "heartwarming and uplifting." She was especially struck by the Baha'i image of woman and man as the two wings of a single bird, an image she plans to share and discuss with her prayer group.

So we may be approaching what some propose as time for yet another great paradigm shift-from an inclusive approach to a pluralist one.

The pluralist pioneer is John Hick, an English Presbyterian who has been writing on theology for some 45 years. During his lengthy tenure at the University of Birmingham in Britain he had regular contact with non-Christians, including Muslims and Sikhs, and found them to be people of good intention for the most part-no better and certainly no worse than the Christians he knew.

He gradually formulated a radically open way of accepting their legitimacy, not under the Christian umbrella but on their own terms: "If we define salvation as being accepted and forgiven by God because of Jesus' death," Hick writes, "then it's obvious Christianity alone knows and offers the source of salvation. But if we define salvation as an actual human change, a gradual transformation from natural self- centeredness-then it seems that salvation is taking place within all of the world's religions."

Hick and his supporters propose this shift in thinking as a kind of Copernican revolution in religious thought. For thousands of years people viewed the earth as the center of creation, with sun, moon, and stars circling around it. So also, says Hick, Christians once lived in their Christ-centered (christocentric) universe, with all the other religions circling around Christ and his church. Instead, Hick offers a God-centered (theocentric) perspective, with all religions, including Christianity, circling, as it were, around God. The implications are startling because they include abandoning any claim to a unique meaning for Christianity or for Jesus Christ himself. He is but one among many saviors.

Though virtually unknown in the popular press, Hick's views have opened a Pandora's Box among theologians. Some treat him harshly as an apostate and nonbeliever. But he has been take\n seriously by others, including Catholic thinkers. Among these is Paul Knitter, who teaches theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati and writes widely on pluralist perspectives. As with his mentor, Knitter's introduction came through contact with non-Christians, especially a Muslim friend, Rahim.

"Personally, Rahim was entirely content with his Muslim faith," he writes. "Ethically, he surpassed most Christians I knew. ... But if I were to speak about Rahim's need of being 'fulfilled' through Christianity, it would have to be in the same sense that I needed fulfillment through Islam. Theologically, I could say that Rahim was saved; I could not call him an anonymous Christian." Inclusive or anonymous Christianity seemed to him too simplistic and convenient an assumption, besides being inherently disrespectful and trivializing of another's deepest spiritual commitment.

At the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago during the early 1970s, Knitter taught courses on non-Christian faiths and became involved with social issues. The worldwide cry for justice, it seemed to him, transcends religious differences, so he committed himself to working with others across the religious spectrum to alleviate suffering. Dialogue between religions will bear fruit, he contends, only if participants accept as equally valid the beliefs of all and if they mutually commit themselves to the "suffering other." Absolutely repugnant in Knitter's judgment is any theological position that claims one religion is meant to dominate or absorb all others.

A call for caution

The discussion has widened considerably, producing a range of views. But the common denominators of standard religious pluralism could be summed up in a series of propositions:

Truth may be absolute in some transcendent sphere but is partial, provisional, and elusive to the limited, mortal mind.

The divine reality is manifested in many religions because God's inexhaustible truth comes in many forms.

The Catholic Church does not mediate all salvation, either exclusively or inclusively. There are many saviors and many ways to ultimate union with God.

Clearly, not all Catholics are prepared to go that far, though many are in sync with the general spirit. "I feel God is with his people-all peoplein whatever century, whatever place, whatever culture these people exist," says George Hinger of Madison, Wisconsin, a former retreat program administrator. "And I believe God reveals himself in ways that are capable of saving them. Look at the language of the psalms: God looks down on all nations, he desires universal salvation." Perhaps in some 11 mystical, remote way" all this is related to Jesus, adds Hinger, but that's speculation. The declaration Dominus Iesus would differ strongly. The document was not just a shot across the bow; it was more like a preemptive strike at a trend toward openness and diversity that had gone too far in the judgment of church leadership.

