Cardinal Ratzinger Considers Whether Truth, Faith,
and Tolerance Are Compatible
Jesus Christ is the only savior, says Christianity. "Can this absolute
claim still be maintained today?" Thats the question addressed
by the Vaticans Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his new book, Truth
and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.
When, in 2000, the Catholic Church reiterated its teaching about Jesus in
its declaration Dominus Iesus, "a cry of outrage arose from
modern society," notes Ratzinger, "but also from great non-Christian
cultures such as that of India: this was said to be a document of intolerance
and of religious arrogance that should have no place in the world of today."
Ratzinger argues that the Churchs teaching is not intolerant but true.
How can Christianity insist it is true in the face of other religions and
philosophies making competing claims? Do truth and tolerance inevitably
conflict with each other? Does respect for others mean all religions are
equally true? Does the diversity of religions prove theres no such
thing as religious truth? Or do all religions ultimately teach the same
thing? Are all religions capable of saving their adherents?
Truth and Tolerance is Ratzingers careful answers to these
Ratzinger confronts head-on the claim that Christianity has imposed European
culture on other peoples. "Christianity
originated, not in Europe,
but in the Near East, in the geographical point at which the continents
of Asia, Africa, and Europe come into contact," he writes.
Yes, Christianity has a European element. But above all it has a perennial
message that comes from God, not from any human culture, argues Ratzinger.
While Christians have sometimes pushed their cultures on other peoples,
as have non-Christians, Christianity itself is alien to no authentically
human culture. Its very nature as a free response to Gods gift of
himself in Jesus Christ, means that Christianity must propose itself to
culture, not impose itself.
The issues of truth and diversity in religion are also tackled by Ratzinger.
Some people relegate religion to the realm of feelings and taste. As peoples
feelings and tastes vary, so, too, do their religious ideas and practices.
Ratzinger responds by presenting what he calls "the inevitability of
the question of truth."
Other people argue that all religions essentially affirm the same things.
Truth and Tolerance points to fundamental, non-negotiable differences among
religions, as well as certain common elements.
Ratzinger distinguishes two main forms of religion. On the one hand, there
is a kind of mysticism in which one seeks to merge into or become identical
with everything, in an all-embracing, impersonal unity. Many Eastern religions
and the New Age movement are religions of that sort. On the other hand,
there is "a personal understanding of God," in which one is united
in love with a personal God and yet remains distinct from him. Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam are examples of the latter kind of religion.
A first-rate theologian, as well as a church leader, Ratzinger also assesses
the strengths and weaknesses of the three main contemporary approaches to
a "theology of religions": exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism.
Exclusivism holds that only those who explicitly accept Christ and the Christian
message can be saved. Inclusivism is the view that non-Christian religions
implicitly contain Christian truth and therefore that their adherents are
"anonymous Christians." Pluralism holds that there are many valid
ways to God among the various religions.
At the heart of the discussion about the diversity of religions, contends
Ratzinger, is the identity of Jesus Christ. Is the he the sole savior, prefigured
by other religious leaders perhaps but nonetheless unique? Is he one among
many religious figures who bring salvation? Is he the one true God in human
flesh, rather an avatar or one among many different manifestations of the
Christianity has always held that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ
is definitive, argues Ratzinger. The divinity of Jesus is "the real
dividing line in the history of religions," which makes sense of "two
other fundamental concepts of the Christian faith, which have become unmentionable
nowadays: conversion and mission."
Relativism, which Ratzinger calls "the central problem for faith in
our time," lurks behind most modern mistakes about faith and morality.
The net result is a deep skepticism about whether anything is true or can
be known to be true.
Christianity can help modern thought overcome its relativism and skepticism
by presenting the One who is the truth, Jesus Christ, the one who sets people
free by their coming to know, understand and love the truth. Ratzinger explains
how tolerance, reason and freedom are not only compatible with truth, but
ultimately depend upon it.
With respect to the difficult subject of things interreligious, Ratzinger
strongly supports interreligious dialogue, so long as it isnt understood
as assuming all points of view are and must be, in the end, equally valid.
About interreligious prayerunderstood as prayer together by Christians
and non-Christians, with widely different religious viewshe is more
skeptical. He distinguishes multireligious prayer, where different religious
groups come together but pray separate from one another, and interreligious
Ratzinger doubts whether reasonable conditions for interreligious prayer
can generally be met. Still, he lays out careful criteria for such prayer,
which include agreement about the nature of God, and the nature and subject
of prayer, as well circumstances that dont lend themselves to misunderstanding
such common prayer as relativism or a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus
Christ in the Christian faith.
Truth and Tolerance is a book for anyone interested in how Christianity,
world religions, faith, truth, and freedom fit together.
Excerpts from Truth
and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions (footnotes have
The position that Christianity assigns itself in the history of religions
is one that was basically expressed long ago: it sees in Christ the only
real salvation of man and, thus, his final salvation. In accordance with
this, two attitudes are possible (to it seems) with regard to other religions:
one may address them as being provisional and, in this respect, as preparatory
to Christianity and, thus, in a certain sense attribute to them a positive
value, insofar as they allow themselves to be regarded as precursors. They
can of course also be understood as insufficient, anti-Christian, contrary
to the truth, as leading people to believe they are saved without ever truly
being able to offer salvation. The first of these attitudes was shown by
Christ himself with respect of the Old Testament. That this may also, in
a way, be done with regard to all other religions has been clearly shown
and emphasized only in recent times. We may in fact perfectly well say that
the story of the covenant with Noah (Gen 8:20-9:17) establishes that there
is a kernel of truth hidden in the mythical religions: it is in the regular
"dying away and coming into existence" of the cosmos that the
God who is faithful, who stands in a covenant relationship not merely with
Abraham and his people, but with all men, exercises his providential rule.
