International Theological Commission

International Theological Commission




The study of the theme "Christianity and the World Religions" was adopted for study by a large majority of the members of the International Theological Commission. To prepare this study a subcommission was established composed of Bishop Norbert Strotmann Hoppe, M.S.C.; Rev. Barthelemy Adoukonou; Rev. Jean Corbon; Rev. Mario de Franca Miranda, S.J.; Rev. Ivan Golub; Rev. Tadahiko Iwashima, S.J.; Rev. Luis F. Ladaria, S.J. (president); Rev. Hermann J. Pottmeyer; and Rev. Andrzej Szostek, M.I.C. General discussion on this theme took place during several meetings of the subcommission and in the plenary sessions of the International Theological Commission held at Rome in 1993, 1994 and 1995. The present text was approved "in forma specifica" by vote of the commission on 30 September 1996 and was submitted to its president, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has given his approval for its publication.


1. The question of the relations among religions is becoming daily more important. Various factors contribute to the current interest in this problem. There is above all the increasing interdependence among the different parts of the world, which can be seen at various levels: For example, an ever greater number of people in most countries have access to information; migrations are far from being a thing of the past; and modern technology and industry have given rise to exchanges among many countries in a way that was formerly unknown. These factors, of course, affect the various continents and countries differently, but to some extent or other all parts of the world are touched by them.

2. These factors of communication and interdependence among the different peoples and cultures have brought about a greater Consciousness of the plurality of religions on the planet, with the dangers and at the same time the opportunities this implies. Despite secularization, the religious sense of the people of our time has not disappeared. The different phenomena which reflect this religious sense are well known despite the crisis affecting the great religions, each in different measure.

The importance of the religious dimension in human life and the increasing encounters among people and cultures make interreligious dialogue necessary. In view of the problems and needs affecting humanity, there is a need to seek enlightenment about the meaning of life and to bring about common action for peace and justice in the world. Christianity does not in fact and cannot remain on the margins of this encounter and consequent dialogue among religions. If the latter have sometimes been and still can be factors of division and conflict among peoples, it is to be desired that in our world they should appear in the eyes of all as elements of peace and unity. Christianity has to contribute toward making this possible.

3. For this dialogue to be fruitful, Christianity, and specifically the Catholic Church, must try to clarify how religions are to be evaluated theologically. On this evaluation will depend to a great extent the relation between Christians and the different religions and their followers, and the subsequent dialogue which will be established with them in different forms. The principal object of the following reflections is to work out some theological principles which may help in this evaluation. In proposing these principles we are clearly aware that many questions are still open and require further investigation and discussion. Before setting out these principles, we believe it is necessary to trace the fundamental lines of the current theological debate. Against this background the proposals which will be subsequently formulated will be better understood.


1.1. Object, Method and Aim

4. The theology of religions does not yet have a clearly defined epistemological status. This fact constitutes one of the reasons governing the current discussion. In Catholic theology prior to Vatican II one can find two lines of thought relating to the problem of the salvific value of religions.

One, represented by Jean Danielou, Henri de Lubac and others, considers that religions are based on the covenant with Noah, a cosmic covenant involving God's revelation in nature and conscience and which is different from the covenant with Abraham. Insofar as they uphold the contents of this covenant, religions have positive values but, as such, they do not have salvific value. They are "stepping-stones to hope" (pierres d'attente), but also "stumbling blocks" (pierres d'achoppement) because of sin. In themselves they go from man to God. Only in Christ and in his Church do they reach their final and definitive fulfillment.

The other line, represented by Karl Rahner, affirms that the offer of grace in the present order of things reaches all men and that they have a vague, even if not necessarily conscious awareness of its action and its light. Given that man is by nature a social being, religions, insofar as they are social expressions of the relation of man with God, help their followers to receive the grace of Christ (fides implicita) which is necessary for salvation, and to be open in this way to love of neighbor which Jesus identified with the love of God. In this sense they can have salvific value even though they contain elements of ignorance, sin and corruption.

5. At the present time the demand for a greater knowledge of each religion is gaining ground; this is necessary before a theology of it can be worked out. Very different elements are involved in the origin and scope of each religious tradition. Hence theological reflection must be limited to a consideration of concrete, well-defined phenomena if sweeping a priori judgments are to be avoided. Thus some advocate a theology of the history of religions; others take into consideration the historical evolution of religions, their respective characteristics which are at times mutually incompatible; others recognize the importance of the phenomenological and historical material that relates to each religion, without however discounting the value of the deductive method; still others refuse to give any blanket positive recognition to religions.

