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From the June, 2002
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A Neglected Opportunity by Robert Hart

A Neglected Opportunity

Robert Hart on the Criticisms of Dominus Iesus

In the Fall of 2000, the document Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church was put out by the Vatican to make it clear that sound doctrine is not superseded by the passing of time and that eternal verities are not subject to any essential change simply because mankind, including the Church, experiences the increase of knowledge. Among the eternal verities, it included, much to the indignation of some other Christians and the press, the claims of the Roman Catholic Church.

I am an Anglican priest, not a Roman Catholic, and when I first read the news reports, I was sure that the Vatican had gone much too far. I began to exchange words to that effect with my Roman Catholic brother, until I read the declaration for myself. Then I said, in his language, mea maxima culpa, which in my language means, “by my own most grievous fault.” For what I saw in it was simply what the Holy Father intended, as America Press would later report: “The cardinal [Ratzinger], responding to criticism . . . said it was written because Pope John Paul II ‘wanted to offer the world a great and solemn recognition of Jesus Christ as Lord at the culminating moment of the Holy Year.’”

The primary issue in the document is the unchanging universality of the gospel. It boldly defends the mission of the Church, and encourages us with a reminder that that mission remains exactly what the Lord Jesus commanded, that his gospel be presented to all peoples as the revelation of God’s salvation for all nations on the earth. At a time when such a defense is sorely needed, Dominus Iesus heartily proclaims what all Christians should hold dear, that the gospel is unequaled by anything in the variety of mankind’s religious genius.

Essentials Maintained

With profound sensitivity, both to non-Christian religions and other Christians who are, like myself, not in communion with Rome, the Vatican maintained the essentials of the faith shared by Christians the world over. Appealing to Scripture from beginning to end in a way reminiscent of the patristic method, the Roman see maintained the unique and universal saving revelation of God in Christ, as the full title of the declaration suggests.

This Vatican document spoke of the Church. This it had to do as part of its thorough discussion of salvation, in which discussion the Church must figure as the instrument of God’s kingdom on earth. The Church does not merely proclaim redemption, it offers redemption, having in its life the full gift of salvation in Christ, both by his Word and by the sacraments.

The document said nothing new, and following the pattern of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, maintained the Magisterium’s teaching on the Petrine see in a way most sensitive to those who do not agree, but are, nonetheless, baptized into Christ and share the same faith of the Creed and the same Scriptures. It acknowledged their place in Christ and their ministry of spreading his salvation, even if they are “not in perfect communion” with the see of Rome.

Read carefully, it does not “unchurch” baptized and faithful Christians, though it never wavers in its adherence to the belief that the fullness of the Church “subsists in the Catholic Church.” “Fullness” does not mean that the Church subsists exclusively in the Catholic Church, but speaks of the whole deposit of truth and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that is entrusted to her.

Among these gifts of the Spirit are the sacraments. The truth is the teaching that has been handed down from Christ and his apostles through all of the subsequent ages, and that is guarded by the successor of St. Peter, namely, the bishop of Rome. This was the belief of the Catholic Church long before Dominus Iesus was written.

Alleged Offense

Faithful to its own beliefs, the Vatican expressed the different degrees of closeness to the Catholic Church held by the other Christian Churches. In so doing, it created the one and only section used as a “pull quote” by the press. The alleged offense was in its description of the Catholic Church and its treatment of the rest of the Christian world as being either “particular Churches” or not Churches at all but “ecclesial communities.”

The offending passage began with the claim that “there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” It then described, in a less controversial passage, “the Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist.”

These it called “true particular Churches” and said that in them “the Church of Christ is present and operative . . . even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.”

Dominus Iesus then discussed those “ecclesial communities” that “have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery.” These, it said, “are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.”

These words received all the attention, but it would have been only fair to give equal attention to these words that followed:

Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.

But such attention was not given by the press.

The hue and cry that followed drowned out the real message of the declaration. In fact, one would think that the whole doctrine of papal primacy had been invented in and for this very document, meant by the Vatican to set back ecumenical progress by a hundred years.

Clearly, throughout Dominus Iesus, the Roman see has taken care to express a degree of solidarity with all Christians, but not in such a manner as to compromise its own doctrine. But, to be considered “proper” or not “proper” does not carry within it a judgment on the reality of salvation in Christ or the genuine faith of those Churches. It speaks instead of the conviction that, in various degrees, they lack the “fullness” God intended.

Yet, this charitable restatement of Roman doctrine was treated as a shocking bit of incivility. Most astonishing of all was the reaction of the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, who immediately expressed his offense at being told that the Anglican Communion was not a “proper” Church, despite the fact that the Anglicans were never mentioned by name.

Two Ironies

“The idea that Anglican and other churches are not ‘proper churches’ seems to question the considerable ecumenical gains we have made,” said Archbishop Carey. There are two ironies here.

The first is in whom Carey (speaking for many other religious leaders) blamed for the division. Beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a desire to pursue ecumenical relations with Rome was increasingly a priority of the Anglican Communion. Relations continued along a road of significant progress, reaching what would prove to be their summit in the 1960s and early 1970s, during the time of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey. But the unity sought for was not to be achieved.

