Bahai News - Will Catholics be lonely in heaven?
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.
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."
SEARCHING FOR COMMON GROUND
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
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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