Dominus Iesus: Liberal or Conservative?

Peter Kreeft on the 10th Anniversary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s Landmark Document

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the architect of Dominus Iesus.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the architect of Dominus Iesus. (photo: CNS photo)

Dominus Iesus, published Aug. 6, 2000, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is one of the most important Church documents of modern times because it concerns what is absolutely central and primary in Christianity, Christ himself, because it defends the most unpopular aspect of the Church’s claim today — its “absolutism” — and because it overcomes the dualism of “liberal” vs. “conservative” by which the media classify and evaluate everything. (I wonder how they will classify the Second Coming when they see it.)

To see these three points, all we have to do is try to classify Dominus Iesus as “liberal” or “conservative.” I put an “L” after all its main “liberal” points and a “C” after all its “conservative” points, and I ended up with 30 Ls and 38 Cs.

But the “kicker” is that it is not half and half, or halfway in between; it is so “liberal” precisely because it is so “conservative.”

To understand this, we should first try to spear those two slippery fish: the “liberal” and the “conservative.” (You can’t fry them if you don’t catch them.)

I see four essential differences, which are the roots of all the others.

First, liberals begin with subjectivity, while conservatives begin with objectivity.

Liberals prioritize personal freedom; conservatives prioritize objective truth. Liberals absolutize persons and see truth as relative to persons. Conservatives absolutize truth and see persons as relative to truth. (Both are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. Both persons and truth are absolute.)

Second, in their anthropology, liberals prioritize the heart, while conservatives prioritize the mind. An attempted mutual heart and brain transplant between a conservative and a liberal failed because no one could find a conservative who would give up his heart to a liberal or a liberal who had any brains to give to a conservative.

Third, liberals emphasize the abstract universal, the cosmopolitan, the global, while conservatives emphasize the concrete particular: individuals, families, neighborhoods and nations. (Thus, the “bad liberalism” of “leftist” communism is international socialism, while the “bad conservatism” of “rightist” Nazism is national socialism.)

Fourth, most obviously, liberals love change and conservatives love permanence; liberals love the new, conservatives the old. That is a matter of temperament rather than ideological content, for anti-Establishment liberals turn into Establishment conservatives when they succeed. And truth is not told by clocks any more than time is told by syllogisms.

These four differences manifest in religion as Modernism vs. Fundamentalism, especially regarding salvation.

Liberals say you are saved by subjective sincerity, love and openness to the new; conservatives by objective truth and fidelity to the old. Thus, Modernists are typically universalists and inclusivists regarding salvation (“We’re all going to heaven, except perhaps the Fundamentalists”), while Fundamentalists are typically exclusivists (“You’re going to hell because you’re not us”).

When Dominus Iesus was issued, both groups gagged. The Fundamentalists found it too liberal and universalistic, and the Liberals found it too conservative and exclusivist. It’s not surprising that it happened to Dominus Iesus because the same thing happened to Jesus himself: Sadducees and Pharisees, Herodians and Zealots, suddenly found one thing to agree about. They had found their common enemy.

Throughout Christian history the pattern has repeated itself. There have always been the “faith alone” fundamentalists (Tatian, Tertullian, Bernard, Luther) and the “reason trumps faith” liberals (Origen, Abelard, Spinoza, Bultmann), but also the “both-and” defenders of mainline orthodoxy (Justin Martyr, Augustine, Aquinas, Newman, Chesterton).

The same threefold pattern manifests in Judaism. In Islam, of course, the “faith alone” people won the center of the battlefield.

Dominus Iesus not only overcomes the “liberal”/“conservative” divide but it also unites the positive in both while rejecting the negative. It is not a compromise but a “higher synthesis.” Thus many of my labels were neither “L” nor “C” but “LC.”

The three main points of this document concern (1) Christ, (2) the Catholic Church, and (3) the Kingdom of God. The first is the longest and most important. Its central passage says that:

“God, who desires to call all people to himself in Christ … does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors.’ Therefore the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.

“The salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity … for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.” But “they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.”

You can see how this would deeply offend both Modernists and Fundamentalists. Just as Jesus himself did.

The point of Dominus Iesus is that it is precisely the “conservative” or “traditional” “high Christology” of the Church and the Bible, so uncompromising on Christ’s full divinity, “unicity” or uniqueness and universality that allows us to have a very “liberal” hope for the salvation of non-Christians.

Because all truth and goodness comes from him, the truth and goodness in the hearts, lives and religions of non-Christians are his action in their cultures and their hearts.

Second, since the Church is not Christ’s artifact but his very body, what is true of him is true of her. Dominus Iesus refutes the “liberal” separation of the two (three cheers for Christ, one for the Church) by correcting its misinterpretation of Vatican II’s statement that Christ’s Church “subsists in” the Catholic Church:

“With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that ‘outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth’ … but … they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church. … It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for this salvation.”

Finally, “the Church is not an end unto herself, since she is ordered toward the Kingdom of God, of which she is the seed, sign and instrument. Yet, while remaining distinct from Christ and the Kingdom, the Church is indissolubly united to both. … The Kingdom of God … is not identified with the Church in her visible and social reality. In fact, ‘the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries’ must not be excluded.”

Justin Martyr, the first Christian philosopher, said that because Christ is the Logos who enlightens all men (John 1:9), whatever has been truly said by the pagan philosophers is properly Christian. All truth is ultimately his truth, not Buddha’s or Muhammad’s or Socrates.’

Thus our “liberal” assessment of the truths in other religions is based on our “conservative” Christology. This is the double reason, the both “conservative” and “liberal” reason, why we will not and cannot shut up, why we insist on telling the Good News to everyone (including Jews and Muslims): because Christ is the only Savior and because he is already at work in their lives. He plants, waters and gives the increase; we only point to him.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and the King’s College in New York City. He is a the author of more than 59 books, including Handbook of Christian Apologetics,  Christianity for Modern Pagans and Fundamentals of the Faith.