6. In an age which values dialogue, mutual comprehension and tolerance, it is natural that there should appear attempts to work out a theology of religions on the basis of criteria acceptable to all, that is to say, which are not exclusive to any one particular religious tradition. For that reason the conditions for interreligious dialogue and the fundamental presuppositions of a Christian theology of religions are not always clearly distinguished. To avoid dogmatism, external models are sought which are supposed to allow one to evaluate the truth of a religion. Efforts made in this direction are not finally convincing. If theology is fides quaerens intellectum, it is not clear how one can abandon the "dogmatic principle" or reflect theologically if one dispenses with one's own sources of truth.

7. In this situation, a Christian theology of religions is faced with different tasks. In the first place Christianity will have to try to understand and evaluate itself in the context of a plurality of religions; it will have to think specifically about the truth and the universality to which it lays claim. In the second place it will have to seek the meaning, function and specific value of religions in the overall history of salvation. Finally, Christian theology will have to study and examine religions themselves, with their very specific contents, and confront them with the contents of the Christian faith. For that reason it is necessary to establish criteria which will permit a critical discussion of this material and a hermeneutics for interpreting it.

1.2. Discussion on the Salvific Value of Religions

8. The fundamental question is this: Do religions mediate salvation to their members? There are those who give a negative reply to this question; even more, some do not even see any sense in raising it. Others give an affirmative response, which in turn gives rise to other questions: Are such mediations of salvation autonomous or do they convey the salvation of Jesus Christ? It is a question therefore of defining the status of Christianity and of religions as sociocultural realities in their relation to human salvation. This question should not be confused with that of the salvation of individuals, Christian or otherwise. Due account has not always been taken of this distinction.

9. Many attempts have been made to classify the different theological positions adopted toward this problem. Let us see some of these classifications: Christ against religions, in religions, above religions, beside religions. An ecclesiocentric universe or exclusive Christology; a Christocentric universe or inclusive Christology; a theocentric universe with a normative Christology; a theocentric universe with a non-normative Christology. Some theologians adopt the tripartite division exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, which is seen as parallel to another: ecclesiocentrism, Christocentrism, theocentrism. Given that we have to choose one of these classifications in order to continue our reflection, we will follow the latter, even though we might complement it with the others if necessary.

10. Exclusivist ecclesiocentrism—the fruit of a specific theological system or of a mistaken understanding of the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus—is no longer defended by Catholic theologians after the clear statements of Pius XII and Vatican Council II on the possibility of salvation for those who do not belong visibly to the Church (cf, e.g., LG 16; GS 22).

11. Christocentrism accepts that salvation may occur in religions, but it denies them any autonomy in salvation on account of the uniqueness and universality of the salvation that comes from Jesus Christ. This position is undoubtedly the one most commonly held by Catholic theologians, even though there are differences among them. It attempts to reconcile the universal salvific will of God with the fact that all find their fulfillment as human beings within a cultural tradition that has in the corresponding religion its highest expression and its ultimate foundation.

12. Theocentrism claims to be a way of going beyond Christocentrism, a paradigm shift, a Copernican revolution. This position springs, among other reasons, from a certain bad conscience over the way missionary activity in the past was linked with the politics of colonialism, even though sometimes the heroism that accompanied the work of evangelization is forgotten. It tries to acknowledge the riches of religions and the moral witness of their members, and, as a final concern, it aims at facilitating the unity of all religions in order to encourage joint work for peace and justice in the world.

We can distinguish a theocentrism in which Jesus Christ, without being constitutive of, is considered normative for salvation, and another theocentrism in which not even this normative value is recognized in Jesus Christ. In the first case, without denying that others may also mediate salvation, Jesus Christ is acknowledged as the mediator who best expresses it; the love of God is revealed most clearly in his person and in his actions, and thus he is the paradigm for the other mediators. But without him we would not remain without salvation, only without its most perfect manifestation.

In the second case Jesus Christ is not considered either as constitutive of nor as normative for human salvation. God is transcendent and incomprehensible, so that we cannot judge his intentions with our human modes of understanding. Thus we, can neither evaluate nor compare the different religious systems. Soteriocentrism radicalizes even further the theocentric position, since it is less interested in the question of Jesus Christ (orthodoxy) than in the actual commitment each religion makes to aid suffering humanity (orthopraxis). In this way the value of religions lies in promoting the kingdom, salvation and the well-being of humanity. This position can thus be characterized as pragmatic and immanentist.

