Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The Light shines in the Darkness

By Cardinal Dr. Franz König

If you had written Dominus lesus, what would you have emphasised?

König: I appreciate the task of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to protect the unity of the Church. In order to avoid adverse reaction, I would certainly have taken into consideration one important point: namely, how much the world has changed. When I was young, I was only able to read about other religions in books. Now our ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue partners live among us as neighbours and colleagues. We must ask ourselves what it means to be a Catholic today among so many other religions. This will be one of the most important questions in the third millennium - a very difficult question, which many will need help with.

The central thrust of Dominus Iesus is that Christianity alone has divine faith - all the other religions have only human belief. What do you think of this distinction? And, as divine faith is necessary for salvation, does this mean that members of other religions cannot be saved?

König: I agree that is the central thrust of Dominus Iesus, and it risks shattering the confidence of the other faiths in dialogue with us. Fortunately, fundamental passages in the Second Vatican Council's constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, can be used as cornerstones in this discussion, so as to reestablish the broken bridges and give them new strength and solidity. The Vatican II document states quite clearly (16): "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart.. these too may attain eternal salvation." And the text continues: "Nor will divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life." Here we have a firm basis for interreligious dialogue on which the Church's teaching can lean and on which it has built.

The Roman Catholic Church has always considered itself special. But are the other Churches as deficient as Dominus lesus says? What is your view and what is your interpretation of the passage in Lumen Gentium 8 which says that "the unique Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church"?

König: The other Christian Churches are certainly not "gravely deficient" in the modern meaning of that term. In their modern connotation, especially when reported by the media, those horrible words sound offensive and rude. But this brings us to a great difficulty which has not yet been solved. The theological language in which official Vatican documents are traditionally worded gives the impression of being impersonal and cold. There is no trace whatsoever of any personal contact, and the human dialogue partner is missing and excluded. It is a language cultivated by theologians and addressed to bishops and theologians and it is not easily understood by ordinary people without the necessary preparation. Dominus Iesus is written in this language, which is greatly influenced by the Latin terminology. Now, the meaning of the Latin word "deficiens" is neutral - it simply means "not complete". Rome has meanwhile admitted that it did not expect such worldwide reaction to Dominus Iesus.

The second part of the question, about the famous word "subsists" is indeed hard to answer. Already at the council it was a very difficult question. How were we to say that the Catholic Church was the Mother of all Churches without offending? History tells us the original facts about the formation of the different Christian communities, but since then they have grown organically so that today we are in dialogue with their whole tradition.

It is my conviction that we must discuss these matters on two different linguistic levels. We should have one language for the Catholic people and the media, and another for the theologians - whether for Christian ecumenical dialogue or for interreligious dialogue. Theologians should not address a general audience, but they tried to do so with Dominus Iesus; although primarily for bishops' conferences and theologians, it was also addressed to Catholics in general. People need to be prepared before a document like that is launched on them. What we really need is a sort of adult penny catechism, very clear and simple. Religion has so many aspects and many people are so confused and ignorant nowadays.

Dominus Iesus does not give weight to the interpretation of revelation that is yet to come. It suggests that we already know all the basics. What do you expect or hope for as far as future revelation is concerned?

König: The Church's answer and therefore the answer in Dominus Iesus is quite clear - revelation is finished. One very important question remains, however - have we understood everything that has been revealed? Might new personal insights, not be possible in the future? What do we mean when we say that revelation is finished? Would it not be possible for certain events to occur which would give us, not new revelation - the answer of the Church is clear on that - but a new interpretation of revelation?

That is probably what those engaged in building bridges between Christianity and the other great world religions feel. All these religions seek answers to those ultimate human questions - where do we come from, where are we going, what is the meaning of our lives? If I believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit the world over, maybe there are new insights - not revelations - to come. We must remember that most of our theologians are westernised theologians. Do they really know enough about a non-Western mentality as in Asia, for instance?

What missing answers do you hope will be revealed when you get to heaven?

König: These are thoughts that I cannot define in precise language, nor do I want to. But could it be that since the Gospel message was revealed to us by Jesus Christ, it has acted in the world rather like leaven, affecting all humankind, albeit indirectly? It does seem that other religions are very much interested in Christianity and what it means.

When I was in Bombay with Pope Paul VI at the Eucharistic Congress, I stayed with a Parsee family for three weeks. They had two sons of 12 and 14. One day the parents asked me if I would give their sons religious instruction. "But I am a Catholic", I said. That did not matter, they replied: they, too believed in one God. I then asked one of the relatives how often he prayed and he told me that he prayed for exactly 15 minutes each day. The prayers, he used were old Parsee texts in a language he could not understand. I expressed my surprise. "But I know that they are religious texts written by my ancestors and that they are expressing something holy", he answered.

We Christians believe that God spoke to all people through his son, Jesus Christ: that God sent Jesus Christ to all people. St John says of him: "The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world." That, you notice, was before the Incarnation, and before the Church. St John goes on: "He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received, him, who believed his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."

And that brings us back to Our Lord's question - the great question - in Matthew 16: "And who do you say that I am?" That is what awaits me - the full answer to that question - when I see him face to face.


*Published in The Tablet December 23/30 2000