VATICAN CITY — That many religions exist in the world is a fact, but what that plurality communicates to believers about God is a question that theologians are still discussing.
Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, a leading authority for many Sunni Muslims, stepped into the debate Feb. 4 when they signed a document on “human fraternity” and improving Christian-Muslim relations.
“The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in his wisdom, through which he created human beings,” the document said.
A reflecting pool is pictured at the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS/Paul Haring)
The document goes on to insist on the basic human right to freedom of religion, appealing to both Christians and Muslims not only to tolerate the religious faith of the other, but to recognize the other’s faith as something “willed by God in his wisdom.”
In other words, the message seems to be, if God “wants” religious diversity, who are human beings to be intolerant of it?
But can God really “want” a variety of religions? And is that what the statement Pope Francis signed really says?
Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb seemed to assert something more and to demand of their faithful an attitude that goes beyond being tolerant of religious pluralism.
Speaking to reporters flying back to Rome with him Feb. 5, the pope said, “I want to restate this clearly: from the Catholic point of view, the document does not deviate one millimeter from Vatican II.”
“Nostra Aetate,” the council document on the church’s relationship with other religions, affirmed: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.”
Proclaiming the church’s “esteem” for Muslims, the council noted that “they adore the one God” and strive to submit to his will. “Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin mother; at times they even call on her with devotion.”
The Vatican II document does not say that everything in all religions comes from God, but one cannot deny that God created human beings with a desire to seek and find him, and the world’s religions contain at least elements of what is necessary to move toward God.
The Second Vatican Council’s teaching gave a strong push to the area of study and reflection called “a theology of religions” or a “theology of religious pluralism.”
The field of study is still relatively new, and some theologians specializing in the area have come under scrutiny by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the past 30 years, particularly when they were suspected of moving toward “relativism,” a position that would seem to accept all religions as equally valid paths to God.
In “Dominus Iesus,” a document published in 2000 on the essential nature of faith in Jesus and membership in the Catholic Church, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned of the danger of “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism.”
The future Pope Benedict XVI said the consequence of believing God willed a variety of religions is to hold “that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture” and “the universal salvific mediation of the church.”
But many academics focusing on religious pluralism and missionaries involved in interreligious dialogue believed Pope Benedict went too far, highlighting a real danger, but describing it as something that always happens.
“Dominus Iesus,” they said, implied that Catholics who saw God’s hand at work in the formation and continued life of other religions were denying the most important truths of the Christian faith, including the central belief in the saving power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
The document Pope Francis signed in Abu Dhabi offered hope to those theologians as they continue to explore the theological implications of affirming that religious pluralism is not an indication of human beings straying from God but is more a sign of the variety of ways God reaches out to his human creatures.
The Response of the Church to the Question: How can there be many truth-bearing religions and the Catholic Church be the One True Relgion? The answer is the meaning of the way a Subject exists in a world of Objects. Consider that the name of God is “I Am,” and Christ refers to Himself as “I Am” (Jn. 8, 24, 28, 58).
The large point is that only subjects “I’s” subsists. Everything else exists. Since salvation only comes from Christ, one can find everything else (doctrine, sacraments, truths, charity…) out side the Catholic Church; but you cannot find salvation outside because none of them is the true Church of Christ.
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‘Subsistit In’: Church Of Christ ‘Subsists In’ Catholic Church
The most disputed point of Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church): the meaning of the disputed sentence of Lumen Gentium, n. 8, which teaches that the unique Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, “subsists” only in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the Successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. In 1985 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was forced to adopt a position with regard to this text, because of a book by Leonardo Boff in which he supported the idea that the one Church of Christ as she subsists in the Roman Catholic Church could also subsist in other Christian Churches. It is superfluous to say that the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was met with stinging criticism and then later put aside.
In the attempt to reflect on where we stand today in the reception of the Council’s ecclesiology, the question of the interpretation of the subsistit is inevitable, and on this subject the post-conciliar Magisterium’s single official pronouncement, that is, the Notification I just mentioned, cannot be ignored. Looking back from the perspective of 15 years, it emerges more clearly that it was not so much the question of a single theological author, but of a vision of the Church that was put forward in a variety of ways and which is still current today. The clarification of 1985 presented the context of Boff’s thesis at great length. We do not need to examine these details further, because we have something more fundamental at heart. The thesis, which at the time had Boff as its proponent, could be described as ecclesiological relevatism. It finds its justification in the theory that the “historical Jesus” would not as such have conceived the idea of a Church, nor much less have founded one. The Church, as a historical reality, would have only come into existence after the resurrection, on account of the loss of the eschatological tension towards the immediate coming of the kingdom, caused in its turn by the inevitable sociological needs of institutionalization. In the beginning, a universal Catholic Church would certainly not have existed, but only different local Churches with different theologies, different ministers, etc. No institutional Church could, therefore, say that she was that one Church of Jesus Christ desired by God himself; all institutional forms thus stem from sociological needs and as such are human constructions which can and even must be radically changed again in new situations. In their theological quality they are only different in a very secondary way, so one might say that in all of them or at least in many, the “one Church of Christ” subsists; with regard to this hypothesis the question naturally arises: in this vision, what right does one have to speak at all of the one Church of Christ?