To be sure, Dominus Iesus supports the officially sanctioned inclusivist approach and cites Vatican II's assertion that nonChristian beliefs often "reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all." But it states again and again that whatever good these faiths possess comes in no way from their intrinsic value but rather solely from Christ.

"All men and women who are saved," says Dominus Iesus, "share in the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ through his Spirit." The document sees other religions as human striving after God, whereas Christianity alone represents God reaching down to the world.

To drive home this point, Dominus Iesus delivers a salvo of words that almost echo the old, exclusive Catholicism long considered outmoded. Through his church alone, it asserts, the message of Christ comes to all of humanity "complete," "definitive," "absolute," "total," "exclusive," "full," and "unique."

Furthermore, continues the document, there exists a single church of Christ "which subsists in the Catholic Church." And because Christ and his church are so tightly joined, "it must be firmly believed that the church ... is necessary for salvation." Followers of other religions "objectively speaking .... are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation."

Dominus Jesus reserves its harshest indictments for uninhibited pluralism. "The church's constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism not only de facto but also de jure (in principle)," it says. "Theories suggesting the incomplete character of revelation in Jesus Christ or claiming the truth about God cannot be grasped ... in its globality and completeness by any historical religion, neither by Christianity nor by Jesus Christ," are contrary to the church's faith.

The immediate Catholic reaction to the declaration was concern about the negative effect it might have on the church's dialogue with other faiths and other Christian denominations. Discussion of substance took second place to alarm about the tone. The document lacked "ecumenical courtesy," declared the Jesuit magazine America.

Almost unprecedented were the criticisms by leading members of the American hierarchy. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony said the declaration "may not reflect the deeper understanding that has been achieved through ecumenical and interreligious dialogue over these last 30 years or more." And Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland expressed disappointment "that so many of our partners will find its tone heavy, almost arrogant and condescending. To them it is bound to seem out of keeping with the elevated and open tone ofi the documents of Vatican II."

Even the then-president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Edward Cassidy (who wasn't consulted about Dominus Jesus before publication), told reporters, "Neither the timing nor the language of the document was opportune."

Many Catholics in the pew had similar reactions. "Oh, it's just embarrassing!" says Bridget Bamrick, a retired school-- teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I can't imagine what they're thinking in Rome-like they're trying to bring back the Church Triumphant. I think we ought to be about the business of Jesus, which was extending himself to the poor, the sick, the outcasts. Instead we're building up walls. Sometimes I feel we haven't come a long way since the Inquisition."

Missed the mark

Leaders directly involved in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, however, predict the document is not likely to hinder their efforts because their participants are not pluralists in the sense condemned by Dominus Jesus. Scott Alexander, director of the Catholic-Muslim Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, says the document missed the mark in its implication that a great many involved in dialogue are relativists.

"We have no illusions that the very significant distinctions between religions are breaking down," he says. "They are not." Those in dialogue generally have very firm convictions about their own faith, says Alexander, adding that it's neither necessary nor realistic to expect any agreement on the equality of religions.

Similarly, the Rev. Dirk Ficca, executive director of the council for the Parliament of the World's Religions, says an open-ended pluralism that believes anything goes is "lazy." The parliament has supported interreligious understanding all over the world for more than a century, Ficca says, and though participants may view ultimate truth as larger than any particular path, most tend to approach the subject from a particular religious foundation. "You have to stand somewhere," he says. "You have to put your trust ultimately in something."

Is Cardinal Ratzinger's pluralism then an illusion, a phantom heresy harbored by only a handful of isolated theologians? Not exactly, says Ron Miller, a cofounder of Common Ground, a wide- ranging forum that has been sponsoring lectures and seminars on interreligious matters for 25 years. The idea that "God's love crosses all borders" is now taken very seriously by millions, he says.

