Religious Pluralism and the Position of the Catholic Church 

Michael F. Hull, New York

The Church recognizes and defends the fundamental dignity of man to be free from coercion in matters religious.1 But even as she respects each man’s religious liberty, the position of the Church on religious pluralism is clear: all men are called in freedom to Jesus Christ and to his Church, which has a divine mission, indeed a mandate, to evangelize the whole world, "so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:10–11).The Lord said: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole of creation" (Mark 16:15; cf. Matt 28:19; Luke 24:47).2 To all peoples, the Church "preaches Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:23–24). All men and women are called by God to faith and baptism in Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus.3

However, some misunderstandings (within and without the Church) have given way to the erroneous ideas that salvation is accessible outside the mediation of Christ and his Church; that other religions offer a complementary path to salvation without Jesus’ name; or that, even if the mediation of Christ and his Church is necessary for salvation, it need not be proclaimed—worse, that it is somehow offensive to proclaim it—to those who fail to call upon the "name under heaven among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Serious attention to these misunderstandings crystallized with the publication of Toward a Theology of Religious Pluralism by Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J.4 Not long after, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Dominus Iesus in order the affirm the Church’s teaching on these matters;5 since some confusion remained even after Dominus Iesus, the CDF also issued a Notification in regard to Dupuis’ book and ambiguities presented therein,6 as well as a Commentary on the Notification.7 The Notification enunciates five points in perfect clarity and consistency. First, Jesus Christ is the sole and universal Mediator of Salvation. Second, God’s revelation is one and complete in Jesus Christ. Third, the salvific work of the Holy Spirit does not extend beyond the universal salvific economy of the Incarnate Word. Fourth, Christ’s Church is the sign and the instrument of salvation for all people; all are called to join her. Finally, the elements of truth and goodness found in other religions are preparations to hear the gospel.8

Recently, the misunderstandings were exacerbated in the United States of America by a statement entitled Reflections on Covenant and Mission.9 The statement drew criticism from Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.: "The statement is ambiguous, if not erroneous, in its treatment of topics such as evangelization, mission, covenant and dialogue."10 The statement is, in fact, theologically and logically confused as it relates to things Catholic;11 so too is the response to Dulles offered by some of the statement’s authors.12 Particularly troublesome is the statement’s invalid rendering of Matthew 28:19 to mean that the Church’s mission is to all peoples, except the Jewish people.13 Just the opposite is the case, as Saint Paul says, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom 1:16).

The Church’s mission is the same as it was yesterday, today, and tomorrow: to evangelize the whole world. "It is the duty of the Church, therefore, in her preaching to proclaim the Cross of Christ as the sign of God’s universal love and the source of all grace."14


1Dignitatis humanae, no. 2.


2"Henceforward the Church, endowed with the gifts of her founder and faithfully observing his precepts of charity, humility and self-denial, received the mission of proclaiming and establishing among all peoples the kingdom of Christ and of God, and she is, on earth, the seed and the beginning of that kingdom" (Lumen gentium, no. 5).


3Origen is one of the earliest to speak this dogmatic axiom (In Iesu Nave homiliae xxvi). See Lumen gentium, no. 14 and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 846–48.


4Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997).


5Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church (August 6, 2000). (All documentation from the CDF is available at


6Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Notification on the book "Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism" by Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J. (January 24, 2001).


7Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Commentary on the Notification of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the Book "Toward a Theology of Religious Pluralism" by Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J. (March 12, 2001).


8See the Notification for its copious references to Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.


9United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues, Reflections on Covenant and Mission (August 12, 2002), available at (Citations are taken from the web pagination.)


10Avery Dulles, "‘Covenant and Mission,’" America 187/12 (October 21, 2002): 9.


11While the confusion is systemic, space allows for only two examples. As to theological confusion, the statement’s claim that "knowledge of the history of Jewish life in Christendom" somehow "causes" Sacred Scripture "to be read with new eyes" (p. 5) is theologically untenable. Knowledge of human sinfulness vis-à-vis the persecution of Jews by some Christians hardly causes anything related to biblical interpretation. Oddly, the statement, which is replete with references to Nostra aetate, never mentions this sentence: "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. John 19:6), neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with crimes committed during his passion" (no. 4). Would the authors of the statement admit of a reciprocal principle of biblical interpretation vis-à-vis the persecution of Christians by some Jews? Moreover, the application of their principle in an interpretation of Acts 5:33–39, which equates the mission of the Apostles with rabbinic Judaism, to the effect that the meaning of the pericope "must logically hold for post-biblical Judaism" (p. 5) is eisegesis. As to illogic, the statement’s claims that "proclamation and catechesis" (p. 6) are part of the Church’s mission of evangelization and that "converts from any tradition or people, including the Jewish people, will be welcomed and accepted" (p. 8) are irreconcilable with its claims that the Church’s "evangelizing task no longer includes the wish to absorb the Jewish faith into Christianity and so end the distinctive witness of Jews to God in human history" (p. 8). So, it would seem that Church’s mission of evangelization is working against its own wishes in accepting converts from Judaism and somehow disaffecting human history? Would the "distinctive witness of Jews to God in human history" not be even more distinctive if it were fulfilled in witness to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?


12Mary C. Boys, Philip A. Cunningham, and John T. Pawlinkowski, "Theology’s ‘Sacred Obligation’: A Reply to Cardinal Avery Dulles on Evangelization," America 187/12 (October 21, 2002): 12–16. Again, space precludes more than two examples. As to theological confusion, the rejection of the Letter to the Hebrews (specifically 8:13 and 10:9), since "[t]he magisterium can explicitly contradict the idea of an individual New Testament author because the Catholic tradition is one of commentary, not of sola scriptura (Scripture alone)" (p. 15), is a direct contradiction of dogma. According to Dei Verbum, no. 11, "Holy Mother Church relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (John 20:31; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19–21; 3:15–16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself." As to illogic, the authors maintain that "Christ saves everyone. If Jews are in covenant with God whom the Christians understand to be triune, then they are related to the saving power of Jesus Christ, even if that is not how the Jews experience the relationship" (p. 16); but that "evangelization is inappropriate in the unique case of Judaism" (p. 14). Not appropriate? Would not one think it is most appropriate to speak to Jewish people, especially to Jewish people, about the saving power of Jesus Christ to which they are related and by which they are saved?


13Reflections on Covenant and Mission, 8. First, the simplistic identification of the Greek ethne with the Hebrew gôyîm is naïve, if not specious, and unsound. Second, the glaring absence of Matthew 28:19s parallel verses (Mark 16:15 and Luke 24:47) is inexplicable. Furthermore, the paragraph in which this rendering of Matthew 28:19 appears is unclear in se. On the one hand, it suggests that Matthew 28:19 excludes the evangelizing of Jewish people; on the other hand, it states (in the next sentence) that "this evangelizing task no longer includes the wish to absorb the Jewish faith into Christianity." Is the reader to infer that evangelization did not include a mission to the Jewish people ab ovo, or to infer that it does not do so now?


14Nostra aetate, no. 4.