Only One Church Is The Road To Salvation
By Doctor Ilaria Morali

Specialist in the Theology of Grace


The idea of dialogue with other religions needs some clarifications, says theologian Ilaria Morali, a specialist in the theology of grace, and a lector in dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, Morali teaches courses on salvation, non-Christian religions, and interreligious dialogue.
"The conciliar reflection 16 of "Lumen Gentium" gravitates around the affirmation that non-Christians can attain eternal salvation and that such salvation is realized through grace that operates in persons.  A careful description is given in this number of God's action in the innermost conscience of men who are ignorant of the Gospel. I would like to remind that no mention is made of the other religions as mediations of grace or ways of salvation.  I add that "Lumen Gentium," 16, remained as constant reference in the writing of the rest of the documents that subsequently would address the topic of non-Christians: the "Nostra Aetate" declaration and the "Ad Gentes" decree.

"I would like to make one final observation, in relation to the value of "Nostra Aetate."  I think it is not an accident that in an official writing on "Nostra Aetate," Cardinal Augustine Bea [first president of the secretariat for promoting Christian unity] explained to those who thought of attributing to "Nostra Aetate" the value of a doctrinal document, that the declaration only gave guidelines of a practical order on the specific relationship between the Church and members of other religions.

"Thus, "Nostra Aetate" was conceived as a practical appendix to the lines dictated by "Lumen Gentium" and more generally of conciliar ecclesiology. Whoever today in the ecclesial and theological realm tends to forget "Lumen Gentium" and to attribute a doctrinal value to the "Nostra Aetate" declaration falls, in my understanding, into great ingenuousness and historical error."  Morali

Vatican II never referred to the other religions as "ways of salvation"
and this Morali makes clear.

"In regard to a judgment on the role of religions, the Council spoke of "evangelical preparations" in relation to "something good and authentic" that can be found in persons, and at times in religious initiatives. In no page is explicit mention made of religions as ways of salvation.  From the historical-theological point of view, the patristic term of "evangelical preparations" used by the Council in "Lumen Gentium" and "Ad Gentes" is imitated by that vein of 20th-century theology that defined religions as preparations for the Gospel, as opposed to the thesis of religions as ways of salvation.  In a study that I will publish shortly, I show how, in the light of the conciliar minutes, it is obvious that the Council in no way wished to favor this last thesis.

"Someone might object that this reading of Vatican II is already contradicted by the very fact of the institution of the Secretariat for Non-Christians.

"Indeed, many think that with the creation of this institution the Church would give religions a saving and peer role.  But this is not so, I repeat, recalling a very important historical detail: on September 29, 1964, hence, a few days after the distribution of the encyclical to the conciliar Fathers, the latter received an official Note which explained what the Secretariat for Non-Christians is not and must not be.

"Essentially, this Note stated:  -- that the secretariat "is not an organ of the Council," given that it worked in an environment of "non-Christians," namely, of persons who "do not have valid reasons to justify their presence in the Council." -- the secretariat does not tend "to treat doctrinal problems, and much less so to be concerned with the ministry of preaching and grace, or the task of missionaries, but to establish contacts with non-Christians, on questions of a general nature.

"Warning was given of "the dangers, if one was not careful, that threatened the activity of those who worked on the sense of the Secretariat for Non-Christians": defeatism and indifference.   By indifference we do not understand the coldness or incredulity of some in regard to the Christian faith, but the attitude of those who see all religions as being the same; in each one of them they see ways that lead to the top of the mountain. Therefore, they say to themselves, that if the guest arrives at the meeting, we should not be worried about the path he took.  

"In regard to syncretism, suffice it to know something of the religions of the Far East to realize the force of such a tendency. All the known beliefs come together and melt into one, so long as they present some secondary common aspects. The phenomenon is so strong and general that it has become a principle in the science of comparative religions. We think it opportune to open wide one's eyes to these dangers." This is found in the conciliar minutes [AS III/I, 30-35].

"As we see, this Note explains indirectly the reasons why the "Nostra Aetate" declaration was not written by the secretariat and it reminds us implicitly that the documents of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue are not of a doctrinal character, but only of a practical and pastoral nature.  In light of what we have just said, we can affirm, therefore, that, in the view of Vatican II, interreligious dialogue has an eminently pastoral and practical role. This is also true for the documents issued by the pontifical council.

"Dialogue is a motion that comes from the Christian's conscience and stems from the desire to communicate the unexpectedly received gift in Christ: the gift of having been constituted children of God.  It also has, according to the view of the Church, an exquisitely human function, of creating premises for an international collaboration oriented to the overcoming of conflicts and the solution of problems.


"Ecumenical dialogue takes place in an intra-Christian context, between believers of different denominations but united in faith in Jesus Christ. This type of dialogue should aspire to achieve the reconstitution of the unity of Christians -- it still does not exist.  But in the Catholic unity -- it already exists in the Catholic Church.

"Interreligious dialogue is a relation that is established between Catholic Christians and members of other religions. There is no unity of certain elements of faith as basis for this type of relation. The superposition between interreligious dialogue and ecumenical dialogue is a widespread temptation, which depends largely on the lack of clarity of ideas within our communities.

