To National Directors of Pontifical Mission Societies: The Declaration Dominus Iesus

Author: Archbishop Charles Schleck


Archbishop Charles Schleck

On 5 September 2000 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the Declaration "Dominus Iesus. On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ", a document that aroused many reactions, often negative ones especially on the ecumenical level (1). For this reason alone it would be worthwhile examining it once again and explaining its meaning. But, above all else, what motivates me to discuss it at this meeting of the Superior Council is its missionary implications.

The document takes its title from the "brief formula" of faith contained in I Cor 12,3 ("I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit"); together with the apostolic mandate of Mk 16,15-16 and Mt 28,18-20, this "brief formula" reveals the intention of the Declaration. At the beginning of the third millennium and in the context of the Jubilee Year, Dominus Iesus intends, on the one hand, to proclaim that the affirmation "Jesus is Lord" is the essence of Christianity and, on the other, to recall that it is his saving action over the whole world that laid the foundations for a coherent missionary activity. For this reason, from the very beginning, the document can declare that "the Church's universal mission is born from the command of Jesus Christ and is fulfilled in the course of the centuries in the proclamation of the mystery of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the mystery of the incarnation of the Son, as saving event for all humanity" (Dominus Iesus, n. 1).

This declared apostolic commitment, aimed at taking the Gospel to the whole world, should not be forgotten; it represents the ultimate meaning of the document. The declaration recognizes that the evangelizing mission of the Church, still very far from completion, is faced with new problems today: it must be reexamined "above all in connection with the religious traditions of the world" (Dominus Iesus, n. 2). In this regard Dominus Iesus recalls the open attitude of the Council: the relationship "of mutual knowledge and reciprocal enrichment", from these contacts with world religions begun at that time, must be maintained "in obedience to the truth and with respect for freedom" (Dominus Iesus, n. 2). All these considerations show us that the attention of the document is focused on the conciliar teaching, on its reception and on post-conciliar developments. This is a complex period, full of events, in which the practice of dialogue 1) gave rise to "new questions", 2) indicated "new paths of research" and 3) suggested "ways of acting that call for attentive discernment" (Dominus Iesus, n. 3). These indications qualify the document as a pastoral intervention which assumes the form of a hermeneutic or an interpretation of previous documents: it shoulders the burden of explaining what they declare and what they leave open to free discussion. That this is the reason for the document is also repeated, as is customary, at the conclusion of the declaration; in fact number 23 summarizes the entire document "in reiterating and clarifying certain truths of the faith".

Against this background, the Declaration is careful to explain precisely both the meaning and the limits of its intervention. In recalling "certain indispensable elements of Christian doctrine" to Bishops and theologians, the document is to be interpreted as an aid to theological reflection in "developing solutions that are consistent with the contents of the faith and at the same time, are responsive to the pressing needs of contemporary culture" (Dominus Iesus, n. 3). Its intention then is neither to "treat in a systematic manner the question of the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ and the Church, nor to propose solutions to questions that are matters of free theological debate, but rather to set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith in these areas" (Dominus Iesus, n. 3). Therefore we must conclude that the document does not represent the totality of that precise and exhaustive discernment it demands, but only the first stage; the fuller discernment will be the work of the contribution of the whole Church. Magisterium and theology are committed to giving this contribution each according to its own charism.

To offer its contribution in this ecclesial journey, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith starts from the perspective indicated in number 22: it develops I Tm 2,4 (God our Saviour "desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth") to the point of saying that "salvation is found in the truth". Starting from this criterion, the document points out both that "those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation" and that "the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to 1) proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and 2) to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence or belonging to the Church" (Dominus Iesus, n. 22). This "truth" is not a doctrine but it is, instead, Jesus himself (Jn 14,6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life"); this truth then is the very revelation of God and it becomes the unrenounceable or essential heart of that faith identity of the Church, "to whom this truth has been entrusted" (Dominus Iesus, n. 22). The document is not afraid to recognize the presence of this "truth", or rather of "elements of this truth", even outside the Church. (Going back to Lumen gentium, n. 8, Dominus Iesus, n. 16 recognizes the presence of "elements of sanctification and truth" also in non-Catholic Churches and ecclesial Communities. Dominus Iesus cites Redemptoris missio, n. 29 to recall "religious elements which come from God, and which arepart of what 'the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures, and religions’"). It is this concentration on truth that explains the repetition of formulas such as "it must be firmly held", "it must be firmly believed", "the faithful are required to profess". In fact, this fidelity to truth is to be repeated all the more one fears, as Dominus Iesus 4recalls, that the acceptance and knowledge of the revealed truth might be hindered by relativism and subjectivism.

