Wednesday, September 6, 2000

The Lesson of Dominus Iesus

The Associated Press carried a story today about a 36-page document just issued by the Roman Catholic Church which carries the precious title, Dominus Iesus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church. It reasserts the Catholic position that it alone can speak for God on earth, thus sabotaging twenty-two years of efforts by John Paul II to reach out to Orthodox and Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, and seek a common ground in the battle against moral disorder, greed, racism, war, and oppression.

You gotta love these guys. Michael Jordan plays good basketball, Tiger Woods great golf, but nobody plays Absolute Certainty like old Mother Church. How sweet it is to cut through the ambiguity that plagues our lives. Some things are certain. The Chinese know they are the center of the earth, the Germans know they are the Master Race (well, they used to), the Americans know they are God’s Chosen. Thank God. Imagine the pain we would suffer if we doubted these things.

Woytila fought the good fight against both Nazism and godless communism. But even more consequential, many thought, were his recent attempts to reach out beyond St. Peter’s to repair the damage done by the Church Militant over the centuries. What now, religious insiders are asking. Is all this effort to be lost because of a stupid tactical error? Joseph Ratzinger, the author of Dominus Iesus, evidently thinks there are more important things than world unity. Fine.

Well who cares, I hear myself ask. I do not share the concern ecumenists have over the future of organized religion. What I find interesting in all this is the fact that this move by Ratzinger and the church reveals the success of relativism as a conflicting universalist ideology. The belief that no one holds the key to truth is an idea whose time has clearly arrived. Nothing threatens one universalist ideology like another, and moral relativism, the conviction that one value system cannot reasonably be found superior to another, is indeed a serious threat to the Church. After all, once you’ve gotten used to the idea that the people who ignore you risk the fires of hell, it’s hard to give it up.

It isn’t much fun to live with ambiguity. How much more comforting to be certain you are ennobled by your decision to pick up the white man’s burden, for example. Or to pick up a spear, wrest the Holy Land from its infidel masters and maybe kill a few Muslims for Christ. But ever since ethnographers began documenting the enormous range of attitudes, values and belief systems of the world’s cultures, we have begun to understand how provincial it is to use a single criterion as a means of evaluating a cultural other. Some in the West favor technology as the measure; the Church favors divine revelation. Both reveal a dangerous and aggressive localism.

Such localism is increasingly unattractive as the spread of democracy gives voice to hitherto unheard-from peoples with perspectives on the human condition both unexpected and useful. Relativism has taken hold and grown to the point where it now undergirds much of our ethical posture in cross-cultural communications and world forums. Even among religious groups, relativism holds sway. American theological seminaries now routinely include Jews and Muslims in discussions of spirituality and the nature of God.

Moral relativism is not my idea of a good thing. Relativism works like a charm as a rule of thumb for the cultural novice. It makes no sense to insist that forks are superior to chopsticks and good sense to learn to shake hands where that is the custom, even if in your heart you would rather bow. Or vice versa. But displaying good manners by doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome is one thing. Carrying relativism to life and death issues is another. It paints you into a corner where you have to defend the practice of infanticide, bride burning, or female genital mutilation, and Nazi, Mafia, or neighborhood thuggery. ("It’s ‘their way’ and who’s to say ‘their way’ isn’t as good as ours?")

Most of us want to assume there are universal truths we can live by; most of us support the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On this level, we feel obliged to shy away, as the Catholic Church does, from moral relativism and seek a universal set of values for ourselves and others. The good news, we conclude, is there is such a thing as universal truth; the bad news is that I have it and you don’t. How we deal with this dilemma involves diplomacy and a great deal more.

People who have worked hard at communicating and working constructively across cultural value systems tend to advocate something I would call "compassionate negotiation," a way of interacting with a cultural other that allows you to maintain your own convictions while listening with an open mind – a real one, not the pretense of one. Heroes continue to engage despite the threat to well-held convictions while cowards go to their separate corners. John Paul II seemed to want to engage, but now we are left to conclude it was just talk. He is old, of course, and it’s likely this is not about JP at all, but a power play by the conservative faction (Pius the XII’s boys), a jockeying for position over the liberal faction (John the XXIII’s) in the upcoming determination of JP II’s successor. Whatever the explanation, the church has just gone to its corner and turned its dialogue into monologue.

The problem is the church spiritual is contained in the same body as the church political. The combo makes the church a kind of King Kong lumbering through life with a big heart and all the failings that come with an animal nature. Or a kind of Robber Baron that can build schools and comfort the dying one day and beggar a rival (or roast a heretic) the next. This two-in-one nature of the church suggests we ought not to be taken in when it speaks on the topic of spirituality. You can never be sure which of its interests, spiritual or political, it is serving.

Fortunately, spirituality shares with pornography the feature that you know it when you see it. It is reflected in the actions of people sacrificing for their children, and in people picking themselves up after a disaster and moving on. You feel it in you when you face an opportunity to get ahead and stop what you’re doing "because it’s wrong," and see it in others when they respond to your anger with concern and compassion. You know you’re looking at something non-spiritual when you find that Fred Phelps, Baptist minister of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, has put on his church’s web site ( a picture of Matthew Shepard surrounded by flames and a counter telling you how many days he has been roasting in hell. And when you see a group of people protesting a court decision not to allow public prayer before a football game by standing together and loudly asserting The Lord’s Prayer.

