New Ideas on the Church and Salvation

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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.

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