Do you know the ecumenical weight of this encyclical? Want to understand ecumenical challenges? Here’s a summary. It’s about hope, and defending the Truth.
On August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, of the Holy Year 2000 the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a declaration Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. Pope John Paul II wanted to reassert, to the faithful and to the world, St. Paul’s declaration to the Corinthians that “Jesus is Lord.” 
The declaration addressed ecumenical concerns regarding the affirmation of oneness and salvation for all people, both within the Church and without. This declaration of unicity (oneness) sparked the already long-existing controversy among other Christian denominations and other religions, upsetting even Catholic traditionalists and modernists who disagree on the theological explanations of the relationship between Christ, the Church and the Kingdom of God. 
The month after the declaration was published L’Osservatore Romano published an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger who pointed out that the critics proffer opinions of this nature because they are more focused on politics and the division of power than on content.  The declaration begins with the Church’s universal mission and the disciple’s commission: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned.” 
Interreligious dialogue is part of the Church’s evangelizing mission and there are still questions to be explored about the “mystery of unity.”  Paths of theological research can discern this unity but only in obedience to “certain indispensable elements of Christian doctrine” which may not be subjected to the relativistic tendencies of modernity.  The document’s oft missed purpose is not to propose solutions to these theological questions, but “to set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith in these areas.” 
The Revelation of Jesus Christ.“For in Christ the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form.”  Since the beginning of the Church, the Apostles, the Church Fathers and Doctors, and the Church councils, have continually reasserted the revelation of Jesus Christ and defended against error. St. Athanasius in the fourth century taught that “Christ alone is true God and Lord.”  The Council of Chalecedon in 451 also taught “following the Holy Fathers” and “with one voice” that Christ is “true God and true man.”  It is affirmed still by the Second Vatican Council that this “deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines forth in Christ.”  The new and definitive covenant will never pass away and there will be no further new public revelation until the return of Christ. 
The 1990 encyclical Redemptoris missio of Pope John Paul II also proclaims that the revelation of Christ is the “definitive self-revelation of God” and the “fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature.”  The Church also accepts the sacred and canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, because they are written “under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” and have “God as their author.”  Any theories that the revelation of Christ is incomplete or imperfect are contrary to Church teaching and to the Bible, and obedience of faith requires the faithful to defend against such errors. 
Other religions which do not recognize this truth are “still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself.”  If they search in good faith, it is possible they reflect some “ray of that truth” even if they contain “gaps, insufficiencies and errors.”  For instance, there are contemporary theological opinions that Christ was only a historical figure who partially manifested to humanity the mystery of salvation from God, and that he was “one of the many faces” of the Logos communicated over time.  They then logically conclude that the full revelation of salvation was not given by Christ and that through the Holy Spirit the message is still being exercised “in addition to” and “beyond” the humanity of Christ.  Such heresy in not a new concept going back even to the fifth century and the Nestorian heresy which held that Christ is not really God and man, but a man in which the Holy Spirit only dwells.  This is, and always has been, contrary to Church teaching which considers the salvific incarnation of the Word to be a full “trinitarian event”. 
The Church also reaffirmed in the Second Vatican Council that that since Christ is God, the “salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity.”  The Magisterium of the Church firmly recalls this truth of a “single divine economy” that the Risen Christ is at work in the hearts of all humanity through the Holy Spirit, maturing them towards salvation.  “No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” 
Unity, Unicity, and Universality. The document also declares in firm words that there is no biblical foundation to deny the oneness (unicity) and salvific universality of Jesus Christ showing how in fact the Bible testifies that Christ is the “Saviour of the world.”  The first Christians spread the message of salvation to the Jewish people and to the pagan world, preaching that there is One God and one Lord Jesus Christ who died and was raised for the sake of all.  Theologians are invited to reflect on other beliefs and to recognize positive elements that may be considered part of the truth of the plan of salvation, but only if they are not contrary to Catholic faith in any way.  This exercise makes some people nervous, but unity is part of revelation. Christ is absolutely the Saviour of the world and has universal significance; he is the central point of history. 
The Church was constituted by Christ and his work of salvation continues through her, as a living body with Christ as the head “a single Bride of Christ” being guided by his Spirit, “a single Catholic and apostolic Church.”  This is why the Catholic faithful must profess a historical continuity of apostolic succession. In one of the principle 1964 documents of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, the word “subsist” was used to reconcile the doctrinal statements that the “Church of Christ exists fully in the Catholic Church” and that also there may be elements of truth outside her structure in ecclesial communities not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church.  The use of this word caused some confusion.
The 1973 declaration in defense of Catholic doctrine against certain errors from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Mysterium Ecclesiae, made it clear that the Christian faithful are not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is a divided collection of communities, or that nowhere in the world does the Church visibly exist.  The churches out of communion suffer from defects, but even so, are not deprived of their significance in the mystery of salvation.  The Church sees this as a wound, but not as proof that there should be no real unity. It is instead evidence that the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel message is all the more necessary.  She is called to gather people in to the “the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” 
The theological work, therefore, is in explaining the connections between Christ, the Kingdom of God, and the Church. From revelation it is known that these three terms cannot be separated without distorting the meaning of any of them; Christ cannot be separated from the Church or the Kingdom of God and neither can those be separated from each other.  The Kingdom of God even includes the work outside visible boundaries.  A warning is given also against the errors also of a one-sided accentuation on any of the three terms.
