New Ideas on the Church and Salvation

Dr. Jeffrey A. Mirus, of Catholicculture.org, has authored three commentaries on that site concerning the doctrine no salvation outside the Church: 1) Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea, 2) Sound Off! Comments on Salvation for Non-Catholics, and 3) Salvation for Non-Catholics and Limbo. If all one had ever read on this issue were Dr. Mirus’ work, he would not know that there exist three infallible pronouncements on the issue (one of Lateran Council IV, one of Boniface VIII, and one of the Council of Florence). Nor would one possibly be left with the impression that, as the last of those infallible definitions states, “those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock…”. One cannot always cite every source germane to a matter of dogmatic theology in three short articles, but to leave readers without a clue of these authoritative teachings is to ignore too much.

The arguments the good Doctor uses are striking for their inapplicable proof-texting, disregard of relevant magisterial pronouncements, weak arguments from analogy, sentimentalism, and sacrificing the objective truth in favor of subjective conditions that are inherently unknowable. With these, Dr. Mirus passes off a theological paradigm shift away from perennial (and binding) magisterial teaching in favor of its very opposite.

The first of the three articles is my interest here. The major thrust of Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea, is that St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans and the Fathers of Vatican II in Dei Verbum all teach that non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved without conversion to the true Faith. The text from Dei Verbum says nothing of the sort, and neither does the passage cited from St. Paul.

Here is the Vatican II passage exactly as Dr. Mirus cites it:

God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after the fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7).

As a result of God’s care for the human race, what did He do? Among other things, He gave us divine revelation, which is the subject of Dei Verbum, so that we could have faith and thereby have eternal life. Nowhere in the text cited or the larger context do the Fathers “[assert] the possibility for salvation for non-Catholics and even for non-Christians,” as Dr. Mirus gratuitously claims they do. Nowhere does the document say, as Dr. Mirus asserts, that “those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation” need not Christian Faith or Catholic sacraments for salvation. This reduces to a “works only” salvation; the good work of searching is now the unum necessarium.

At the end of the passage of Dei Verbum, the document references Romans 2:6-7. Dr. Mirus says this citation is the main reason he quoted Dei Verbum, for it was St. Paul who asserted this notion that Christian Faith is not necessary for salvation:

For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (Rom 2:6-8) (portion cited by the Council in italics) [All this is exactly as it appears in Dr. Mirus’ column.]

Dr. Mirus then quotes a much longer passage from Romans (2:8-16), after which he immediately declares this startling non-sequitur: “It is not at all a new idea, then, that salvation is possible to those who do not know Christ or His Church.” This is not the first time someone has attempted to use St. Paul’s words to the Romans to this effect. Father Brian Harrison, in an excellent paper entitled, “Can an ‘Implicit Faith’ in Christ Be Sufficient for Salvation?,” explains that Romans in no way speaks of salvation for non-Christians:

It is true that in Romans 2: 6-8 and 13-15 the Apostle speaks of the possibility of gentiles who have lived “without the law” being “justified” by following the natural law “engraved in their hearts,” since, as he says, it is “not the hearers, but the doers of the law, who will be justified” (v. 13). However, St. Paul has in mind here not the contrast between those who have and those who have not yet heard the Gospel of Christ, but rather, the contrast between Jews, who have received the Law of Moses, and gentiles who have not. Moreover, keeping the law has to do with charity (good works flowing from love of God and neighbor) as a requirement for salvation, rather than the prior requirement of faith. It is obvious that Paul cannot be understood to be contradicting here the teaching he emphasises so strongly elsewhere, namely, that justification is not a reward for previously having kept the Law, but always has been, and always will be, an unmerited gift for which the primordial condition is faith in God’s revealed Word. So this passage of Romans by no means proves that those gentiles living after the coming of Christ can be saved if they die in ignorance of him. It would seem to mean nothing more than that gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) living either before or after Christ can die with the virtues of faith and charity, and if so will be saved on Judgment Day, even if they have never been catechized with the written law of the Decalogue. [Emphasis mine.]

I will go out on a limb and say that none of the Fathers or Doctors of the Church who commented on the book of Romans saw in it what Dr. Mirus does, namely, the idea that “salvation is possible to those who do not know Christ or His Church.” I say this “idea” that Dr. Mirus claims is “not new” is indeed new, that it did not enter theological discourse until the sixteenth century, and not with the sanction of the magisterium. Further, it contradicts the clear content of the infallible pronouncements cited above.

