The Rev Jacques Dupuis

Jesuit theologian criticised by the Vatican
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The Independent Online

Jacques Dupuis, priest and theologian: born Charleroi, Belgium 5 December 1923; ordained priest 1954; died Rome 28 December 2004.

No one was more surprised than Jacques Dupuis himself by the furore that erupted after a fellow-Jesuit denounced his 1997 book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Drawing on his 36 years' experience living and working as a theologian in India, in daily contact with Hindus and members of other faiths, Dupuis had explored how Christianity should meet the challenge of religious pluralism. He argued that non-Christian religions play a positive role in God's plan and saw the great religions as vehicles of revelation and salvation, although maintaining that all salvation is ultimately from Christ.

Already in his mid-seventies and a professor of dogmatic theology at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, the mild- mannered Dupuis was given a three-month suspension from his teaching in late 1998 to respond to the Congregation's complaints. But he became a hero to many Catholics riled by what they saw as over-zealous Vatican scrutiny of the works of pioneering theologians honestly trying to get to grips with day-to-day issues.

Amid a blaze of publicity and discussion in the Catholic press - and much hesitation on the part of the Vatican, which withdrew two earlier decisions on his book - the Congregation finally issued a condemnation of sorts in February 2001, complaining of serious "ambiguities" and "difficulties" in the theologian's thought.

"It is consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that the seeds of truth and goodness that exist in other religions are a certain participation in truths contained in the revelation of or in Jesus Christ," the Congregation head Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote in the notification. "However, it is erroneous to hold that such elements of truth and goodness, or some of them, do not derive ultimately from the source-mediation of Jesus Christ."

Unrepentant about his book, but hurt by what he regarded as the Congregation's failure to understand his work or to enter into dialogue with him about it (Ratzinger had never even met him until two years into the investigation), Dupuis signed the notification and agreed for it to be printed in further editions of the book. "I think the reason I was targeted was because, through me, the Congregation was targeting Oriental theologians and Asian theology," he explained later.

A promising youngster who had to complete his schooling during the Nazi occupation of his homeland, Dupuis entered the Belgian Province of the Jesuits in September 1941. He studied philology at Namur University, then philosophy at Louvain. He gained his licence in theology from the Jesuit college in Kurseong in the Himalayan foothills near Darjeeling in India, completing his education with a doctorate in theology at the Gregorian University, with a thesis on the religious anthropology of the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria.

Ordained priest in November 1954, Dupuis taught systematic theology in India for the next 25 years. He also served as a theological adviser to the Indian bishops.

Retiring in 1984, he went to Rome to teach at the Gregorian, where he would remain until the controversy over his book. Widely consulted by various Vatican agencies, especially the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, he was a primary author of the 1991 document Dialogue and Proclamation.

Strongly defended by leading Catholics - among them Cardinal Franz König, Cardinal Avery Dulles and the Jesuit leader Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach - Dupuis later regained official Vatican respect, although by then he had retired from regular teaching. His 80th birthday in December 2003 was marked by a reception at the Gregorian and a Festschrift, In Many and Diverse Ways, was published in his honour.

Asked how he would explain his work to God, Dupuis responded:

I cannot imagine myself giving to the Lord, on the other side of this life, an account of the work I have done. Nor do I think such an account would be necessary. The Lord will know my work, even better than I know it myself. I can only hope that his evaluation of it will be more positive than has been that of some censors and, alas, of the church's central doctrinal authority.

Felix Corley