The Dupuis case: a theological challenge for pluralism


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THE story of Piscine Molitor Patel, the leading character in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi, and the film it inspired is worth recounting. It is the story of an Indian boy who came home and announced to his Hindu father that he was so attracted by religions that he wanted to practice three of them all together. His father lost his temper and reacted negatively, but ‘Pi Patel’ had no clue as to what degree the idea of embracing three religions would be considered dangerous by orthodox members of each of these denominations, far worse than a sweet reprimand by dad and mom! Such heresy is the nucleus of a problem that over the centuries has sparked wars, burnings at the stake and the ‘Santo Uffizio’, and one that continues to be as controversial as ever.

Religion aside, progress in understanding and encouraging dialogue between humankind’s various cultures could be described as a lengthy and never ending detachment from ethnocentricity with all its related intransigence, racism and ignorance. This process of cognitive openness to differences runs parallel to the history of freedom, and has its heroes, its trail blazers and milestones both in political history and the history of philosophy. These were the golden moments in cultural pluralism – from the Edicts of Ashoka to the invention of Roman citizenship, from Bartolomè de Las Casas to Michel de Montaigne, from Machiavelli to Lessing and from Montesquieu to Gandhi.

But is there an equivalent of this escape from ethnocentricity at a religious level as well? Does theology have an equivalent of that dream of coexistence expressed in a childish manner in Pi Patel’s desire? The answer is in the affirmative, because all religions have followers in search of dialogue and justification within the framework of their faith. There are also the trailblazers of this process in the history of religious doctrine who have played a significant role in the overall process.

Life has never been easy for those supporting dialogue between religions because, by definition, religions present versions of the ‘truth’ that appear incompatible with the truth of ‘others’, absolute claims that do not coexist peacefully with other absolutes. Nevertheless, one should not forget the powerful pluralist force of Gandhi’s words, ‘There is in Hinduism room enough for Jesus as there is for Mohammed, Zoroaster, and Moses. For me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree.’

It is sufficient to merely speak these words to understand the extent to which they are painful for extremists of all denominations. The Mahatma’s approach to the dialogue between religions was exceptionally effective within the framework of his Hindu perspective, in part because of how his motivations were understood, rejecting the idea of one privileged path to God, since all paths contain an unstable mixture of truth and error. For this reason Gandhi should be assigned a place of honour like Origen or Nicola Cusano among the professionals of the ‘theology of religions’, a theology that attempts to justify the plurality of faiths within one of them.

An analogy to flowers and branches seem appropriate here since we know that any concession, in the sense of real equality (or, even more, complementarity) between religions, invites allegations of ‘syncretism’ or worse ‘relativism’ which can unleash the reactions of ‘purists’ present in all human tribes. The appearance of a temple belonging to ‘others’ in one’s territory is in a sense a living negation of one’s own faith’s truths and accepting this co-existence requires a process of adaptation and re-elaboration. That is also why in our times, and throughout the global village, religious pluralism perceived not merely as freedom of worship for everyone but as a reciprocal, peaceful and active acceptance of the various denominations has become such an central issue.


The story I wish to narrate is one that is not as well known or as honoured as it should be. It is the story of Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian Catholic theologian who died in 2004. The Roman Church’s investigative authorities tried him for theological pluralism, his ‘theology of religions’. His denominational and intellectual experience also included an Indian ashram and an intense dialogue with an emblematic figure in Hindu-Christian syncretism, the French Benedictine Henri Le Saux, who assumed the Indian name Swami Abhishiktananda, and died in 1973. The Indian aspects of this great theological case were so significant that two popes, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, were presented with what is known as an ‘Asian issue’,1 which was essentially just Dupuis himself.

This story seriously affected and divided the highest-ranking authorities of the Church of Rome, which reacted by applying the methods of judicial-theological repression (by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith between 1999 and 2001, before becoming Pope in 2005), with consequences that are still present and will continue to be felt. Fortunately, the matter is being freshly discussed after the election of a new Pope, Francis I, alongside Benedict XVI who resigned, partly in the hope that the file on the so-called ‘Asian issue’2 will be reopened.


So what did Dupuis do? He addressed the theological problem of the historical nature of the Revelation (why God revealed Himself to different human communities at different times and in different ways) and the Christian perspective of universal possibilities of redemption for non-Christians, or for the faithful of other denominations, thereby questioning the principle ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’, in line with the Second Vatican Council. Dupuis did this in a powerful essay entitled, ‘Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism’.3


The Belgian theologian was fully aware that this was a theologically controversial subject even on the eve of the third millennium, because it addressed once again the plural subject par excellence of the level of truth and redemption acknowledged to non-Christians. The Second Vatican Council had left that issue open with the Declaration Nostra Aetate (1965): ‘The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions’, acknowledging that they ‘nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.’ Dupuis had addressed the matter within the framework of a theological tradition that universally extended the possibility of redemption in the divine plan, and arrived at the point at which John XXIII and Paul VI had extended this concept.