Instead, Catholic tradition has chosen another starting point: it puts its confidence in the Evangelists and believes in them. It is obvious then that Jesus who proclaimed the kingdom of God would gather disciples around him for its realization; he not only gave them his Word as a new interpretation of the Old Testament, but in the sacrament of the Last Supper he gave them the gift of a new unifying centre, through which all who profess to be Christians can become one with him in a totally new way, so that Paul could designate this communion as being one body with Christ, as the unity of one body in the Spirit. It then becomes obvious that the promise of the Holy Spirit was not a vague announcement but brought about the reality of Pentecost, hence the fact that the Church was not conceived of and established by men, but created by means of the Holy Spirit, whose creation she is and continues to be.
As a result, however, the institution and the Spirit have a very different relationship in the Church than that which the trends of thought I just mentioned would like to suggest to us. The institution is not merely a structure that can be changed or demolished at will, which would have nothing to do with the reality of faith as such. This form of bodiliness [body of Christ] belongs to the Church herself. Christ’s Church is not hidden invisibly behind the manifold human configurations, but really exists, as a true and proper Church, which is manifest in the profession of faith, in the sacraments and in apostolic succession.
The Second Vatican Council, with the formula of the subsistit — in accord with Catholic tradition — wanted to teach the exact opposite of “ecclesiological relativism”: the Church of Jesus Christ truly exists. He himself willed her, and the Holy Spirit has continuously created her since Pentecost, in spite of being faced with every human failing, and sustains her in her essential identity. The institution is not an inevitable but theologically unimportant or even harmful externalization, but belongs in its essential core to the concrete character of the Incarnation. The Lord keeps his word: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against her”.
Council: ‘Subsistit In’ Explains Church As Concrete Subject
At this point it becomes necessary to investigate the word subsistit somewhat more carefully. With this expression, the Council differs from the formula of Pius XII, who said in his Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi: “The Catholic Church “is” (est) the one mystical body of Christ”. The difference between subsistit and est conceals within itself the whole ecumenical problem. The word subsistit derives from the ancient philosophy as later developed in Scholastic philosophy. The Greek word hypostasis that has a central role in Christology to describe the union of the divine and the human nature in the Person of Christ comes from that vision. Subsistere is a special case of esse. It is being in the form of a subject who has an autonomous existence. Here it is a question precisely of this. The Council wants to tell us that the Church of Jesus Christ as a concrete subject in this world can be found in the Catholic Church. This can take place only once, and the idea that the subsistit could be multiplied fails to grasp precisely the notion that is being intended. With the word subsistit, the Council wished to explain the unicity of the Catholic Church and the fact of her inability to be multiplied: the Church exists as a subject in historical reality.
The difference between subsistit and est however contains the tragedy of ecclesial division. Although the Church is only one and “subsists” in a unique subject, there are also ecclesial realities beyond this subject — true local Churches and different ecclesial communities. Because sin is a contradiction, this difference between subsistit and est cannot be fully resolved from the logical viewpoint. The paradox of the difference between the unique and concrete character of the Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, the existence of an ecclesial reality beyond the one subject, reflects the contradictory nature of human sin and division. This division is something totally different from the relativistic dialectic described above in which the division of Christians loses its painful aspect and in fact is not a rupture, but only the manifestation of multiple variations on a single theme, in which all the variations are in a certain way right and wrong. An intrinsic need to seek unity does not then exist, because in any event the one Church really is everywhere and nowhere. Thus Christianity would actually exist only in the dialectic correlation of various antitheses. Ecumenism consists in the fact that in some way all recognize one another, because all are supposed to be only fragments of Christian reality. Ecumenism would therefore be the resignation to a relativistic dialectic, because the Jesus of history belongs to the past and the truth in any case remains hidden.
The vision of the Council is quite different: the fact that in the Catholic Church is present the subsistit of the one subject the Church, is not at all the merit of Catholics, but is solely God’s work, which he makes endure despite the continuous unworthiness of the human subjects. They cannot boast of anything, but can only admire the fidelity of God, with shame for their sins and at the same time great thanks. But the effect of their own sins can be seen: the whole world sees the spectacle of the divided and opposing Christian communities, reciprocally making their own claims to truth and thus clearly frustrating the prayer of Christ on the eve of his Passion. Whereas division as a historical reality can be perceived by each person, the subsistence of the one Church in the concrete form of the Catholic Church can be seen as such only through faith.