According to Rev. Sebastian Bullough, O.P., M.A., S.T.L, the “main theme” of Romans is this: “The Gospel is the power of God unto everyone (inculcating the universality of Redemption) that believeth (since it is through Faith that we can benefit by the Redemption), to the Jew first (since the Jews received the revelation) and to the Greek (i.e., the Gentile world, to whom Redemption is open equally).” (Saint Paul and Apostolic Writings, p. 134, emphasis and parenthesis in original.) Romans 2:6-7 does not exempt anyone, neither Jew nor Gentile, from the necessity of Faith.

In fact, elsewhere in his inspired corpus, St. Paul says of his contemporaries, the Jews who rejected Christ, that “to this present day a veil (over their hearts) remains unlifted when they read the old covenant, because through Christ it is taken away. . . . [W]henever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3: 14-16). In the next chapter, he declares that “even though our gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing” (4: 3). Thrice the Apostle says, “The just man liveth by faith” (Rom. 1:7, Gal. 3:11, and Heb. 10:38, all citing Habacuc 2:4). In Hebrews, he declares that “Without faith is is impossible to please God” (11:6). Vatican I cites this passage in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, leaving no doubt that the “faith” spoken of by St. Paul is identical to that “divine and catholic faith” which is the subject of the constitution.

Regardless of St. Paul’s insistence on the necessity of Faith, Dr. Mirus suggests that the Apostle’s rebuke of presumptuous Jews is applicable to Catholics who insist on the necessity of Faith:

The Conciliar reference, again, is to Romans 2:6-7. St. Paul is rebuking Jews who think they will be saved by the Law while those without the Law will, by that fact alone, be damned. This is very similar to the case of those who trust in juridical (external) membership in the Church, as if all formal members are pleasing to God and all those beyond the bounds of formal membership are reprobate.

So much is wrong with this passage. In the Old Testament, the Mosaic Law was not necessary for salvation (except negatively, inasmuch as it bound those who were under its covenant). St. Paul, in fact, consistently points out its inadequacy for salvation. To do this, he cites the example of Abraham (Gal. 3), who, before he was circumcised, was reckoned “a just man” because he lived by faith. It is a very weak analogy to liken Catholics, who have something universally necessary for salvation (faith in Christ), to Old Testament Jews, whose boast was something not universally necessary. Further, Dr. Mirus would seem to be saying that those who hold that there is absolutely no salvation outside the Catholic Church are guilty of a sort of pharisaic legalism for boasting of their “juridical (external) membership in the Church, as if all formal members are pleasing to God …”. Since when is membership in the Mystical Body of Christ according to the requisites classically enumerated by St. Robert Bellarmine (faith, baptism, and adherence to the lawful government of the Church) something merely “juridical” and “external”? Those who hold the “strict interpretation” of extra ecclesiam nulla salus are also generally desirous of their neighbor’s conversion, not complacent that they are better off. None that I know are presumptuous enough to think that all “formal members” of the Church are pleasing to God.

This is a classic straw man argument, built on a weak analogy, and resting on a seriously flawed reading of St. Paul.

  • Justin

    Excellent article Brother Andre. I hope that Dr. Mirus will engage you by trying ( and trying in vain) to refute what you have written. Last time Mr. Kelly wanted to debate him he refused so I have little hope that this time he will be willing to.

    I have talked to people before who are outside the Church and many of them will point to the ideas floating around that they can be saved without being a Catholic. If you give people any loopholes whatsoever they will not see any reason to enter the Church. This has been my limited experience at least. Dr. Mirus–though presumably well intentioned–is misleading people and giving them false hope.

  • Bonifacius

    Dr. Mirus has written some silly things before: http://www.cornellsociety.org/2007/03/traditionalists-modernists/

  • CradleCatholic

    In Joseph Ratzinger’s book WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A CHRISTIAN, he does not consider it to be a closed question.  He states, ”
    …Everything we believe about God, and everything we know about man, prevents us from accepting that beyond the limits of the Church there is no more salvation, that up to the time of Christ all men were subject to the fate of eternal damnation. We are no longer ready and able to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic. We are no longer ready, no longer willing, to think that eternal corruption should be inflicted on people in Asia, in Africa, or wherever it may be, merely on account of their not having “Catholic” marked in their passport.”

    He goes on to say that this theological question is as much reflected upon today as it ever was.  He seems troubled by the idea that for some, getting the denari they deserve as the first workers in the vineyard is what matters most.  

    “We are staring at the trials of everyday Christianity and forgetting on that account that faith is not just a burden that weighs us down; it is at the same time a light that brings us counsel, gives us a path to follow, and gives us meaning. We are seeing in the Church only the exterior order that limits our freedom and thereby overlooking the fact that she is our spiritual home, which shields us, keeps us safe in life and in death. We are seeing only our own burden and forgetting that other people also have burdens, even if we know nothing of them. And above all, what a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people’s damnation—just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord’s parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time. Anyone who looks on the loss of salvation for others as the condition, as it were, on which he serves Christ will in the end only be able to turn away grumbling, because that kind of reward is contrary to the loving-kindness of God.”