Dupuis’ most important work was based on historical research, ranging from the sayings of the Fathers of the Church to the debates that preceded and followed the Second Vatican Council, with the contribution of the new theology of the Concilium, the magazine founded in 1965 on the wave of a renewal started in those years by Edward Schillebeeckx, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner and Hans Küng. Dupuis remained within the borders of a very Christo-centric perspective, hence based on the redeeming figure of the Son of God and His universal task of redeeming humankind from original sin.

Dupuis’ work addresses Christian theological history on the subject of the variety of religions, identifying four fundamental stages – the first in which the principle of ‘nulla salus extra ecclesiam’ is affirmed in all its exclusivity, corresponding to a minority and besieged Christianity in the pre-Constantine Roman Empire; a second stage in which there is a limited openness to other religions seen as the breeding ground for a primordial natural revelation; a third in which the existence of positive values in other religions is seen as preparation to the Christian event, and a fourth in which there is the search for an answer to the question: ‘What meaning do other traditions have in the divine plan for humankind’s redemption?’ Hence, the theology of religions.


This doctrinal question had a very real meaning for Dupuis, one deeply rooted in the coexistence of different religions and spiritualities. His Christianity was strongly marked by the inter-religious dialogue that characterized his life, thirty-six years of which were spent in India. In his vision, religious pluralism went well beyond simple and tolerant coexistence; it was not just the acceptance of diversity, but also a commitment to it, an exchange of communications and experiences, a human encounter, an active attempt to achieve understanding through the differences while respecting others as such.

As a young man, Dupuis taught at a Jesuit high school in Calcutta after 1948, and was ordained in Kurseong in 1954. Following his doctorate at the Gregorian University in Rome, he returned to Delhi to teach theology at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology, and for a long time was an advisor to the Indian Episcopal Conference. After this long Indian experience, during which he was profoundly influenced by his contact with Hinduism and the country’s plurality of spiritual experiences, he returned to Rome at the age of 61 to teach at the Gregorian University and serve as an advisor to the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, occupying a significant position within the Church’s organization.

To say that his theological perspective was ‘partially shaped by this country’,4 India, does not mean it should be identified or confused with that of Abhishiktananda. As is typical of the Jesuit tradition of ‘inculturation’, Dupuis also worked in radical forums, those of Catholicism in the Indian world, which undoubtedly attracted him, with the creation of ecumenical ashrams for the formation of priests. One must not forget that inculturation differs greatly from syncretism. The mystic monk instead pursued a complete transformation of Christian monasticism through Indian spirituality. The former presented its orthodoxy based theology with great precision, while the latter stayed away from theology and concentrated on the mystic experience of the Upanishads, of which it professed ‘the truth’.


Dupuis has his philosophical and theological barycentre in Patristics, starting with his very first author of reference (the subject of his doctorate thesis), Origen of Alexandria or Adamantius, a name of great importance in the history of Biblical exegesis and an author to whom Pope Benedict XVI himself has paid homage in recent years5 (exalting the importance of Biblical exegesis, but omitting all reference to aspects of his doctrine that appeared from the very beginning to border on heresy). Origen’s name is often associated with the Church’s universalistic points of view, since his doctrine includes the idea of universal redemption, apokatàstasis, rehabilitation after death of all humankind (Christians and non-Christians) and, consequently, the negation of eternal punishment inflicted on the damned after Judgement Day. In his most important work, Dupuis presents a history of the doctrine of redemption and the doctrinal treatment of other religions, always paying great care in connecting his theses to the precedents codified by the Fathers of the Church. He was also courageous in addressing the theses of the Second Vatican Council and in coherently developing all their pluralistic potential.


Particular attention should be paid to the pages he dedicated to his 15th century precursor, Nicola Cusano. Dupuis attentively read Cusano’s work and it cannot have escaped him that a personality such as that of the Bishop of Bressanone, was that of a man of cosmopolitan culture who had studied both the Koran as well as Hinduism in depth. The theologian was also a powerful man of the Church in Rome and perhaps may even have been capable of settling the controversy with the schismatic Eastern Church had the unity of the Roman papacy not disintegrated in the meantime. Soon after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Nicola Cusano wrote De pace fidei.