The document does not offer a systematic solution to these problems, but it more or less reveals its limited intent when, in n. 21, it uses the patristic concept of praeparatio evangelica (preparation for the Gospel) ("Some prayers and rituals of other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God" [Dominus Iesus, n. 21]), the fruit of a reflection on Heb 1,1-2 ("In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world"), to confer a certain unitary dynamic in the sense of guiding orientation to these problems. Since these "elements of truth" derive their value "from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church" (Dominus Iesus, n. 16. It is a citation from Unitatis redintegratio, n. 3), by their very nature they tend to be completed in thefullness of ecclesial life. Hence the Church's insistence on the primacy of proclamation. Whence, mission, which also includes dialogue, must see the Church "primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth" (Dominus Iesus, n. 22). It is because the Church believes in God's universal plan of salvation that she must be missionary. The problems present here are obvious; for being open to the truth means not only accepting it but also seeking it and desiring it and how could this happen outside the cultural context in which a person is inserted? While not attempting to take up all the problems which this position implies, the declaration groups the main problems around six questions which, for convenience, we can summarize in two important themes: that of Jesus Christ and that of the Church.

The Christological themes of 'Dominus Iesus'

The document dedicates the first three chapters to Jesus Christ. They are:

1. The Fullness and Definitiveness of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (nn. 5-8).

2. The Incarnate "Logos" (Word) and the Holy Spirit in the Work of Salvation (nn. 9-12).

3. The Unicity and Universality of the Salvific Mystery of Jesus Christ (nn. 13-15).

The titles themselves, however, express with sufficient clarity (by their contrast) the errors or ambiguities they intend to oppose. The affirmation that God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is full and definitive gathers the faith of the Church around Jesus as the Word, the Father's full and definitive Word. It is the teaching of Heb 9,23-28. The affirmation is opposed to those who either deny that Jesus is the Father's final and definitive revelation or, based on analytical philosophy, consider that no human statement can ever be definitive but that all are approximations of the truth. From these affirmations Dominus Iesus deduces both the obedience of faith and the proper human attitude before God who reveals himself, and two precise clarifications: the distinction between "theological faith" and "belief" (n. 7) and the need to reserve the designation or phrase of "inspired texts" solely to the canonical writings (n. 8). The first distinction emphasizes the human quest for God and all the doctrines and rites which stem from this but, by describing them as "beliefs," it confirms the different quality of faith which, by God's grace, adheres to revelation and the gift of divine life. While recognising with the Council that non-Christian religions "often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (DominusIesus, n. 8. The text is a citation from Nostra Aetate, n. 2), our document distinguishes between the "inspired texts" of the Old and New Testament and the "sacred writings" of non-Christian religions; only the former, inspired by the Spirit, have God as their author. The solution, to which DominusIesus alludes, recognizes the spiritual riches present in other religions but it relates them to Christ through the "elements of goodness and grace" which they contain and which are part of the divine will to communicate his love and truth to all people.

The second chapter starts from what we have just said, namely, that "Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary, and he alone, is the Son and the Word of the Father" (DominusIesus, n. 10), and from this it affirms the unity of the salvific economy, although it is articulated in the two missions of the Word made man and of the Spirit. This affirmation is in contrast with any theory that does not respect this unity but in some way introduces divisions. The document mentions three of them. The first of these theories (nn. 9-10) differentiates between the eternal Word and the incarnate Word so as to affirm that Jesus is only one of the many possible revelations of the eternal Word, not exclusive but complementary with others. Citing Redemptoris missio n. 6, the document recalls that "Jesus is the Incarnate Word—a single and indivisible person.... Christ is none other than Jesus ofNazareth; heis the Word of God made man for the salvation of all" (DominusIesus, n. 10). The second theory (nn. 10-11) distinguishes between the salvific action of the eternal Word as such, and that of the Word made man. The first form of salvific activity, that of the Eternal Word as such and apart from his incarnate existence, continues to be exercised even after the mystery of the Incarnation (DominusIesus, n. 10). In this regard the text confirms that Jesus of Nazareth is the universal mediator and redeemer: there is no other salvation than the one we have in him. The third theory (n. 12) separates the action of the incarnate Word, crucified and risen, from that of the Spirit: it is the Spirit, coextensive to the world and human history, who would be the beginning of a new saving economy. Against suchlike theories, Dominus Iesus confirms the close bond between the Word and the Spirit and recalls that this Spirit, far from being an alternative to the Word, "actualizes the salvific efficacy of the Son made man in the lives of all people, called by God to a single goal" (DominusIesus, n. 12). Consequently what the Spirit works in the hearts of individuals and in history must be understood as a "preparation for the Gospel", as a "preparation for Christ" (He proceeds from the Father and Son and never without them).

