Attenzione! The Vatican will issue an important doctrinal document on Friday “on some aspects of evangelisation.” Pope Benedict has a long track record of making sharp distinctions between Catholicism and other religions in his doctrinal declarations. Some of these have upset other Christians, others have angered Muslims and been challenged by Islamic scholars. This new text has been written by papal aides, not the pope himself, but it is expected to be a close reflection of his views. What Vatican observers are waiting to see is how clearly it states the Catholic view on converting others and how other religions react.
The document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed for over two decades before becoming pope in 2005, comes at a time of growing Catholic difficulties with Anglicans, Protestants and evangelical and Pentecostal Christians. Its hesitant reaction to an invitation leading Muslim scholars for a theological dialogue has raised questions about its interest in inter-faith relations. And evangelisation is now a sensitive topic for Christian churches. The Vatican is working with the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal leaders on a code of conduct for missionary work .
The declaration is expected to say that conversion remains a goal of Catholic missionary efforts and that Catholic theologians must not water this down by arguing that other faiths can be paths to salvation. This recalls Dominus Iesus, a document issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that said the Catholic Church was the only true church of Jesus Christ and others were “gravely deficient.” In fact, the document should be a guide on how to put Dominus Iesus into practice. The CDF began this process with a clarification of the 2000 document last June — a clarification that caused dismay among leading Protestant theologians.
Doesn’t the Roman Catholic Church have the right to restate its traditional beliefs? Of course it does. But it also operates in a broader context than the Catholic world alone, a context where Vatican documents are read carefully by other faiths for indications of how the world’s largest church thinks and what it plans to do. In a globalised world, leading religions are involved in inter-faith and ecumenical dialogues to foster better understanding among peoples. These efforts have led to much improved contact and comprehension among religions in the past few decades. Pope John Paul preferred this kind of dialogue, such as the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy, but Cardinal Ratzinger kept his distance.
In recent years, this ecumenical drive seems to have slowed. Many faiths seem to be putting a renewed emphasis on their own identity. Again, that’s their right, but it does sometimes rub other religions the wrong way. Pope Benedict has done that before in the past, for example with Dominus Iesus (which upset Anglicans and Protestants) or with his 2006 Regensburg speech (which upset Muslims). He has shown more interest in working with the Eastern Orthodox churches. Wolfgang Huber, the top Lutheran bishop in Germany, has been especially critical of Benedict’s approach, for example calling the restatement of Dominus Iesus “an affront” to Protestants.