That should surprise no one, least of all American Catholics, in Miller's view. "We appreciate diversity on many levels," he says. "We eat at ethnic restaurants, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day. We preach tolerance and acceptance. Most people are aware of the respectful discussions between leaders of different faiths since Vatican II."

Miller believes Pope John XXIII contributed to this openness by his warm embrace of Hindus, Jews, and Muslims, and Pope John Paul II has outstripped John through his ceaseless travels to non-Christian areas of the world and the great reverence he accords to their traditions and people. "This is what the public sees in the press and on television," he says. "Whatever the pope's attitude against religious relativism, his actions speak louder than his words."

In a 1998 national poll sponsored by Newsweek magazine, only 17 percent of Catholics considered the conversion of non-Christians a "very important" matter, while 52 percent of Catholics rated such conversion "not too important" or "not at all important." By contrast, 72 percent of evangelical Christians called the conversion of non-Christians "very important."

The problems posed by Dominus Jesus are not illusory; religious indifference is a reality in modern Christianity, says Divine Word Father Stephan Bevans, professor of mission and culture at the Catholic Theological Union. This drift poses dangers because relativism is a dead end. "It's no more helpful to tell a Hindu, 'I'm right, and you're right, too,' than it is to tell him, 'I'm right, and you're wrong,"' he says. "In either case you have nothing further to talk about."

Bevans, who has been involved in religious dialogue for 35 years, says progress demands a recognition of the inherent value in other faiths. "God is greaterthan any theological system; we have not exhausted the truth," he says. "So we have to maintain a touch of humility, maybe a bit of doubt [about our absolute positions]. What we believe as Christians is not wrong, but we have to understand how our dogmas come to us through a cultural system. We can't see Jesus except through some cultural system. Others see through a differently filtered lens. We need to realize we can learn to see more clearly by understanding their perspective."

Bevans believes Dominus Iesus, because of its tone, communicated none of this; it was, he says, more like a stereo system with only one speaker operating. "I think it will be ultimately ignored," he says.

Finding balance

Meanwhile, the ferment created by the rise of pluralism continues, and theologians struggle to grasp its implications.

One of the best-known writers on the subject is the Protestant scholar Diana Eck, who professes pluralism but understands it differently from John Hick. The true pluralist, she writes, does not relinquish her particular commitment or view truth as entirely relative.

"If everything is more or less true," she writes, "I do not give my heart to anything in particular. There is no beloved community, no home in the context of which values are tested, no dream of the ongoing transformation of that community. Thus the relativist can remain uncommitted, a perpetual shopper or seeker, set apart from a community of faith, suffering from spiritual ennui." Eck's pluralist, by contrast, holds fast to her faith without imposing her creed or dogmas on others. (Turn to pages 20-24 for an interview with Diana Eck.)

No theologian has tried harder to baptize some of the insights of a pluralist approach or to integrate new religious understandings with Catholic doctrine than Father Jacques Dupuis, a 77-year-old Belgian Jesuit. Dupuis, who taught theology in India for 40 years, recently emerged from a 30-month investigation of his book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Orbis Books).

At one point Ratzinger accused him of "doctrinal error" and asked Dupuis to sign a statement agreeing with the finding. When Dupuis refused, the congregation reduced the charge, claiming the book contained "ambiguities." Dupuis signed this statement reluctantly, saying the long investigation and the attendant secrecy had brought him "very great suffering." And he insisted his major points represented a valid development of Pope John Paul's own teaching about the universal presence of the Holy Spirit active in the world.

In his book, Dupuis acknowledges that "the historical event of God's becoming flesh marks the deepest and most decisive engagement with humankind; it establishes with [humanity] a bond of union that can never be severed." As a once-only insertion in history, he says, the event has limitations, but because its meaning is universal, it is "related to all other divine manifestations to humankind in one history of salvation."

