IF THERE IS AN IMAGE that could describe Pope John Paul II's relationship with other Christian churches and non-Christian religions, it would be open arms and outstretched hands.
Earlier this year, the Roman Catholic Church signed an agreement with Lutherans on justification by faith, a key issue in the Protestant Reformation. The pope has aggressively pursued communion with Orthodox churches. And from his unprecedented visit to a Roman synagogue in 1986 to his pilgrimage earlier this year to Israel, where he moved the nation by his prayer at the Western Wall, no pope has forged closer ties with Jews.
All of this makes the recent missives from the Vatican all the more puzzling to the world's religious community.
This summer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican office that monitors church doctrine, warned in an official "note" to the world's bishops' conferences that it was improper to refer to Protestant denominations as "sister churches," because the Catholic church is the "mother" of all churches. Just last week, Ratzinger angered Jews by a statement that was released from a forthcoming book that said, "Catholics do not want to impose Christ on the Jews, but they are waiting for the moment when Israel also says yes to Christ."
And the declaration "Dominus Iesus," released earlier this month, has annoyed just about everybody. The declaration, which was signed by Ratzinger and approved by Pope John Paul, says that Protestant churches "suffer from defects" and cannot properly be called "churches" at all because they have not preserved the lineage of bishops that Catholics trace to the apostles.
And it reaffirmed Roman Catholic belief that it is the one, true church: "Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him."
This is language many thought had disappeared with the Second Vatican Council, the church revolution of the mid-1960s that ended the Catholic siege mentality and opened its theology and mission to engage the modern world. The council spurred such a sea change in fostering openness and dialogue with other churches and religions that a group of prominent Jewish scholars and rabbis last week issued a call to their community in full-page ads in the New York Times and The Baltimore Sun to re-evaluate their relationship with all Christians in the light of a generation of such positive developments.
So, what gives? Why these statements now?
There are a couple of things going on, say Catholic theologians and other Vatican-watchers. First, these statements and documents are for the family; that is, their intended audience is the Catholic Church, and not the world at large. It is the Vatican addressing Catholic theologians and bishops, reminding them that they should uphold the uniqueness of Catholicism. This is something that is understood by many religious leaders, who were still annoyed by the tone of the statements.
"This is an internal development within the Catholic Church," said Sayyid M. Syeed, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America, commenting on the church's claim on religious truth.
"We have no problem with that," he said. "That's how one would adopt one's religion in preference to others. But you should not translate that to vilification or debasement of the other. ... Islam has suffered a lot as a result of that in this last millennium."
Second, because these documents are internal, they take on an authoritarian tone that the Vatican does not use in addressing those outside the church. It is no secret that Pope John Paul brooks no dissent within Catholicism, and some Catholics, particularly those of a liberal bent, believe he is more popular outside the church than inside.
And third, there seems to be a particular tightening of authority as Pope John Paul's pontificate winds down. "I see this as a way of trying to keep authority in the structures of the church," said Anthony Tambasco, a Georgetown University theologian.
"There is a titanic struggle going on in the Vatican right now in the twilight of John Paul II," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior inter-religious adviser to the American Jewish Committee and a key figure in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. "People are staking out turf for when the new pope comes. This is the classic conservative position."
But it is also important to understand what the Vatican, particularly in Dominus Iesus, is saying. And it is equally important to note what it is not saying.
"I've seen this document really misrepresented in the press," said the Rev. Richard McBrien, S.J., a Notre Dame University theologian and a fairly liberal voice in the church.
It does not say, as has been reported in some publications, that the church is repeating the ancient declaration, "There is no salvation outside of the church."
The confusion, he said, lies in statements like "the Church of Christ ... continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church," and "the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation."
It would be a "mistake" to assume that where the word "church" appears it's referring only to the Catholic Church, McBrien said, adding:
"One has to take it for granted, unless it's explicitly stated, that references to church refer to the whole body of Christ, all churches together.
"It's not either-or. Not either you're in the one, true church or out of it.
"All these other Christian churches, Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant, have a certain degree of communion with the Catholic Church. It's not a question of either you're in or you're out. There are degrees of being in. And even Vatican II would say you're in to the fullest degree in the Catholic Church."
In fact, the document isn't even aimed at Catholic-Protestant relations, but rather at dealings with non-Christian churches, particularly in Asia, where in most countries Catholics are a tiny minority.
"The context is that over the last decade or two, there have been increasing numbers of theologians, particularly in Asia, who have speculated on the question of salvation outside the Christian church, not just Catholicism," McBrien said.
"What's been going on is an attempt to develop an understanding of Christianity and Christian faith to find more common ground with Muslims and Hindus to make possible more fruitful dialogue with these other religions in Asia, where Christians represent only about 2 percent of the population."
The Vatican fears some theologians have gone too far. A Sri Lankan Catholic priest, the Rev. Tissa Balasuriya, was excommunicated for about a year beginning in 1997 for what Ratzinger called his "relativism" on church teaching in a book he wrote on Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What the Vatican is asserting is that salvation doesn't come solely in the Catholic Church, but through the Catholic Church. That is, salvation is still possible for non-Christians, but it is the result of the power of Jesus Christ and the Church operating in an invisible, mysterious way.
"Jesus is the only mediator of salvation and the Church is the only vehicle by which Jesus functions in the world, but other people, through a notion called Anonymous Christianity, would be included in the possibility of salvation and God would be working in their lives," Tambasco said. "But many think Anonymous Christianity is somewhat imperialistic and there is a need to open possibilities in a wider direction."
For some, such theological wrangling gets in the way of the work at hand: to transform the world.
"I think every religion makes a truth claim," said Bill Aiken, a spokesman for Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist sect. "Rather than sitting around and arguing who is more saved than the next, it's up to religion to determine how we can bring the spiritual development we claim to the problems of society."
John Rivera is The Sun's religion reporter.