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Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions
by joseph cardinal ratzinger
ignatius. 290 pages. $15.95.

May a religion other than Christianity serve as a means of salvation? May salvation be separated from the work of Jesus Christ? What may properly be said about faithful non-Christians’ relation to God? How does the Church’s demand for evangelization of non-Christians square with its demand for serious dialogue among religions? What is the meaning of interreligious prayer?

In Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has gathered thirteen of his previously published essays on these vexed questions in the theology of religions. Mostly from the 1990s, with Ratzinger’s more recent comments and elaborations added, the essays are a clear, cogent, and historically learned restatement of fundamental orthodoxy on the questions raised by religious diversity.

The decade from 1992 to 2002 was one in which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—and hence also its prefect—gave a good deal of public attention to the theology of religions. There were a number of theologians providing unorthodox answers to the questions of religious diversity, and correcting them played much the same role in the work of the congregation in these years as correcting the work of some liberation theologians had done in the two preceding decades.

And then, in 2000, the declaration Dominus Iesus was proclaimed by the congregation with the pope’s ratification certa scientia et auctoritate sua apostolica (which is to say with his certain knowledge and apostolic authority, which makes it for Catholics a weighty document). Its central concern—and there seems little doubt that Ratzinger had more of a hand in its composition than anyone else—was exactly to refute inappropriately pluralistic theologies with a robust statement of the central claims of christological and ecclesiological orthodoxy: the unique and complete salvific significance of the incarnation, passion, and resurrection of Jesus; the close unity of the salvific work of the incarnate Logos with that of the Holy Spirit; the profound intimacy between the Church of Christ and the visible and hierarchically ordered Catholic Church in full communion with the Bishop of Rome; and the necessity of preserving both the Church’s evangelical mission to bring the gospel to all and its imperative to engage in serious dialogue with the religious other.

The promulgation of Dominus Iesus was met, as Cardinal Ratzinger notes in Truth and Tolerance, with a “cry of outrage from modern society, but also from great non-Christian cultures such as India: This was said to be a document of intolerance and of a religious arrogance that should have no more place in the world of today.” There was also (and this is not discussed in the book) criticism of Dominus Iesus from within the hierarchy. At least two cardinals, Edward Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Walter Kasper, the current president, publicly distanced themselves in strong terms from the document.

The controversy, which continues, centered around three issues. The first was the declaration’s strong—in the eyes of some, hectoring and triumphalist—language. The second was the effect on intra-Christian ecumenism, for even though this was not the document’s major concern, enough was said to make it seem that the pope’s demonstrated concern for Christian unity was being undercut. And the third was the question of whether Dominus Iesus (and by extension Cardinal Ratzinger) meant to apply its strictures to the Jewish people and their unbroken covenant with God.

Given this tense and conflicted context, this collection of Ratzinger’s work—which was published in German and Italian in 2003 and now appears in English—is timely and important. It holds to the line of Dominus Iesus, but the more relaxed and expansive form of a discursive theological essay (not that Ratzinger’s style should exactly be described as relaxed) makes clear what is at issue between Ratzinger and the critics of Dominus Iesus.

The first fundamental point argued for by Ratzinger is that a dispassionate investigation of the world’s religions reveals a fundamental difference between religions that offer a “mysticism of identity” and those that advocate a “personal understanding of God.” Ratzinger tends too easily to identify religions of the former type with those of Asia, especially Hinduism. This is dubious, descriptively and historically: Many Hindus have had what Ratzinger means by a personal understanding of God, and at least some Christians, Jews, and Muslims have lacked it. But the distinction itself is a powerful one and serves well Ratzinger’s purpose of emphasizing difference and underscoring distinction: All religions do not commend the same goal or offer the same understanding of God and the human; and it is among the tendencies of those who advocate religious pluralism to obscure this.