1.3. The Question of Truth

13. The problem of the truth of religions underlies this whole discussion. Today one can see a tendency to relegate it to a secondary level, separating it from reflection on the salvific value of religions. The question of truth gives rise to serious problems of a theoretical and practical order, since in the past it had negative consequences in interreligious encounters. Hence the tendency to ease or privatize this problem with the assertion that criteria of truth are only valid for each individual religion.

Some introduce a more existential notion of truth, taking only the correct moral conduct of the person into consideration and discounting the fact that his or her beliefs may be condemned. A certain confusion is produced between being in salvation and being in the truth. One should take more account of the Christian perspective of salvation as truth and of being in the truth as salvation. The omission of discourse about truth leads to the superficial identification of all religions, emptying them basically of their salvific potential. To assert that all are true is equivalent to declaring that all are false. To sacrifice the question of truth is incompatible with the Christian vision.

14. The epistemological conception underlying the pluralist position uses the Kantian distinction between noumenon and phenomenon. Since God, or ultimate Reality, is transcendent and inaccessible to man, he will only be able to be experienced as a phenomenon expressed by culturally conditioned images and notions; this explains why different representations of the same reality are not a priori necessarily mutually exclusive. The question of truth is relativized still further with the introduction of the concept of mythological truth, which does not imply any correspondence with a reality but simply awakens in the subject a disposition corresponding to what has been enunciated. Nevertheless it must be noted that such contrasting expressions of the noumenon in fact end up dissolving it, obliterating the meaning of the mythological truth. Underlying this whole problematic is also a conception which separates the Transcendent, the Mystery, the Absolute radically from its representations; since the latter are all relative because they are imperfect and inadequate, they cannot make any exclusive claims in the question of truth.

15. A criterion for the truth of a religion which is to be accepted by the other religions must be located outside the religion itself. The search for this criterion is a serious task for theological reflection. Certain theologians avoid Christian terms in speaking of God (Eternal One, Ultimate Reality, the Real) or in designating correct behavior (Reality-centeredness and not self-centeredness). But one can see that such expressions either manifest a dependence on a specific tradition (Christian) or they become so abstract that they cease to be useful.

Recourse to the humanum is not convincing because with it one is dealing with a merely phenomenological criterion, which would make the theology of religions dependent on the anthropology dominant in any particular age. It is also said that one must consider as the true religion that which best succeeds either in reconciling finitude, the provisional and changeable nature of its own self-understanding, with the infinitude to which it points, or in reducing to unity (power of integration) the plurality of experiences of reality and of religious conceptions.

1.4. The Question of God

16. The pluralist position aims at eliminating from Christianity any claim to exclusivity or superiority in relation to other religions. For this reason it must assert that the ultimate reality of the different religions is identical, and at the same time relativize the Christian conception of God in its dogmatic and binding form. In this way it distinguishes between God as he is in himself, inaccessible to man, and God as he is revealed in human experience. Images of God are constituted by the experience of transcendence and by the particular sociocultural context. These images are not God, but they point accurately toward him; this can be also said of the nonpersonal representations of the divinity. In consequence, none of them can be considered as exclusively valid.

Hence it follows that all religions are relative not in that they merely point toward the Absolute, but in their positive expressions and in their omissions. Since there is only one God and one plan of salvation, which is the same for all humanity, the expressions of religion are interconnected and mutually complementary. As the Mystery is universally active and present, none of its manifestations can claim to be the ultimate and definitive one. In this way the question of God is intimately bound up with the question of revelation.

17. The phenomenon of prayer which is found in the various religions is also related to the same question. Is it, in short, the same addressee who is invoked in the prayers of the faithful under different names? Divinities and religious powers, personified forces of nature, life and society, psychic or mythical projections—do they all represent the same reality? Is one not taking here an unwarranted step from a subjective attitude to an objective judgment? A polytheistic prayer may be directed to the true God, since a salvific act may occur through an erroneous mediation. But this does not mean that this religious mediation is objectively recognized as a salvific mediation, although it does mean that this authentic prayer was enkindled by the Holy Spirit (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, "Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflections and Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" [1991], 27).