Chapter three of the Declaration is based on the unity of the salvific economy, from which derives the unicity and universality of the salvific mystery of Jesus. Traditionally this was explained by the use of terms such as "unicity", "universality" and "absoluteness" which should not be considered as merely emphatic expressions but as precise assertions about the role attributed to Jesus, a role that is "singular and unique, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal and absolute" with regard to the salvation of all humanity (DominusIesus, n. 15). This does not exclude the possibility of salvific mediations that are a participation in Christ's mediation; always subordinate and dependent on his mediation and never as parallel or complementary to it. However, always consistent with the unicity of Christ's mediation, "the content of this participated [and dependent] mediation should be explored more deeply" (Dominus Iesus, n. 14).

Consequent ecclesiological affirmations

As can be easily understood, these Christological affirmations are completed in coherent ecclesiologicalconclusions. It is to these that Dominus Iesus dedicates the last three chapters, which are entitled:

4. The Unicity and Unity of the Church (nn. 16-17)

5. The Church: Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Christ (nn. 18-19)

6. The Church and the Other Religions in Relation to Salvation (nn. 20-22).

The decisive point of these chapters is presented immediately in n. 16 and concerns the fact that "the Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery" (Dominus Iesus, n. 16). This makes her not only an institutional and organisational structure but a real and proper salvific place: insofar as she is a "living body", in her we meet Christ who acts through her. This mysterious continuity between Christ and the Church is the focal point on which the various chapters seem to concentrate, it is from this continuity that chapter four draws its conviction of the unicity and unity of the Church of Christ. In this regard the declaration endeavours to explain the now famous subsistitin of Lumen Gentium n. 8 (After explaining the relationship between the human element and the divine element, present in the Church, Lumen gentium continues: "Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata". It is a well-known fact that the expression subsistitin has replaced the much stronger verb est, present in previous editions). Although the Council did not give an official interpretation of this expression, its intention was and is clear; it intended to reconcile two theses, the one that the Church desired by Christ—whose nature is described in Lumen Gentium n. 8—is found concretely in the Catholic Church and the one that maintains that "elements of sanctification and truth", which are characteristic elements of the Church, exist outside her. DominusIesus gives a strong interpretation in favour of the first thesis and reads the second in this light. This is why it asserts that "the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continuesto exist fully only In the Catholic Church" (Dominus Iesus, n.16. Others seeit differently, even Catholics who accuse Ratzinger of identifying the Church of Christ rigidly with the Catholic Church, something which the Council would have liked to exclude or, at least, not to affirm. Their conclusion is that the Church of Christ exists also in other Christian Churches, which rightly are sister Churches) and, consequently, it makes communion with the Catholic Church the criterion for the ecclesiality of other confessions. Where the apostolic succession is maintained and the Eucharistic celebration is valid, we have "true particular Churches"; where this does not occur, we do not have "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" (Dominus Iesus, n. 17). It is the communion expressed by the presence of "elements of sanctification and truth". It follows that the Church of Christ is not the pure sum total of Churches and communities existing today; the ecumenical commitment should take this into account: the present reality is a "wound for the Church" in the strong sense, although the presence of baptism tends to be completed in the fullness of communion.