And did not the Magi find their way to Christ (even if they did so only
by a round-about way, by way of Jerusalem, and by the Scriptures of the
Old Testament) by means of the star, that is, by means of their "superstition",
by their religious beliefs and practices (Mt 2:1-23)? Did not their religion,
then, kneel before Christ, as it were, in their persons, recognizing itself
as provisional, or rather as proceeding toward Christ?
impression of most people today is that all religions, with a varied multiplicity
of forms and manifestations, in the end are and mean one and the same thing;
which is something everyone can see, except for them. The man of today will
for the most part scarcely respond with an abrupt No to a particular religions
claim to be true; he will simply relativize that claim by saying "There
are many religions." And behind his response will probably be the opinion,
in some form or other, that beneath varying forms they are in essence all
the same; each person has his own.
To me, the
concept of Christianity without religion is contradictory and illusory.
Faith has to express itself as a religion and through religion, though of
course it cannot be reduced to religion. The tradition of these two concepts
should be studied anew with this consideration in mind. For Thomas Aquinas,
for instance, "religion" is a subdivision of the virtue of righteousness
and is, as such, necessary, but it is of course quite different from the
"infused virtue" of faith. It seems to me that a postulate of
the first order of any carefully differentiated theology of religions would
be the precise clarification of the concepts of faith and religion, which
are mostly used so as to pass vaguely into each other, and both are equally
used in generalized fashion. Thus, people talk of "faiths" in
the plural and intend thereby to designate all religions, although the idea
of faith is by no means present in all religions, is certainly not constitutive
element for all of them, andinsofar, as it does occurmeans very
different things in them. The broadening of the concept of religion as an
overall designation for the relationship of man to the transcendent, on
the other hand, has only happened in the second part of the modern period.
Such a clarification is urgently needed, especially for Christianity to
have a proper understanding of itself and for the way it relates to other
Can or must a man simply
make the best of the religion that happens to fall to his share, in the
form in which it is actually practiced around him? Or must he not, whatever
happens, be one who seeks, who strives to purify his conscience and, thus,
move towardat the very leastthe purer forms of his own religion?
If we cannot assume as given such an inner attitude of moving onward,
if we do not have to assume it, then the anthropological basis for mission
disappears. The apostles, and the early Christian congregations as a whole,
were only able to see in Jesus their Savior because they were looking
for the "hope of Israel"because they did not simply regard
the inherited religious forms of their environment as being sufficient
in themselves but were waiting and seeking people with open hearts. The
Church of the Gentiles could develop only because there were "Godfearers",
people who went beyond their traditional religion and looked for something
greater. This dynamic imparted to "religion" is also in a certain
sense the casethis is what is true about what Barth and Bonhoeffer
saywith Christianity itself. It is not simply a network of institutions
and ideas we have to hand on but a seeking ever in faith for faiths
inmost depth, for the real encounter with Christ. In that wayto
say it againin Judaism the "poor of Israel" developed;
in that way they would have to develop, again and again, within the Church;
and in that way they can and they should develop in other religions: it
is the dynamic of the conscience and of the silent presence of God in
it that is leading religions toward one another and guiding people onto
the path to God, not the canonizing of what already exists, so that people
are excused from any deeper searching.
the Church has to be aware that he is entering a separate, active cultural
entity with her own many-layered intercultural character that has grown
up in the course of history. Without a certain exodus, a breaking off with
ones life in all its aspects, one cannot become a Christian. Faith
is no private path to God; it leads into the people of God and into its
history. God has linked himself to a history, which is now also his history
and which we cannot simply erase. Christ remains man to eternity, retains
a body to eternity; but being a man, having a body, includes having a history
and a culture, this particular history with its culture, whether we like
it or not. We cannot repeat the process of the Incarnation at will, in the
sense of repeatedly taking Christ's flesh away from him, so to speak, and
offering him some other flesh instead. Christ remains the same, even according
to his body. But he is drawing us to him. That means that because the people
of God is, not just a single cultural entity, but is gathered together from
all peoples, therefore the first cultural identity, rising again from the
break that was made, has its place therein; and not only that, but it is
needed in order to allow the Incarnation of Christ, of the Word, to attain
its whole fullness. The tension of many active entities within a single
entity is an essential part of the unfinished drama of the Sons Incarnation.
This is the real inner dynamic of history, and of course it stands always
beneath the sign of the Cross; that is to say that it must always be struggling
against the opposing weight of shutting off, of isolation and refusal.
also bid farewell to the dream of the absolute autonomy of reason and of
its self-sufficiency. Human reason needs a hint from the great religious
traditions of mankind. It will certainly look at the individual traditions
in a critical light. The pathology of religion is the most dangerous sickness
of the human spirit. It exists within the religions, yet it exists also
precisely where religion as such is rejected and relative goods are assigned
an absolute value: the atheistic systems of modern times are the most frightful
examples of passionate religious enthusiasm alienated from its proper identity,
and that means a sickness of the human spirit that may be mortal. When the
existence of God is denied, freedom is, not enhanced, but deprived of its
basis and thus distorted. When the purest and most profound religious traditions
are set aside, man is separating himself from his truth; he is living contrary
to that truth, and he loses his freedom. Nor can philosophical ethics be
simply autonomous. It cannot dispense with the concept of God or dispense
with the concept of a truth of being that is of an ethical nature. If there
is no truth about man, then he has no freedom. Only the truth makes us free.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is the Prefect of the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. A widely acclaimed theologian and author,
he has written many important books on theological and spiritual themes.
Read more about his life
and work here.