Declares Dupuis, "The universal enlightenment of the Word of God ... makes it possible to discover in other saving figures and traditions, truth and grace not brought out with the same vigor and clarity in Jesus Christ .... They represent additional and autonomous benefits. More divine truth and grace are found operative in the entire history of God's dealings with humankind than are available simply in the Christian tradition. ... While [Christ] is constitutive of salvation for all, he neither excludes nor includes other saving figures or traditions."

There is sharp contradiction in both substance and tone between Dupuis and Dominus Jesus. It would be hard, if not impossible, to reconcile the two. Given the authority of Ratzinger's congregation, one might assume that his voice will prevail in the long run.

But Catholicism, guided by the Holy Spirit, is always full of surprises and unexpected turns. Last January the pope issued an apostolic letter that looks forward to the goals of the church in the new millennium (Novo Millennia Ineunte). The tone, perhaps reflecting his experience in traveling the globe, is remarkably unlimited in its vision and so out of sync with the tone of Dominus Jesus that it left observers' heads spinning. Considering the "great challenge of interreligious dialogue to which we shall still be committed in the new millennium," the pope wrote, "this dialogue must continue in the climate of increasing cultural and religious pluralism which is expected to mark the society of the new millennium. It is obvious that this dialogue will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace."

"There's a wideness in God's mercy," goes an old Christian hymn. The time is at hand to think seriously about just how wide that mercy is.

"If we define salvation as an actual human change, a gradual transformation from natural self-centeredness- then it seems that salvation is taking place within all of the world's religions."


Sarah Cook, a 47-year-- old lawyer, recently spent five days at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemane, Kentucky, and she found the experience "extremely moving. It was not just the deep commitment of the monks, she says, not just the perpetual silence, not just the rising at 3 in the morning to chant in the new day. It was also that she shared all of this with a group of companions, some of whom were Catholic, some Episcopalian, some Jewish. "Our discussions, led by a Jewish woman, were transforming for me," says Cook, "because all of us reacted in different and interesting ways because of our traditions-though all of us felt the spirituality there."

Cook came home more convinced than ever of the validity of other religious traditions and viewpoints. "You can gain new understanding that you can incorporate into your own faith without throwing out anything," she says. 'Thats the value."

Cook, a wife and a mother of five, including a 17-year-old and two sets of twins, 13 and 8, has been involved in interreligious discussions and activities like this for five years. 'I used to be a pray, pay, and obey Catholic,' she says. "Religion was not a pervasive thing for me," though she, her husband, and the children were members of an active, Vatican II oriented parish in northern Illinois. Then she became involved in Common Ground, a loosely structured forum on spirituality and world religions, led by Ron Miller, a former Jesuit and Jim Kenny, an activist in the Parliament of the World's Religions.

Through this experience, says Cook, her ideas about religion have expanded. "I believe no tradition has ownership of the center we're all moving toward, nor the means of getting there." She quickly adds, 'I don't see that this makes you an I'm-OK-- you're-OK relativist On the contrary, you come to appreciate what religion gives to your life, and you don't want to lose the power of your own tradition."

Cook says Catholicism affects her daily life as never before. What other mothers may put into trying to change the school system, she notes, she puts into deepening her religious understanding, adding, "You can't do everything." She admits she is "unyielding" in her insistence that the children attend Sunday Mass and learn the Catholic tradition in its fullest sense.

The only downside in all this, says Cook, is the "disconnect" she feels between her expanded concept of the faith and her work as a lawyer. She is often in court arguing, as the legal system requires, that the truth is all on the side of her client and that the opposition position is utterly groundless. "Thats what litigation is all about" she says, "but its difficult to argue falsity in another when you know there's some truth there. I see both sides; I'd much rather move for conciliation."

"If everything is more or less true, I do not give my heart to anything in particular. Thus the relativist can remain uncommitted, a perpetual shopper or seeker, set apart from a community of faith, suffering from spiritual ennul."

ROBERT MCCLORY is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and author of Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church (Orbis Books, 2000).

©Copyright 2001, U.S. Catholic

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