    If you truly believe that those outside the Church cannot be saved, then maybe you should take a lesson from the young Joseph Ratzinger.  Instead of insisting upon their damnation, maybe you should pray to God to forgive the sins of those who through ignorance, or even willfullness, do not enter the church, and allow them eternal salvation.  We should wish God’s mercy on everyone, not damnation.   

    When Abraham “bargained” with God for the lives of any righteous people living in Sodom, it wasn’t God’s mind that needed to be changed.  It was Abraham’s.  He needed to learn that God’s ways are merciful.  

    There are some people who believe that they are more Catholic than the Pope, which I continue to find shocking no matter how long I live.   I believe that young Ratzinger was onto something.  I believe that as Pope, Benedict XVI has not forgotten the wideness of God’s mercy.  It is only a shame that others refuse to see it, and not only that, seem to take great glee in limiting God to their own sinful natures.  

     

  • CradleCatholic:

    As Joseph Ratzinger mentions in the preface of the work you cite, “the book presents in written form three sermons that the author preached in the Cathedral at Muenster to a congregation from the Catholic Student Chaplaincy, December 13-15, 1964.”

    What a young priest preached on such an occasion hardly constitutes magisterial teaching, even if that young priest went on to become pope later. So there is nothing of a binding character in any of the words you quote. They have only the merit of a young theologian preaching to college students.

    Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini was an avowed conciliarist. When he became Pope Pius II, he disappointed his friends by not supporting their cause as pope. The lesson? A pope’s earlier positions on theology are not necessarily the matter for Catholic dogma.

    As Piccolomini was influenced by a dominant error of his age, I believe the young Father Joseph Ratzinger was, too. He was, after all, a disciple of Karl Rahner, one of the most dangerous theologians of the twentieth century. As the suit-and-tie-wearing peritus at Vatican II Father Ratzinger was something of a Progressivist.

    In the admirable Providence of God, he now reigns gloriously as Lord Pope. I do not fear that he will attempt to use his God-given infallible office to contradict previous magisterial definitions on the subject at hand, no more than Pius II defined consiliarism; no more — for that matter — than Pius IX, widely regarded as a liberal Cardinal, defined liberalism.

  • It’s strange to read, from the pen of a young priest, that ‘we’ ever believed that a soul would be damned ‘simply’ because he was not a Catholic. I wonder who Fr. Ratzinger meant by ‘we’, and who he was addressing. I realise there were bigots who believed themselves to be above others because of their Catholic faith. I suppose that’s who he was including in his ‘we’, and possibly also addressing.  

    I don’t see what’s so strange about leaving the Church, if salvation doesn’t require staying. I wonder, if the Church isn’t necessary for our own salvation, why would anyone stay? Did Fr. Ratzinger think the folks who die in good standing with the Church were just naturally inclined to do penance, and give alms, and pray – at times, against all natural hope – and open themselves up to being humiliated whenever they seek someone’s conversion, and allow themselves to be torn apart by lions in public, or burned at the stake? That seems unnatural to me, and only makes sense in light of the salvation doctrine. 
    To my knowledge, Brother Andre has never said that those outside the Church cannot be saved. If he thought so, why on earth would he put so much work into trying to help them find their way? I’ve never understood what is so terrible about inviting people to enter the Church by telling them what they will lose if they don’t. Is the Church not our Mother, and should we not be inviting our friends and enemies home to meet her? Are we not children in need, all our lives, of our Mother? Is she so terrible? (except, of course, when she’s in battle array, but I mean the other times!)

    The other side of the coin is this: cradle Catholics are even more responsible for learning the truths of the Church, and accepting them, and practising them, than recent converts. Also, none of us, even the most faithful of us, can be sure of our own salvation until, by the great mercy of God, it has been achieved. If you read the article ‘Penance and the Conversion of America’ on this site, you’ll see why America and the world has fallen so low. I don’t know of a saint who did not continually blame their own selves for the evil in the world. Who are your favourite saints?

    There are indeed many who consider themselves to be more Catholic than the pope. There are also some who, in their evangelization, seem to gleefully, at times, announce that ‘There is no salvation outside the Church’. I notice that when the messengers of that truth are solemn and somber, they are criticized no less than when they might be enjoying some special consolation in the good news that there is salvation inside the Church. As for me, I like good news to have some cheer in it. That’s why I appreciate St. Benedict Center and the work done there so very much.

    ‘Go you also into my vineyard’. I wonder why the word ‘go’ is used, instead of ‘come’. Perhaps God is hinting that there is a visible place at some distance from Him, so to speak only to make a point, that needs to be worked in loyally, before we can come to Him.