On 29 May the capital of the Empire of the East fell into the hands of the Ottoman Sultan Mehemet II, inflicting a shock on Christianity and creating an environment of a clash of civilizations one can imagine as having been no less violent than 9/11. The bloody conclusion of the almost two-month long siege put an end to the power of Constantine XI Palaiologos and, with him, an entire line of Roman emperors after 1,100 years. And yet, in less than four months, the philosopher of Kues wrote a book on the ‘peace of faith’ in which he narrates the dream of a celestial council in which the representatives of all denominations and all nations reach an agreement on the unity of religion in varietate rituum, within a diversity of rituals.6 Only one religion, only one God, but many and varied ways in which human beings practice their cults.

‘Diversity is legitimated in the eyes of God, even if the faithful of the various denominations are unaware of this, and, restricted by a fallible condition and overwhelmed by their problems, they believe that only their own is true.’ In Cusano, the spirit of peacemaking is decidedly open to a universal prospect, beyond the Christian religion.7 In his dream, in addition to the Greeks, Italians, French, English and Germans, and the Bohemians, there are also the Chaldeans, the Arabs, the Indians, Persian Shiites, Turks, Syrians and Tartars. Therefore, there is the prospect of a convergence in peace that concerns not only Christians but all religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, the whole of mankind with all its denominations.’


The pages Dupuis dedicates to Cusano discuss the most contentious proposition, one that more than all others was to bring the Vatican’s wrath down upon his head: If there is a ‘ray of truth’ in non-Christian religions, it is because God placed it there. And if the divine plan is plural, does this envisage a sort of ‘complementarity’ between the faiths? What kind of complementarity is this? Are non-Christian faiths only a form of preparation for the true faith? Theologians call this the historical thesis of ‘accomplishment’ or do they have their own significant role in the divine plan for redemption (the ‘eschatological’ thesis)? Cusano seems closer – in the passages quoted – to the latter view, the more ‘dangerous’ thesis.


His ideas emerged during a critical stage in the Church’s life, at the end of the Papacy of John Paul II who had other priorities and left the matter of theological guidance to the conservative Cardinal Ratzinger, whose subsequent papacy was characterized by a defensive entrenchment and one locked within the Roman Curia. In the Declaration Dominus Iesus dated 2000, a solemn document on Catholic religious ‘exclusivity’, it is not hard to discern an attack on Dupuis’ thesis. This would be followed by the 2001 Notification,8 a real ruling in which, despite highlighting mitigating circumstances acknowledging the author’s good intentions, and his desire to remain faithful to the doctrine of the Church, ‘ambiguities and problems’ were reported ‘that could lead readers to form mistaken or dangerous opinions’, thereby demanding that henceforth Dupuis respect the provisions in the Notification. He was to publish this Notification with any ‘reprints or new editions of the book addressed here.’

I refer you to the authoritative opinion of Alberto Melloni9 who wrote extremely precise and rigorous words on the authoritarian nature of the procedures of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – formerly the ‘Santo Uffizio’, that tried Galileo, the name of which was abolished by Paul VI – whose practices remain extremely influential when punishing and discrediting. On the other hand, Cardinal König, Archbishop of Vienna, pointed out, ‘It seems that according to the Pope religious pluralism is positive, while for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith it is instead a problem.’10


The most serious charge was ‘to consider the different religions of the world as ways of salvation complementary to the Church.’ The word ‘complementary’ returns like a nightmare in Ratzinger’s words, as does the rejection of the idea that ‘Inter-religious dialogue places all religions at the same level.’ This attitude once again provoked a reaction from Cardinal Koenig who, in an open letter, accused Ratzinger saying, ‘The members of the congregation, most of whom are westerners are, of course, very much afraid that Inter-religious dialogue will reduce all religions to equal rank.’ Koenig added, ‘But that is the wrong approach for dialogue with the Eastern religions. It is reminiscent of colonialism, and smacks of arrogance. The Indian way of thinking is very different, and we must learn to understand other sorts of spiritual life.’