And you know there is something amiss about an organization which can beatify a pope who approved the stealing away of a Jewish child on the grounds that he had been baptized and issue a document in the same week declaring itself perfect. Which can apologize for doctrinal error and maintain doctrinal infallibility with a straight face. We’re sorry about the part we played in hunting down Jews over the centuries (and more recently, in turning a blind eye while others hunted them down). We’re sorry we threw Galileo in prison for life for asserting the earth travels around the sun. We’re sorry about a lot of things we did when we thought we were right. So’s your old man.

How like the human race. We were wrong, say the Mormons, when we said God wanted men to take more than one wife (listen to the language of that phrase!) But now we’re right when we say our views on marriage should dominate the country. (We’re putting dollars that might build schools, fight poverty, heal the sick to work fighting civil rights legislation that would allow same-sex marriage.) We were wrong about slavery and segregation, say other Christian folk, but now we’re right to create schools where our white children do not have to go to school with blacks. We were wrong about withholding the right of women to vote. But we’re right about insisting they should still take orders from their husbands.

If you learn nothing from your mistakes, you can at least learn that you make mistakes. To persist in the self-righteousness spelled out in Dominus Iesus reveals which of Mother Church’s twin personalities is dominant. To admit uncertainty in spiritual matters would show humility (an aspect of spirituality). I guess it’s not news that you don’t make Cardinal (Ratzinger’s current rank) if you don’t put politics first.

The pursuit of the spiritual, whether you see it as a communion with a God, a reflection on the meaning of life or just an awe of the unknown, leads many of us into churches. It seems a lot easier to pursue this quest with others. Ratzinger provides the reminder that, if it’s the spiritual you’re after, (to borrow that image from the days of women’s separatism) you need the church about as much as a fish needs a bicycle.

I remember when I first went to live in Tokyo and was faced with the stark realization that much of what I considered necessary to a good quality urban life was missing. A cafĂ© culture, parks, stately architecture, opera and easily accessed symphonic music, for example. Yet while I was bewailing my self-banishment to what I saw as a cultural wasteland, I was discovering the sounds of the koto and of geta clacking on a quiet dark safe city street at night. I eventually came to realize the problem was one of scale, of knowing where to look, and of seizing the opportunity at hand. Some Europeans come to America and see the absence of great cathedrals. Others see the Grand Canyon and miles of open expanses of golden grain. In the quest for spiritual understanding, there are times for cathedrals, and times for fields of grain. I’ve never heard God ask anybody to choose between the two.

The church has done more than its share of physical and psychic harm, as countless numbers of souls will testify. If you’ve ever seen the play, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, or the recent film, Dogma, you’ll get a good look at the need for at least some ex-Catholics to strike back. The harm goes on affecting those who try to walk in Catholic shoes despite the corns and blisters it gives their feet, and who are afraid to try other shoes or walk barefoot.

In some ways, this angry response to a church which seems to be falling apart anyway seems inappropriate. They can’t attract priests any more, and they seem to be facing a serious meltdown because of their inability to cast off ideas modern folk no longer can live with. More than 80% of American Catholics admit to practicing birth control. Recent sex scandals reveal that the church’s celibacy requirement and policy of sexual denial is an open invitation to people with sexual dysfunctions to come in and hide. And the church’s view on abortion and women in the priesthood is nearly universally read now as the last gasp of a patriarchal organization on its way out. Spirituality is a yearning for something beyond our limitations and imperfections. Dominus Iesus, the most recent attempt by this imperfect human institution to claim infallibility shows it is up to its old tricks, trumping the spiritual with the political.

One of my favorite Bible stories is the one where Moses comes down the mountain with nine commandments (I know it’s supposed to be ten, but a good editor would combine one and two) and finds the people worshiping a Golden Calf. (Don’t you love the part where he smashes the tablets? Imagine getting something handed to you from God himself and then getting so pissed off you dash it against a stone. Imagine how you’d feel the next day!) I’m not sure I would recognize Moses without a name-tag, but I have trouble with my temper too and I see him as a kindred spirit. I share his frustration that, when there is so much in God’s universe that could enrich the soul, we spend so much time fussing with golden calves. Literalism, for example – the failure to understand metaphor and imagination. The failure to see the power of inspiration because you are so hung up on the words. And the golden calf which Dominus Iesus reflects, the distraction of earthly power and the need to maintain the right to speak for God to all the world’s people.

As Catholic author John Cornwell documents in Hitler’s Pope, the mandate Pius XII believed God gave him to maintain the status and wealth of the Church at all costs led him to accommodate Hitler right down to allowing the carrying off of Jews to the concentration camps right under the Vatican’s nose. Ratzinger and the boys are circling the wagons. They’re running scared. Most people who pay any attention to the Vatican at all will focus on the setbacks in ecumenism over the past decades. I can’t lose any sleep over these setbacks because I obviously see religion as the problem, not the solution. My concern is just that – organized religion as the problem.

If the Vatican, the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, the whole crowd of them would stick to their king of the mountain games among themselves, we wouldn’t need to pay attention to them at all. Unfortunately, the arrogance that leads to assertion of doctrinal superiority also leads to political action. The Roman Catholic Church (joined by others, like the Mormons and those who use the bible as a hammer, to be sure) uses its influence to withhold civil rights, to prevent women from making decisions about their own bodies, and to assert the curiously provincial cultural notion that sexual behavior should precede violence, say, or economic justice, in a list of ethical priorities. If that were not the case, the best course of action would be simply to count on the people of good will to do an end run around them. I suggest we use the Dominus Iesus event as a reminder that the church is still militant and potentially dangerous, both to the body politic and to the cultivation of a better soul.

September 6, 2000