No one other than the Pope gets to speak for the Catholic Church officially, but once definitive statements have been made the Catholic theologians will articulate at length both what is said in the statement and then infer what is implicit. Perhaps the most influential theologian at work in articulating what Catholics think about world religions is Gavin D’Costa. (D’Costa is criticized from all angles, both by pluralists and by exclusivists.)
D’Costa’s responsibility, as he says, is to convey the teachings of the Catholic Church. He also probes and suggests and provokes, so his study in Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World is a good one for drilling down a bit into this issue.
There is no issue more vital to the church today than the issue of world religions.
The three classic postures are exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Where would you put D’Costa? How do you explain the “standing before God” of those who have not heard the gospel?
The early churches had three points: salvation was in Christ alone, other philosophies and religions could be preparation for the gospel, could plant seeds of faith and could be a pre-Christian ancient theology. In addition, there was the descent into hell, which could have been for the OT saints but at least sets the possibility for some hearing outside of knowing the gospel.
Here is where D’Costa lands:
1. There is no salvation outside the church; the church is God’s mediation of his grace in the world. All who are genuinely oriented toward God (my expression; there are some technical terms here in RC theology) are related to the mystical presence of Christ in his church.
3. The Spirit is at work. There is a preparation at work in all places; the Spirit is at work in all people; all genuine prayer, whoever utters it, is a movement of God’s Spirit in that person.
4. The Catholic Church’s posture is to appreciate, without blandly affirming, the theistic faiths. It sees this faith as participation in the Spirit’s work in this world. The core ideas then are theism and morality, and the theistic faiths have these elements. This does not affirm the salvation of all but those who have genuine faith.
5. The Catholic Church’s statements disavow pluralism, as if all religions are paths to salvation in the same way. All salvation is through Christ — so there is an exclusivism in salvation in Christ alone. But these religions participate in the saving message of Christ in some ways. Other religions are a preparation of the gospel but not a means of salvation.
6. This means that those in other religions are not necessarily damned.
7. The Church is called to be a light of the gospel to all; to respect the dignity of others and not be coercive; and to plant churches in all places.
8. The Catholic Church does not want to privilege the Western Latin tradition but is working toward more organic expressions of the gospel in other cultures and in contact with other religions.