A teacher was sharing with me recently that he takes issue with the Catholic Church, although he identifies himself as a Catholic, when the Catholic Church claims to have the fullness of truth. He believes that no one religion can claim to have such truth, and rather that all religions involve the necessary symbolic ingredients for a revelatory system, and that religious pluralism exists in the plan of salvation not only de facto but also de iure (in principle). This is the position espoused by a theologian named Jacques Dupuis, and it is a position worked out with enough sophistication that it is worthy of a serious engagement. In fact, I wrote my final paper on Dupuis, though I didn’t have enough room to express my reservations about his proposal.
The teacher suggested that any religion’s claim to be, in an exclusive sense, the bearer of full and complete revelation, is morally dangerous as it leads to absolutism and coercion. I’ve heard others make this point before, and it always puzzles me why this connection is made. First, there is obviously no ‘necessary’ connection between a religion’s conviction to be the exclusive bearer of the fullness of God’s self-disclosure, and that religion promoting either violence or even disrespect. Obviously it could take the form of snobbish elitism instead and multiply anthropological categories/castes (such as happened in some Gnostic circles, where believers in the Gnostic story often thought that they were a different species from the more carnal human beings who, by nature, just could not recognize the truth of revelation). Moreover, it’s not even clear that there is a strong historical correlation between a religion’s commitment to having the full revelation of God and religious violence or anything of the sort – sure religious communities have clashed and fought wars, but it isn’t clear that those wars and outbursts of violence would have been avoided if only the religious convictions were slightly different.
Notice that the Catholic Church, perhaps the most adamant religion in the world about having the fullness of the truth which God intends for all mankind, is also at the very front lines of respectful inter-religious dialogue, leading the whole world into an environment of open conversation. The Assisi decalogue wasn’t the product of Buddhist reflection or Hindu exegesis of the Veda’s (not to take anything at all away from either of those), but rather, it is worth recognizing, comes from the Catholic faith.
It occurred to me to respond to the professors concern with another concern: if having the fullness of revelation is a necessary feature of some groups religious conviction and experience, and if that religion really believes itself to have in its possession the unique means of salvation (i.e. for the Catholic tradition, the sacraments), then it would be morally pernicious and significantly more dangerous if that religion did not promote itself to all mankind as the fullness of truth, than if it did. What if that religion were right about itself? What if the Sacraments really are more than merely symbolic (even in the rich sense), but are the means by which Grace instantiates in a supernatural way which puts one in touch with God in a way which radically differs from anything available elsewhere? Obviously having religious convictions is dangerous – having any convictions is dangerous, but one cannot conclude from the danger of religious conviction to that one ought to avoid or deny religious conviction. Marriage is also dangerous, and who knows whether it will work out for the better or for the worse, but that doesn’t mean that it is a risk not worth taking – indeed, a risk which failing to take may be immoral in some circumstances. The Christian conviction should be affirmed with fear and trembling, but it ought to be affirmed, in humility and in prayerful confidence that “if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.” (Donum Veritatis, 31)