LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA

Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Ratzinger

 

ONE OF THE IMAGINATIVE features of Sydney's Olympic Village, in which 23,000 people are living and working for the duration of the 2000 Games, is the chaplaincy centre. At previous Olympic Games, athletes and others in times of spiritual need had to go searching for a church, synagogue, mosque or temple as appropriate - not necessarily an easy thing to do in a strange city. Understanding this, the organisers made a conscious decision to locate a multi-faith chaplaincy centre in the marketplace of the Olympic Village.

For two years, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu leaders have met together to plan the centre's operation. It has been a well publicised exercise in mutual respect without requiring any particular faith tradition to back-pedal its seminal claims. Each has its own worship/prayer room/chapel, and the chaplains have areas to use when they are counselling, teaching or running study groups. There are five full-time chaplains co-ordinating a team of 80 volunteers. Administration and office facilities are shared, a good deal of liaison takes place, and a wholesome view of religion is being presented to the Olympic community.

The full range of Christian traditions is represented. Furthermore, the conspicuous presence of evangelicals, albeit sensitive and subtle ones, has ensured that the project is genuinely multi-faith, in contrast to other such enterprises that only work when Christian participants are prepared to downplay our basic conviction that Jesus is the Saviour of the whole world.

This is a refreshing change. In Australia, Christian participants in multi-faith dialogue are often theological liberals who treat other religions with enormous respect, while holding to a severely truncated Christianity. Not for them the embarrassing notion of Jesus being God in human flesh, or of his cross and resurrection availing for the salvation of all. For these liberals, the Christian religion is the way of salvation for Christians, but other religions are the way of salvation for other people. It is arrogant to assert otherwise, they say.

Furthermore, they regard as paternalistic some of the ways in which we have learned to affirm aspects of other religions as really pointing to Christ. Even the notion of "anonymous Christians" developed by Rahner is politically incorrect, for it persists with the idea that all salvation is really through Christ. These liberal Christians are not satisfied with the re-nuancing of our attitude towards people of other faiths. They are determined to make the Christian world speak of Jesus as one saviour among many. The reason, of course, is that until they have got us to that point, they have not won the battle for the relativity of truth . . . that what is true for you may not be true for me, and vice versa.

Upon becoming a Cardinal in 1879, John Henry Newman teased out the implications of this way of thinking with characteristic simplicity:

"Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another . . . It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion as true. It teaches that . . . all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy."

The paradox is that, certainly in the Australian context, most leaders of other religious traditions with whom multi-faith co-operation takes place do not expect Christians to play down what is distinctively Christian in order to dialogue, to work together, or even to pray together. Some are even amused by the propensity of liberal Christians to distance themselves from what they know to be the basics of our Faith.

A few days ago, the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (CDF) released its document Dominus Iesus. Typically, some Australian news commentators (and even some of our church leaders) made public statements on the document BEFORE it had been released!

Dominus Iesus is concerned to address "relativistic" tendencies in some parts of the Church. It masterfully and biblically sets out the uniqueness of Jesus as God in the Flesh in while at the same time being polite and gracious towards the non-christian religions. Summarising the teaching of Vatican II, the document says a lot of positive things about non-Christian religions, but it continues to reiterate that Jesus is the universal Saviour. The document's critics - including a some local Roman Catholic liberal theologians - are not happy with this.

Flowing from its teaching on the Incarnation, the document proceeds to discuss the Catholic Church which theologically flows from that first point. The media have had a field day with this section, attacking Dominus Iesus for concluding that certain Christian bodies are "proper churches" and others are not. Judging by the number of bishops and media representatives making statements similar to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a surprising number of Anglicans seem to think that the document numbers them in the latter category.

Surely the heart of Dominus Iesus is what Anglican formularies have always said, that is that a "proper church" has the apostolic succession and the Eucharistic mystery:

"17. 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. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches . . . On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptised in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."

Most Catholic Anglicans in the past would have agreed with this. They would have concluded that the Anglican Communion was well and truly covered by the first bit of 17 above. Indeed, Pope Paul VI seems to have thought this way about us.

Dominus Iesus is very charitable. Some of us have tried hard to find things in it with which we disagree.

We have not succeeded!

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints', Wickham Terrace in the diocese of Brisbane, province of Queensland.

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