Laudetur Iesus Christus! It can happen to anyone. You’re having a conversation; it ventures onto religious topics; you state some of the truth-claims of the Catholic Church. Then, unexpectedly, your interlocutor connects the dots and asks an alarmingly direct question. His thought process was likely something like this: “exclusive claim to teach in God’s name … unique bride of Christ … infallible leader … divinely-appointed arbiter of the natural law …” (then the question spills out): “Hey, you’re not saying I have to be a Catholic to go to heaven, are you?”
The moment of truth has arrived. What will you do?
I make no claim to be an accomplished missionary, but I have had many hundreds of conversations with non-Catholics of all sorts in an effort to evangelize. In those conversations, something like the above has happened frequently. Without my saying “there is no salvation outside the Church,” the other party inferred it from my frank presentation of the truth of the Catholic Faith.
When I came to see the truth and importance of the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus, it dawned on me that similar conversations must take place regularly. Only, sad to say, in most of them, the Catholic party denies what the whole conversation has led to: the necessity of the other person’s conversion.
That last sentence might sound a bit gratuitous. Let me explain why I say that the whole conversation has led to the necessity of this person’s conversion. Catholics need to be clear on the reason for having such conversations, and I don’t mean the causes for getting into a religious discussion when the conversation began on sports or the weather. I mean that we should realize that, once the conversation has landed upon the supernatural truth revealed by God, a new set of priorities must rule us. In this domain, our objectives – and our purpose – must be especially clear. The first reason for such a conversation is to give glory to God by professing His truth; the second is the salvation of souls who need to cleave to that same truth. There could be secondary reasons, e.g., to help someone overcome misconceptions of our beliefs for reasons of the public good, or to defend the Church’s reputation. But the primary reasons we give witness to the Faith are for the love of God whom we confess and for the love of neighbor whom we wish to save. Religious conversations that are mere curiosities, exercises in personal opining, are often positively dangerous.
Since that is the case, we must never take a soft line by minimizing the Church’s necessity. To give the non-Catholic even the smallest peg upon which to hang his false hopes is to renounce the challenge of the Faith. It is to be an anti-apostle. Considering this doctrine in light of the Holy Eucharist, Father Feeney said:
“The Blessed Eucharist means nothing to a man who thinks other people can get along without It. The Blessed Eucharist means nothing to a communicant who thinks he needs It but someone else does not. The Blessed Eucharist means nothing to a communicant who offers others any charity ahead of this Charity of the Bread of Life.”
Strong words, but strongly to be considered and made into a practical program. Think of it: The Catholic Church is not a sect limited to a certain ethnic, racial, or economic segment of humanity; it is a Mystical Body meant by its Head to incorporate all of humanity into itself – the “Whole Christ.” The wimpy witness of human respect – “gee, no, I mean, yeah, it’s the true religion… but … you don’t need it … I mean, God is merciful” – is not only a lie, but it is also a profound disservice to the non-Catholic, who is thereby deprived of a tremendous grace, the grace of supernatural “straight talk.”
Priests especially should hold themselves to a no-nonsense standard in this regard. We will all be accountable for every idle word on the day of judgment, but how much more those whose duty is to preach the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8)?
The objection will be made: “How do you do that – how to you tell someone he needs to convert – without sounding rude or judgmental, or just turning him off?” Good question. So good, in fact, I’ll make it a cliffhanger and not answer it until the next Ad Rem.
Until then, please have a blessed Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King! Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!