From the March, 2001 issue of Touchstone

Pope Ted I by Terry Mattingly

Pope Ted I

Terry Mattingly on Ted Turner & the Vatican

Pope John Paul II, this is Ted Turner.

Ted Turner, will you please introduce yourself to Pope John Paul II?

What? Yes, yes, I am quite sure His Holiness has heard your joke about the Polish mine detector. But the pope needs to hear more about your sermon last August at the United Nations. That was the one in which you warned that faiths that claim exclusive truths about heaven and hell are preaching hate and intolerance and that their doctrines could cause a global nuclear holocaust.

Both Giants

It’s hard to imagine two such radically different men meeting, isn’t it? Yet both remain giants on the world stage. And, as strange as it sounds, Turner and John Paul would have a lot to talk about these days if they got together for a chat.

They have been addressing some of the same questions, but offering radically different answers. In fact, the Vatican released a major document focusing on truth and salvation just one week after Turner spoke at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which was the brainchild of the CNN founder and billionaire UN benefactor.

From the viewpoint of Turner, and the elite media in which he is a high priest, the Vatican’s Dominus Iesus (“Lord Jesus”) is heresy.

This document contradicts what I have begun referring to, in correspondence with e-mail friends, as a mass-media law for the post-Naked Public Square: What the marketplace calls “spirituality” is a wonderful thing, so long as it does not involve transcendent truth claims that deny the sexual revolution or threaten hell if you disagree. Believing in God is fine. Enjoying private tingles of faith is fine. Looking forward to another world and having intimate talks with angels is fine. But leave sex alone and don’t even mention hell.

Thus, Dominus Iesus goes way beyond “spirituality” and into the forbidden territory of doctrine. The document was bold to say:

The Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So it is wrong, argues the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to say that all religions are true. The major world religions do, in fact, teach doctrines that clash head-on. It is also wrong to say that Christianity merely offers one path to salvation among many. Dominus Iesus argues: “One can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race . . . which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal and absolute.”

Press coverage attempted to frame Dominus Iesus primarily as a blast at other churches, focusing on the Vatican’s renewed claims (only a few paragraphs in a very long document) that Roman Catholicism is the true and fullest expression of Christianity. The Washington Post summarized the document by saying: “A new Vatican dictum . . . declares that individuals can attain full salvation from earthly sin only through the spiritual grace of the Catholic Church and that other faiths—including Protestant Christian ones—have defects that place their followers in a ‘gravely deficient situation’ in seeking salvation.”

But as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told the Italian press, this was primarily a response to pluralists—modernists and postmodernists inside the Catholic Church and critics on the outside—who view any Christian claim of exclusive truth as “a bit of fundamentalism which is an attack on the modern spirit and a menace to toleration and liberty.”

Few noticed that Dominus Iesus strongly affirmed Vatican II’s still controversial embrace of the hope that members of other world religions may, somehow, be included in the sweep of God’s saving grace. This statement will certainly set off alarm bells among many Orthodox believers and among Baptists and other Evangelicals who have, in recent years, been involved in serious dialogue with Rome. Here is the passage from the document:

The salvific action of Jesus Christ, with and through his Spirit, extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church to all humanity. Speaking of the Pascal mystery, in which Christ even now associates the believer to himself in a living manner in the Spirit and gives him the hope of salvation, [Vatican II stated]: “All this holds true not only for Christians but also for all men of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for us all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery.”

Objectively Deficient

Yet other passages in Dominus Iesus understandably drew the attention of reporters, such as its insistence that the rituals of other faiths, “insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors, constitute an obstacle to salvation.” And this statement, a few lines later: “If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking [italics in the original] they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”

Thus, the Vatican issued a strong call for evangelism and mission work by the modern church, even if that missionary activity tends to offend others.

This is precisely what Turner attacked in his speech to 1,000-plus clergy at the United Nations, during a program that consistently criticized anyone—but especially Christians—who would dare to attempt to convert others to a new faith.

Thus, the Mouth of the South did testify: “When I was a little boy, I was very religious. I was born into a Christian family and I was raised in a Christian school. I became a Christian, just like you become whatever you are exposed to as a child. I was going to be a man of the cloth. . . . I was going to be a missionary.”

But when he grew up, he read books and, thus, he began to put aside childish things. He decided that his tiny sect could not be preaching the truth.

“I studied Christianity and I studied the world’s great religions,” he said. “I was always thinking. What disturbed me is that my religious Christian sect was very intolerant. Not intolerant of religious freedom for other people, but we thought that we were the only ones going to heaven. . . . It just confused the devil out of me because I said heaven is going to be a mighty empty place, with nobody else there.”

“Instead of all of these different gods,” he decided in the end, “I thought maybe that there’s one God who manifests himself and reveals himself in different ways to different people. What about that?”

For Turner, it’s all those traditional Christians and other true believers who have been the font of evil and bloodshed throughout history. A dangerous true believer is anyone convinced that he worships the one true Savior who has revealed the one true path to heaven.

It’s dangerous, he said, for powerful people to hold such intolerant religious beliefs in a world containing “nuclear weapons and poison gas and land mines.” Then he drew a direct connection between those who claim that their faith is superior and those who claim that their race is superior. In Turner’s mind it’s a short leap from, oh, Billy Graham to Adolph Hitler.

Turner’s Final Word

So here is Turner’s final word for those who cling to traditions built on claims of absolute, transcendent truths: “We are all one race and there is only one God who manifests himself in different ways.” The modern world cannot afford to tolerate those who will not accept this.

It was an ironic anti-sermon, delivered at the UN—an organization built on a charter that stresses free speech (even for missionaries) and proclaims the right of individuals to embrace the faith of their choice (even if that means conversion). If Turner wanted to stress the inviolability of the human spirit, he could have elected to quote from the pope’s riveting sermons last year in India, when he simultaneously affirmed religious liberty and the Great Commission that is at the heart of Christianity.

Instead Turner ended his sermon with simple sentiments appropriate for Woodstock I, Woodstock II, or Woodstock 666. “It’s time to get rid of hatred. It’s time to get rid of prejudice. It’s time to have love and respect and tolerance for each other,” he concluded.

Care about each other. Work together to survive. I can’t believe that God wants us to blow ourselves to kingdom come. . . . I think he wants us to love each other, live in peace and harmony, and figure out how to solve the horrible, grinding problems of poverty and to have a more equitable, fair, kinder, more peaceful, gentle and loving world. . . . God bless you all.

The god doing that blessing would, of course, be the one god with many faces, the god or goddess of Ted Turner and CNN. This would not be the exclusive, narrow God—the one Lord Jesus, who said that no one comes to the Father but by him—of Pope John Paul II and others who believe that missionaries should be allowed a place, and even free speech, in the modern world.

As the old saying goes: There are some people who just don’t love everybody the way that they should. And don’t you just hate people like that?

Ted Turner does.  

Terry Mattingly leads the Institute of Journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., and writes the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. Parts of this article appeared in an earlier column by Mr. Mattingly.

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