The elderly archbishop of Vienna, a leading force of the Second Vatican Council and the first cardinal to propose the name of a future Polish Pope Karol Wojtyla in the 1978 conclave, had undiplomatically identified in the pair leading the Congregation of the Faith, Ratzinger as Prefect and Tarcisio Bertone as secretary (and future Secretary of State until August 2013), an anxiety of the Roman-centric opinions that were to characterize the next papacy. Cardinal Ratzinger’s answer to Koenig, also published by the weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet, clearly indicated the significance of the clash taking place around Dupuis – a conflict that the pro-Council elements among the Church’s leaders had clearly under-estimated and would continue to do so. The series of mistakes that Pope Benedict XVI was to commit, in the name of Roman-centric conservatism, against Judaism and Islam, in backdated enunciations of catechism and the liturgy, were in fact in line with the medieval-style case brought against the gentle Belgian theologian.11 


Dupuis had neither the courage nor the calculated intention of assuming an openly critical and challenging attitude, as Hans Küng later did. Nor did the support from the cardinal from Vienna and other Church representatives prove helpful, despite the publication of their opinions in the Tablet, and, even more, in a book in honour of Dupuis published in 2003.12 This book begins with the words of the Archbishop Emeritus of Kolkata, Peter D’Souza, openly expressing appreciation for ‘the pioneer efforts’ made by Dupuis in addressing the complex issues of religious pluralism. The archbishop added that the Church could have done better if more Asian theologians had been admitted to Rome’s congregations.

The fact remains that Dupuis’ book, translated into many languages, paved the way for the possible development of a pluralist theology, emphasizing passages not only in the 20th century debate and post-Second Vatican Council discussions, but throughout the history of the Christian doctrine that would support a season of theological renewal. The focal point that provides strength to his pluralism that breaks the dogma of the Dominus Iesus, although Dupuis himself declines to assume the more heterodox conclusions, relates to the historical nature of the Revelation, which occurred not at just one time with the advent of Jesus, but ‘in all times’ as the Alexandrians sensed, between the second and third centuries after Christ. Clement, who believed that God was always ‘present among all intelligent men’ (which is why the Greek philosophers had been able to ‘catch a glimpse’ of Him) and Origen who insisted on the continuity of the Revelation of the Logos during the various periods of previous history, the various ‘kairoi’, propitious moments in the history of the Revelation. God revealed Himself over time, dia kronou, from the very beginning, without sudden events.13


It is not up to non-religious people to decide on theological matters in this or any other Church, but I hope to have demonstrated how theological battles are interesting even for those who do not belong to any religious denomination and how cultural pluralism influences and marks the field of theology, with consequences that go beyond churches. Dupuis’ story ends in his political defeat, one that I believe was also a defeat for the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, it has left to contemporary thinkers a heritage of ideas on the basis of which a meaningful dialogue on religious pluralism can be resumed.



1. The story of the procedure is well told by Gerald O’Collins in ‘Jacques Dupuis: His Person and Work’, in Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (eds.), Many and Diverse Ways: In Honour of Jacques Dupuis. Orbis Books, New York, 2003.

2. See also, Sandro Magister, ‘Questioni disputate. Quale salvezza fuori dalla Chiesa. Da Tokyo, l’analisi di uno dei punti più controversi del pontificato di Giovanni Paolo II. Con epicentro l’Asia’ (in Italian).

3. Queriniana (ed.), Brescia, 2003, 4th edition.

4. George Gispert-Sauch, ‘Jacques Dupuis and Swami Abhishiktananda’, in Many and Diverse Ways, op.cit., p. 146.

5. Benedict XVI, General Audience, St Peter’s Square, Wednesday 25 April 2007, Origen of Alexandria; father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20070425 _it.html

6. N. Cusano, De Pace Fidei, in Vol. 7, p. xii of Nicolai de Cusa Opera Omnia (Hamburg: F. Meiner Verlag, 1970).

7. G. Federici Vescovini, introduction to De Pace Fidei, in La lettura dialettica del Corano, p. 20.

8. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Notification on the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, Orbis Books, New York, 1997 by Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J., 1997, Rome, 24 January 2001, in memory of St Francis of Sales. + Joseph Card. Ratzinger Prefect + Tarcisio Bertone, SDB Archbishop Emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary.

9. A. Melloni, Recent Notifications on books by Reinhard Meßner, Jacques Dupuis and Marciano Vidal, Concilium 5-2002.

10. F. König, ‘Let the Spirit Breathe’, The Tablet, 7 April 2001, p. 484; and other observations made by the same cardinal to V. Prisciandaro, Una chiesa a porte aperte, in ‘Jesus’ (2001), no. 5.

11. The comparison with medieval methods seems excessive, and I would invite you to consider the words of the theologian Yves Congar, who later became a cardinal, and often compared the methods of the Santo Uffizio to those of the Gestapo. Journal d’un théologien 1946-1956, introduction et ed. par E. Fouilloux, Paris, 2000.

12. Daniel Kendall and Gerald O’Collins (eds.), op. cit., fn. 1.

13 Jacques Dupuis, op.cit., fn. 8, pp.109-110.