"Nevertheless, there is a common condition for the two forms of dialogue indicated by Paul VI: awareness of the same identity. If, as Catholics, we were to ignore the awareness of our identity in face of a Protestant brother, we would fall into the same error of those faithful who, because they want to dialogue with Muslims, are prepared to relativize their own creed.

"A Muslim friend recently said to me: 'We want to dialogue with true Catholics, not with half-way Catholics. From my point of view as a Muslim, a Catholic who rejects some fundamental aspect of his faith in order to dialogue would be like a bad Muslim who does not observe the Koran. One dialogues if one has the courage of one's own identity. How could we really know your faith if you deny, for example, the uniqueness of Christ?'

"I think this is a very sensible consideration that would be useful also to recall within some Catholic movements that say they favor interreligious dialogue.

"The Latin text of the encyclical "Ecclesia Suam" speaks of "colloquium," term that is translated "dialogue," and was taken up again by Paul VI in his addresses in Italian. I think that it would have been more opportune and prudent if the original word had been kept, not only because the term "dialogue" has known very different and ambiguous meanings and applications in history, but also because today it is a word that has been inflated; it is often used in politics, philosophy, sociology, etc., at times to relativize or deny truth.

"It is the opinion of many that there is dialogue because no one can presume to know the truth. If this reasoning is translated to the Christian realm, the concrete and tangible risk in many publications and speeches is to relativize the unique value of the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is not the teaching of the Magisterium.

"In the present moment, there is no Christianity-Non-Christian religions dialogue. There is no such possibility by the very fact that neither Hinduism, Buddhism nor Islam constitute in each case a unity presided over by a reference authority. There are very different Buddhisms, Islams and Hinduisms among themselves, although united by some distinctive elements.  This diversity, at times radical, would not be taken into account if one of these religions was considered as an indistinct denomination. Instead, there is the possibility to dialogue with individuals who belong to one or another tradition of a specific religion. I don't believe, therefore, that large-scale interreligious congresses are the real image of interreligious dialogue.

"Dialogue is built in personal contact, in a climate of friendliness and congeniality, not in an oceanic meeting. This is what I have learned when meeting with Catholics who work in the area of dialogue, when I myself have met with believers of other religions.  Having said this, dialogue between Christians and members of other religions can take place at two levels:

-- on political and social topics, for example when we are questioned on the role of religions in the peace process and humanization of the world;

-- in topics relating to religious doctrines, for example, the content of salvation according to the corresponding religious doctrines. In this connection, the declaration "Dominus Iesus" clarifies that, although on the level of persons, insofar as persons, those who form part of the dialogue have the same dignity, the same cannot be said on the level of doctrines. If we are Catholics, there is a necessary difference between the Christian message and the non-Christian message.

"It might help to give an example. A few years ago I met with some friends in the home of an elderly Japanese Buddhist. After speaking at length on the salvation of the Pure Land proposed in Buddhism and that of Christ, he said: "I am and will continue to be Buddhist, but I must admit that the content of salvation proposed by Christ is of a qualitatively superior level to that proposed by my tradition. The elevation that is proposed to man by the redemption of Christ is very much above that outlined in Buddhism. Christ poses questions that I can hardly answer in virtue of my tradition."

"In these days, I have heard the testimony of a missionary in Indonesia. He recalled how Muslim journalists affirmed that the cataclysm of Dec. 26 must be interpreted as a punishment from God.  In the Christian view, God is a merciful Father and natural disasters are conceived as an expression of a nature that has not yet been totally mastered by man. The missionary explained how he encouraged this explanation among some Muslim friends. Once again, the difference is not based on the level of persons but of doctrines.

"The fact that "Dominus Iesus" was badly received in some realms of the Catholic world should not surprise us. It was a physiological fact: there would have been no reason to write such a document if large sectors of present-day Catholicism had not lost sight of the beauty and fullness of the Christian message.   "Dominus Iesus" takes up again, in a certain sense, the same warning of Paul VI in "Ecclesiam Suam," when he put the faithful on guard against the temptation to lose the meaning and value of the gift received with baptism and the Catholic faith.

"Behind the rejection of the content of "Dominus Iesus," is hidden in general the rejection of the doctrinal authority of the magisterium, because of the normative value of the tradition, of the principle of the uniqueness of salvation in Christ. These are the fundamental points of Catholicism.

"Interreligious dialogue cannot be understood as an action with which the Christian might get to know aspects of revelation or even of other divine revelations parallel to the Christian. Whoever affirms this, not only goes beyond the definition of dialogue admirably defined by Paul VI's magisterium, but also does not recognize in the revelation in Christ that unique character that is at the very heart of the Christian faith.

"From my point of view, with "Dominus Iesus" the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has made a bold gesture, at the cost of a certain popularity, again specifying principles that cannot be put to one side. As a believer, moreover, if I lost sight of who I am and what I have received through grace, I could promote a thousand initiatives of dialogue, but none would reflect the Catholic idea.

"All this should lead us to acknowledge that, 40 years after the encyclical "Ecclesiam Suam," the hour has come to recover the first part of its teaching on awareness of Christian identity. In opening ourselves to the other, we have lost in part this essential aspect of our lives. I am convinced that we must re-establish this balance in ourselves and in our communities to give vigor and meaning to our initiatives and our "colloquies" with persons of other religions."