The failure was principally caused by a rebellion against Church Tradition in the 1970s, namely, the decision of Anglican bodies, including the Episcopal Church, to admit women to the priesthood. This spread to other churches of the Anglican Communion until England began to “ordain” women in 1992. This was done with the active support of Dr. Carey, though he knew that the innovation would be the death knell of hopes for unity with the Church of Rome, and with the Orthodox Church as well.

Now there are female Anglican clergy whose ordination never can be seen as sacramentally valid, not only by Rome and Orthodoxy, but by traditional Anglicans as well. What a very unecumenical development indeed, not only breaking off useful discussions with the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but sharply dividing the Anglican Communion itself. It is one of the reasons why I am a priest in the Continuing Anglican movement, separated from the Episcopal Church in which I was raised, and therefore from Canterbury, too.

Add to this the diversity of moral teaching that has come to be associated with the once good Anglican name, against which the archbishop has given no strong defense, and his statement must be turned on himself. It all does great harm to “the considerable ecumenical gains we have made.” For the Vatican to restate its long-held doctrine on the Primacy is by no means a significant obstacle to ecumenical progress. And how could it compare to the unfaithfulness the archbishop has supported?

Discussions between Rome and the Anglican Communion have become a mere formality, without real purpose, due to the novelty of women’s “ordination” in 1976. Time has seen the situation worsen, and all by acquiescence to the initiative of apostasy in the Anglican Communion, not by Roman intransigence. What, then, is the basis of the English archbishop’s complaint?

Various Protestant leaders jumped onto the bandwagon with Dr. Carey, denouncing the bad manners of the pope, and especially of Cardinal Ratzinger. In fact, so have significant leaders within the Roman Catholic Church. What have they all missed? What, in this document, have they ignored? This is where we find the second irony: Dominus Iesus is a document that deserves to be seen in exactly the opposite way to the reputation it has been given. It is, in fact, a very ecumenical document.

Two Kinds of Ecumenism

Of course, we must bear in mind the distinction between two kinds of ecumenism. We have become perhaps too used to a sloppy kind, the kind in which anything of substance, about which people may disagree, is simply avoided. Serious thought is extinguished, and the lesson is learned that theology is a bad word, something to be avoided at all costs. Is it any wonder that from such ecumenism as this only laziness, and eventually immorality, can grow?

The other kind of ecumenism is the kind that takes seriously the need to hold dear the truth for which we are willing to die, and for charity’s sake to find common ground as Christians. Theology and morals are not allowed to slide into the abyss. Where we can agree, we do so in good conscience, and where we cannot agree, we disagree with charity. Our common purpose is to serve our Lord, and as much as we can honestly do so, to serve him together. And here we find that there is much common ground.

The document Dominus Iesus serves, by its main emphasis on “the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church,” this very end. It serves it not only as between different respective Churches and Rome, but also among all Christians in a more general sense. It fits the second model of ecumenism, the mature and responsible kind, by establishing common ground on matters of major importance without the pretense of ignoring essential differences. This is simple honesty.

The body of Dominus Iesus is a powerful and eloquent statement of the Christian faith, carefully worded and defended by a consistent appeal to the authority of the Bible. If read fully, it gives all Christians an expression of their common ground, not only with Catholics who obey the see of Peter, but also with each other in the face of a world growing ever more hostile to the very notion of Christianity as a missionary religion.

It gives us a strong word of encouragement to resist the demand—heard as loudly from many church leaders as from the secular world—that we drop our exclusive and universal claim of salvation in Christ, and that we both halt and condemn our own mission to the nations. It presents a needed apologetic at a time when rather vocal church leaders have decided that we have no right to convert people to Christ, and favor political correctness and multiculturalism over faithfulness to Christ and his Great Commission that we make disciples.

By appealing to Scripture, Dominus Iesus gives to all Christians, certainly including the Protestant Evangelicals, reason to study its contents for their own edification. It refers to the scriptural teaching as being “without error.” Evangelicals and fundamentalists can rejoice over the faith expressed in the truth taught by the Scripture, especially on the essential matters of faith in Christ. The document speaks simply and plainly of the inspiration of Scripture by saying that these books “have God as their author.”

On one of my weekly radio broadcasts I read a large portion of the document. Many of the listeners to the station were Evangelicals, quite appreciative of the document’s emphasis on the statement of St. Peter: “Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name given under heaven among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” Apparently the disappointment of the morning for some people was that this powerful affirmation of Bible truth had come from the Vatican.

Also, it is of no small consequence that the document quotes the Nicene/Constantinopolitan Creed without the controversial filioque. (The filioque is the addition of “and the Son” to “proceedeth from the Father” in the article on the Holy Spirit.) It has never been acceptable to the Orthodox Church, and its use in the West has caused contention for centuries. This was a clear gesture of respect and conciliation intended for the Orthodox.

Neglected Opportunity

Dominus Iesus received undeserved bad press. Treating all Christians, and indeed all people, in accord with their inherent dignity—a dignity that requires that one be honest when one thinks others are in error—it has, nonetheless, been characterized as unecumenical, triumphalistic, and insensitive. This is a very great shame. At the very least, it ought to be studied for its profound defense of the gospel and the mission of the Church.

Dominus Iesus has been a very neglected opportunity for all Christians to forge stronger ties with each other and to study the meaning of our shared mission to the nations as believers in the same Christ.


Robert Hart is rector of St. Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Anglican Catholic Church Original Province). He also contributes regularly to the blog The Continuum. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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