Ratzinger’s way of explaining the distinctiveness of Christianity is subtle, precise, and attuned—as one would expect from a man with so much knowledge of the patristic heritage—to the figural and typological understandings of history and scripture that formed the conventional wisdom of the Church Fathers. Christianity’s distinctiveness does not enter history as an unanticipated bolt from the empyrean. Nor does it simply abolish or lay waste the religions and cultures of the world. Rather, its principal and fullest presence in the world as the institutional form of the Church, Christ’s body, provides those who do not yet know the Church with the lure of a fuller and richer understanding of what they already know, both religiously and culturally. The Christian offer of conversion, then, is an offer that brings with it a culturally and religiously distinctive fulfillment of cultures as they existed before conversion.

There is an important implication in this way of approaching the question, of which Ratzinger is quite aware. Christianity’s relation to various religions is neither logically nor practically different from its relation to various cultures—which is to say that the category “religion” loses much of its usefulness. The Church should address Buddhists, Marxists, secular hedonists, and neo-Stoics in the same voice and with the same attitudes: as a humble but confident offerer of an unsurpassable gift—and at the same time as a sincere and eager listener. These two attitudes are those of proclamation and dialogue, and they are inextricably linked in Ratzinger’s thought, as they are also in the documents of Vatican II. The only partial exceptions are the conversations with those groups to whom the Church is self-consciously already intimately related by family ties—that is to say to the Jewish people, and (perhaps) to Muslims. Ratzinger notes this difference, too, but says little about either Jews or Muslims in these essays.

In the second half of the book Ratzinger turns from the question of religions to the question of religious truth. If God is triune, if Jesus of Nazareth was the second person of the Holy Trinity, and if the Catholic Church (tattered and stained, now as always) is the institution in which Christ’s Church subsists—if all these things are true, then the positions rejected in Dominus Iesus must be false.

But Ratzinger is also concerned with broader philosophical difficulties about skepticism and relativism. He discusses at some length the connection of relativism with the rejection of the very idea of truth as correspondence of the knowing intellect to its known objects, and he analyzes the connection of skepticism with the idea that it is impossible to know which religion is true even if one were. He does this in part through an analysis of the pope’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et Ratio, which he describes as concerned above all with the rehabilitation of truth “in a world characterized by relativism.” But he does it also by way of an interesting engagement with recent scholarship on Christianity’s rivals in the Roman world of late antiquity. Much of this scholarship suggests, he thinks, that the Emperor Julian’s attempted revival of state-sponsored paganism at the end of the fourth century—like the anti-Christian theorizing of such late Hellenistic neoplatonists as Porphyry—took threads from earlier, pre-Christian skepticism and self-consciously wove them together with a newer relativism about religio (which for them meant cult, the practice of worship).

That is very like the situation we face today, but Ratzinger does not think that we can simply adopt, say, St. Augustine’s response to neoplatonism. He recognizes that for us today—as for our fourth- and fifth-century forebears—argument in favor of the Christian affirmation of the fundamental comprehensibility and rationality of the world will no longer carry conviction to Christianity’s cultured despisers. This appears correct—and importantly so. But it needs to be held together with Ratzinger’s equally strong affirmation of Christianity’s truth. The world is accessible to human rationality because of the nature of its creator and redeemer. Faced with the Christian claim—with good arguments in support of it, for that matter—many will deny it. This interesting fact holds the key to at least some elements of the complex of questions raised by religious diversity.

Ratzinger’s interpretation of Wittgenstein’s views on religion are unconvincing, and many of his particular statements about Buddhism and Hinduism are marked by a superficiality and generality he would himself criticize in comparable remarks about Christianity. But these are matters that do not affect the merits of the work as a whole, which are great. Truth and Tolerance provides transparently lucid guidelines for the recognition of when orthodoxy has been abandoned. It rightly identifies the main intellectual and social pressures issuing in such abandonment.

As is often the case with Ratzinger’s works of recent years, there breathes through the book a passionate love for the Church and a hope for her flourishing. This is not the work of a doctrinal policeman; it is, rather, the work of a learned and compassionate pastor. Truth and Tolerance will not convince everyone, of course. By its own lights it should not expect to. But it is an important contribution to the debate, both at the theological and philosophical level.

Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His latest book is Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity (Brazos).