Since the Second Vatican Council was conscious of this paradox, it proclaimed the duty of ecumenism as a search for true unity, and entrusted it to the Church of the future.
Conclusion: Call To Holiness
I come to my conclusion. Anyone who desires to understand the approach of the Council’s ecclesiology cannot ignore chapters 4-7 of the Constitution, which speak of the laity, the universal call to holiness, religious, and the eschatological orientation of the Church. In these chapters the intrinsic purpose once again comes to the fore: that is, all that is most essential to her existence: it is a question of holiness, of conformity to God, that there be room in the world for God, that he dwell in it and thus that the world become his “kingdom”. Holiness is something more than a moral quality. It is the dwelling of God with men, and of men with God, God’s “tent” among us and in our midst (Jn 1,14). It is the new birth — not of flesh and blood, but of God (Jn 1, 13). The movement toward holiness is identical with the eschatological movement and indeed, from the standpoint of Jesus’ message, is now fundamental to the Church. The Church exists so that she may become God’s dwelling place in the world and thus be “holiness”: it is this for which one should compete in the Church — not for a given rank in rights of precedence, or for occupying the first places. All this is taken up and formed into a synthesis in the last chapter of the Constitution, which presents Mary, the Mother of the Lord.
At first sight the insertion of Mariology in ecclesiology, which the Council decided upon, could seem somewhat accidental. In fact it is true, from the historical viewpoint that a rather small majority of the Fathers voted for the inclusion of Mariology. But from the inner logic of their vote, their decision corresponds perfectly to the movement of the whole Constitution: only if this correlation is grasped, can one correctly grasp the image of the Church, which the Council wished to portray. In this decision the research of Hugo Rahner, A Muller, R Laurentin and Karl Delahaye played a great part, and thanks to them Mariology and ecclesiology were both renewed and more deeply expounded. Hugo Rahner, in particular, showed in a magnificent way from the sources that Mariology in its entirety was first thought of and established by the Fathers as ecclesiology: the Church is virgin and mother, she was conceived without sin and bears the burden of history, she suffers and yet is taken up into heaven. Very slowly there develops later the notion that the Church is anticipated in Mary, she is personified in Mary and that vice versa Mary is not an isolated individual closed in on herself, but carries within her the whole mystery of the Church. The person is not closed individualistically nor is the community understood as a collectivity in an impersonal way: both inseparably overlap. This already applies to the woman in the Apocalypse, as she appears in chapter 12: it is not right to limit this figure exclusively and individualistically to Mary, because in her we contemplate together the whole People of God, the old and new Israel, which suffers and is fruitful in suffering; nor is it right to exclude from this image Mary, the Mother of the Redeemer. Thus the overlapping of individual and community, as we find it in this text, anticipates the identification of Mary and the Church that was gradually developed in the theology of the Fathers and finally taken up by the Council. The fact that the two were later separated, that Mary was seen as an individual filled with privileges and therefore infinitely beyond our reach where the Church in turn [was seen] in an impersonal and purely institutional manner, has caused equal damage to both Mariology and Ecclesiology. Here are active the divisions brought about by Western thought in particular, and which otherwise would have their own good reasons. But if we want to understand the Church and Mary properly, we must go back to the time before these divisions, in order to understand the supra-individual nature of the person and the supra-institutional nature of the community, precisely where person and community are taken back to their origins, grounded in the power of the Lord, the new Adam. The Marian vision of the Church and the ecclesial, salvation-historical vision of Mary take us back ultimately to Christ and to the Trinitarian God, because it is here that we find revealed what holiness means, what is God’s dwelling in man and in the world, what we should understand by the “eschatological” tension of the Church. Thus it is only the chapter on Mary that leads conciliar ecclesiology to its fulfillment and brings us back to its Christological and Trinitarian starting point.
To give a taste of the Fathers’ theology, I would like as a conclusion to propose a text of St Ambrose, chosen by Hugo Rahner: “So stand on the firm ground of your heart! . . . What standing means, the Apostle taught us, Moses wrote it: The place on which you stand is holy ground’. No one stands except the one who stands firm in the faith . . . and yet another word is written: ‘But you, stand firm with me’. You stand firm with me, if you stand in the Church. The Church is holy ground on which we must stand . . . So stand firm, stand in the Church, stand there, where I want to appear to you. There I will stay beside you. Where the Church is, there is the stronghold of your heart. On the Church are laid the foundations of your soul. Indeed I appeared to you in the Church as once in the burning bush. You are the bush; I am the fire. Like the fire in the bush I am in your flesh. I am fire to enlighten you; to burn away the thorns of your sins, to give you the favour of my grace.”
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