A few weeks ago the Vatican issued a document which provoked a strong reaction: Dominus Iesus On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. As the title indicates, it explains the uniqueness of Christ and his Church, as well as their necessity for salvation. Almost all commentators admit it contains nothing new - about half the citations come from the Second Vatican Council which took place 35 years ago. Then why did so many people, inside as well as outside the church, react so negatively? There are many reasons, some which could be grounds for deeper discussion. Still, the basic cause of much reaction can be summed up in two words: false comfort.
Many folks, Catholics included, take comfort from the slogan - all religions are basically the same. It appeals to something deep in each one of us. We want to be soothed. If all religions are the same, it removes what we fear the most. I am not talking so much about the fear of hell - all that Jesus describes today as the “worm that does not die, the fire never quenched.” (Mk 9:48) Rather what terrifies modern man is what hell represents - arriving at a final, irrevocable decision. Making all religions the same takes away that uncomfortable prospect. If no choice really matters, I can be saved by embracing any religion - or none.
While Jesus does soothe hearts, we must recognize he does so by first shattering our comfortable world view. Consider today’s Gospel: Jesus speaks about cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes, rather than sinning - or causing someone else to sin. Cardinal Newman, reflecting on Jesus’ words, said that all the earthquakes, floods and fires do not compare in damage to a single venial sin. Some suggest that instead of talking about mortal and venial sin, we should refer to serious and less serious sins. But in Jesus' view all sins are serious, even tho only some are called mortal (see I Jn 5:19). Those can result in the one thing we should fear above any physical loss - that, is, eternal consignment to hell.
Jesus does not comfort by saying, “don’t worry, everything is OK, just keep drifting drowsily along.” No, he wants to wake us up. “The time is full, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent.” (Jesus’ opening lines, Mk 1:15) Two months ago, the bishop of Fairbanks died. He suffered a massive heart attack while walking with a seminarian. Many people die that way. My older brother, who always suspects some disaster is going to happen, is fond of pointing out that in one third of all heart attack the first symptom is...death. We can assume that, given his heroic mission, Bishop Kaniecki was prepared to die. Are you? Am I? The stakes are exceedingly high.
Before concluding, I wish to address an objection many hold in their minds. They fear such a drastic view of life will lead to what our age considers the great sin - intolerance. If we truly believe accepting Jesus and his Church are necessary for salvation, will that not cause us to view other religions as “inferior” to ours? I cannot fully answer this concern, but several things need to be said.
First, we all make judgments that one thing is better than another. Even a thorough-going naturalist like Carl Sagan urged such choices - e.g. preserving endangered species, curtailing pollution and funding scientific research. He wasn’t just stating a personal preference, like wanting anchovies on a pizza. He judged that every informed, reasonable human being should agree with him. Those who did, admired his passion. Someone who disagreed (perhaps judging other goals be more important) might have considered him intolerant.
We deceive ourselves by thinking that, in contrast to the past, we have entered an age of tolerance. We simply tolerate different things. If I had time, I could give a list which our society today would tend not to tolerate. They are views not of “wackos” but intelligent, informed, reasonable, responsible people. An idea does require those four qualities to be judged “good” or worthy of consideration. Jesus as the one Savior - and that he founded the Catholic Church as his vehicle of salvation - can be defended on that basis. To hold that view passionately is no more intolerant than the position Sagan advanced - or that of a convinced Moslem.
Having a different view does not make us irreconcilable foes. Cardinal Ratzinger recently held a public debate with an atheist in which they identified much common ground. Like Jesus we must look for potential allies, "Whoever is not against us, is for us." (Mk 9:40) Still, in reaching out to others, we must not bracket what is central to the human person: integrity, truth. If someone does not consider the Catholic teaching true, why present oneself as Catholic? However, if we do believe it to be true, we should not soft-pedal it out of fear of offending. Too much is at stake.
Response of Lutheran Pastor (to Dominus Iesus)
Homily for 26th Sunday, B, 1997: Everything Else is Small Potatoes (The choice between heaven & hell with invitation to retreat by Catholic lay evangelist).
Jesus' Teaching on Hell and How to Avoid it
From Archives (Homilies for 26th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Letter to Parents
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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