Besides other Christian churches, theological reflection of other religions is also encouraged, within the same boundaries, in Dominus Iesus.  However, it is again critically held that there is no salvation outside the Church, but there is a real possibility of salvation for all mankind. It also must be carefully heeded that other religions also contain errors which are obstacles to salvation, and so a guard against indifference and relativism must remain in every prudence consideration of other religions. 
Not an Unattainable Utopia. Returning to Lumen Gentium the reminder is repeated that it is necessary to keep these two truths together: 1) There is a real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind, and 2) the Church is necessary for this salvation.  Although people may not be formally a part of the Church, by the grace of Christ they may have a relationship with the Church. The Second Vatican Council did not articulate exactly how this may be, but explained in the decree on the missionary activity of the Church, Ad Gentes, that God achieves this unity “in ways known to himself.” 
People of other religions have expressed offense at these truths but (then) Cardinal Ratzinger explained that even Martin Luther was aware that he broke with the unity of the Church, so far as to regard her as the instrument of the Antichrist.  The harsh reactions from other ecclesial communities is unwarranted because it is other Evangelical structures who have no desire to be in communion with the Church, not the Church who has no desire to be united. Even though there is no Church and no salvation outside the Catholic Church, there is an ecclesial reality outside it.
The Catholic Church is convinced that a divided Church is irreconcilable with Christ’s promise and thus this unity and salvation for all is not an “unattainable utopia,” but a reality and this is the strongest incentive to pursue unity.  No human merits his own salvation; it comes to everyone through grace, therefore, the faithful are exhorted all the more, out of love for all people, to proclaim with the Church that Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Christians are a people of hope and faith, and theological reflection should always seek to reconfirm this in a convincing and effective way. 
[learn_more caption="End Notes"]
1. 1 Corinthians 12:3, Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.
2. Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger, August 6, 2000, section 18.
3. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Answers to Main Objections Against Dominus Iesus,” EWTN Library.
4. Dominus Iesus, section 1, Mark 16:15-16 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.
5. Dominus Iesus, section 2.
6. Dominus Iesus, section 3.
8. Dominus Iesus, section 5. Colossians 2:9-10 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.
9. St. Augustine, On the Incarnation of the Word, New Advent, section 45, Dominus Iesus, section 6.
10. Council of Chalcedon – 451, “The Definition of Faith” Fordham University, paragraph 264.
11. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, Vatican, November 18, 1965, section 2, Dominus Iesus, section 5.
13. Redemptoris missio, On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, Pope John Paul II, December 7, 1990, Vatican, section 5, Dominus Iesus, section 5.
14. Dominus Iesus, section 8, Dei Verbum, section 11.
15. Dominus Iesus, section 7.
17. Dominus Iesus, section 8, Redemptoris mission, section 55.
18. Dominus Iesus, section 9.
20. Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. Fundamentals of Catholicism, Volume 2: God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), page 219, Dominus Iesus, section 10.
21. Dominus Iesus, section 12.
24. Dominus Iesus, section 12, Redemptoris mission, section 5.
25. Dominus Iesus, section 13, 1 John 4:14 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.
26. Dominus Iesus, section 13.
27. Dominus Iesus, section 14.
28. Dominus Iesus, section 15.
29. Dominus Iesus, section 16.
30. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, Vatican, section 8 and 15, Dominus Iesus, section 16.
31. Mysterium Ecclesiae, Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day Issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 24, 1973, Vatican, section 1, Dominus Iesus, section 17.
32. Dominus Iesus, section 17.
33. Dominus Iesus, section 18, Lumen Gentium, section 5.
35. Dominus Iesus, section 18.
36. Dominus Iesus, section 19.
37. Dominus Iesus, section 20, Lumen Gentium, section 14.
38. Dominus Iesus, section 22, Redemptoris mission, section 36.
39. Dominus Iesus, section 20, Lumen Gentium, section 38.
40. Decree Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, Vatican, section 7, Dominus Iesus, section 21.
41. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Answers to Main Objections Against Dominus Iesus.”
43. Dominus Iesus, section 22, John 14:6 Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.
44. Dominus Iesus, section 23.
• Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “Answers to Main Objections Against Dominus Iesus,” EWTN Library
• Council of Chalcedon – 451, “The Definition of Faith” Fordham University.
• Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Vatican, Cardinal Ratzinger, August 6, 2000.
• Decree Ad Gentes on the Mission Activity of the Church Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965, Vatican.
• Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI, Vatican, November 18, 1965.
• Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, Vatican.
• Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. Fundamentals of Catholicism, Volume 2: God, Trinity, Creation, Christ, Mary. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995).
• Mysterium Ecclesiae, Declaration in Defense of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church Against Certain Errors of the Present Day Issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 24, 1973, Vatican.
• Redemptoris missio, On the permanent validity of the Church’s missionary mandate, Pope John Paul II, December 7, 1990, Vatican.
• St. Augustine, On the Incarnation of the Word, New Advent.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ (William-Adolphe Bouguereau 1880)
*In the interest of absolute completeness in attribution, all numbers are referenced in gratitude to Euclid, all English words sourced from the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary and all of being, humbly and in exceeding awe, is acknowledged as the will of God.