This reality of the unicity of the Church and the presence of salvific and eschatological "elements" also outside the Church is then examined from the point of view of that kingdom of which the Church on earth constitutes "the seed and beginning" (Dominus Iesus, n. 18. On this points it goes back to Lumen gentium, n. 5). The text recalls the teaching of Redemptoris missio n. 18 (The text of Redemptoris missio, n. 18 is taken up again in Dominus Iesus, n. 18) which, after explaining that the kingdom is not a doctrine or a programme but a person, it is Christ himself, teaches that "while remaining distinct from Christ and the kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both". Attention must be paid to these perspectives in order to avoid one-sided accentuations or ambiguities like those that are found every time the Church—separated from the kingdom—is underestimated on the basis of a past "ecclesiocentrism" or a faulty ecclesiology or every time that the kingdom is interpreted independently of Christ and going back to a "theocentric" and no longer Trinitarian monotheism. The same thing happens where the theme of creation is considered independently of that of redemption, perhaps by appealing to a Spirit of life independent of the Spirit of truth. They are unilateral accentuations or manifest errors that need to be corrected.

Finally the last chapter explores the relationship that the Church and non-Christian religions have with salvation. The document does so by stressing two fundamental theses. The first confirms that the salvation brought by Jesus has a relationship with the Church; the second draws conclusions about the relationship of other religions to salvation, excluding that all are equal ways of salvation. The first recalls the fact that the ecclesial dimension, and therefore that salvation also which is his gift, was willed by Christ. Taking for granted the passage from the ancient saying extra ecclesiam nulla salus to the conciliar teaching on the Church as "the universal sacrament of salvation" (For a criticism and reflection on the traditional axiom see J. Ratzinger, Nessuna salvezza fuori della Chiesa?, in Id., Ilnuovo popolo di Dio, Brescia, Queriniana, 1971, pp. 365-389), Dominus Iesus takes its inspiration from the conciliar texts of Gaudium et spes n. 22 and Ad Gentes n. 7, and from their reiteration in Redemptoris missio n. 10; the affirmation of a salvific relation which, without introducing one into the visible and structural Church, maintains a mysterious relation with her, allows the document to exclude the fact that the Church can be considered "one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions, seen as complementary to the Church, or substantially equivalent to her" (Dominus Iesus, n. 21). On the one hand there is a strong emphasis on the missionary commitment of the Church "the instrument for the salvation of all humanity" (Dominus Iesus, n. 22) and on the other attention is given to other religions for the values of the kingdom which they, too, contain. In this context, the Declaration recalls the primacy of proclamation but it also recalls the value of dialogue, part of the Church's evangelizing mission (Redemptoris missio, n. 55). In this regard Dominus Iesus explains that "equality" presupposed by dialogue "refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ—who is God himself made man—in relation to the founders of other religions" (Dominus Iesus, n. 22). In its generalisation, this affirmation on the one hand says something obvious and on the other, where it might be assumed as a unique and total criterion, it would reduce dialogue to a tactical expedient and not to a sincere journey of common conversion and common enrichment.


These perspectives bring many problems but they are an encouragement for and a renewal of the Church's missionary activity. On the basis of Christ's work, accepted with faith, all are called to share in the one family of God as his beloved children. To us rather than a sum total of problems the certainty of this perspective which the Declaration offers seems a great hope which should fill our hearts and renew our commitment.

(1) Signed on 10 June 2000 but dated 6 August 2000, the Declaration was presented on 5 September 2000. The traditionally unofficial comments, which appeared in L'Osservatore Romano of 06 September 2000, may help us to understand it: Contesto a significato del documento by J. Ratzinger, Valore e grado di autorit by T. Bertone, I contenuti cristologici by A. Amato, I contenuti ecclesiologici by Fr. Ocariz. Then we should also refer to the Pope's brief intervention in St Peter's Square at the end of the ceremony for the canonization of 120 Chinese martyrs on 1 October 2000. In that intervention—during the Angelus discourse—the Pope recalled that the Declaration, approved by him in a special way, was the expression of a belief in Christ without arrogance towards other religions but full of gratitude for the grace given by God. For this reason he pointed out that in the document this profession does not deny salvation to non-Christians but points to its ultimate source in Christ, in whom man and God are united, and he recalled that the document clarifies essential Christian elements, which do not hinder dialogue but show its bases. The choice of the form of this intervention—its collocation at the Angelus and not during the Eucharistic homily—indicates its meaning: it is a clarification of the intention of the Supreme Pontiff who signed the document rather than a further increase of authority. Then to these elements we should add the interview Plurality of confessions does not relativize the need for truth, which J. Ratzinger granted on 22 September 2000 to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A translation of part of this interview was published by the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano innn. 47-49, 22 November-13 December 2000.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2001, page 9

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