Dr. Jeff Mirus has an article in the Commentary section of his Catholic Culture website called “The Coming of Christ in the Flesh,” in which he attempts to convince a biblical fundamentalist that people need not have explicit knowledge of, and divine Faith in, Christ in order to be saved. He says that this is the teaching of the Catholic Church, which Christ founded upon Saint Peter, and that, without the guidance of this magisterium, the Bible can be misinterpreted, even on so basic a teaching as whether or not explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Well, the Bible itself teaches the same, as we see in the writings of the first pope, in his second epistle, wherein he warns that some,“the unstable,” wrest the epistles of Paul “to their own destruction” (2. Peter 3:16).
Fine. But, this emailer, whom Mirus is trying to set straight, is not “wresting the scriptures” in order to push some heresy. He is simply quoting the Gospels, taking the pertinent verses in their literal and clear sense, and drawing the conclusion that explicit Faith in the Incarnation is necessary for salvation. Saint Thomas Aquinas drew the same conclusion, basing his teaching not only on the obvious sense of the inspired text, but also on the Church’s traditional teaching, which, coincidentally, also assures the faithful what books were inspired by God and which were not.
Does Dr. Mirus think that the Church today has a new and more inclusive understanding of what the Holy Spirit meant when He inspired Saint Paul to write to the Romans: “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ”? And to the Hebrews: “Without faith it is impossible to please God”? And, the Church seconds this in her infallible axiom, constant in her tradition, that “Faith is the beginning of salvation.” It would seem that Dr. Mirus is saying that Vatican II, and Dominus Jesus, has reinterpreted these truths, or, shall I say, rendered them less categorically irreformable. I am certain that Dr. Mirus would not say that the Church “changed” any of her teachings, or the clear sense of a scriptural text, but what I gather he is saying, if not in these precise words, is that in more modern times the Church has developed her theology in interpreting more inclusively the meaning of the scriptural texts on salvation and her own solemn magisterial pronouncements on the same. In other words “faith” now has a wider definition and is not restricted to Christological content, but can take in just about every religious tenet short of atheism. The theological virtue of “faith,” what the Church defined as “divine and Catholic faith,” infused by God as a power or habit in the soul, is no longer absolutely necessary for justification and salvation. Human faith, even sincerity, will suffice, provided one strives for whatever he believes to be “the good.” Objective content, the matter of true faith, is not the principal thing that “matters,” the subjective state of mind can also prove salvific.
The essence of what I consider to be Dr. Mirus’ error, and of all those who, I believe, misconstrue the teaching of Blessed Pope Pius IX when he spoke of “invincible ignorance,” is that of moving a soul from a state of personal non-culpability (not knowing what one had no way of knowing) to one of personal meritoriousness, i.e., justification without Faith. Justification by good desires, following the natural law, or even by clinging onto error on account of one’s sincerity, or for the sake of one’s traditions, or because one’s parents taught him this or that falsehood. My question is: Where is actual grace, God’s lights, in all this? Are they leading one away from error and to the truth, by God’s providential means, or is actual grace confirming one’s commitment to one’s malformed conscience or religious prejudices — held in utmost sincerity? “There is a way that seems to a man right: and the ends thereof lead to death” (Proverbs 16:25).
Saint Thomas also spoke of those who were inculpably ignorant of divine truths. Of those revealed truths that were needed to be assented to in order to make an act of Faith: the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Redemption. The angelic doctor taught that if a man died in such a state of ignorance he would not be tormented for any inculpable ignorance of divine truth, but for other sins, which he culpably committed. He never taught, nor did Pius IX, that one could receive eternal beatitude who died invincibly ignorant of Christ.
Finally, neither does Lumen Gentium teach what Dr. Mirus and so many other intelligent Catholics seem to think it does. The Constitution teaches that one who is ignorant of the gospel could be saved “if he follows the lights God gives him.” This is a truism. But more, God “will have all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” “Behold the hand of the Lord is not shortened that it cannot save, neither is his ear heavy that it cannot hear” (Isaias 59:1); “Being confident of this very thing, that he, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Any man who cooperates with actual grace (lights) will receive the light of revelation of the Incarnation. Saint Thomas says that God would even send an angel to announce the gospel to one living all alone who desired to know the true God but had no one to teach him, because no man can be saved without knowledge of and Faith in the Incarnate God.
Therefore, the emailer’s question: Can a Muslim be saved? It ought to have been answered, “No, not without renouncing Mohammed and embracing the Catholic Faith.” When you get away from the simple challenge of Faith, you end up confusing everybody.
That is why the three ex cathedra definitions that the so-called “Feeneyites” always insist on promoting are so important. They are clear and chaste. Everyone knows what they mean, because that was the intent of the popes who pronounced them, to make these revealed truths perfectly understandable to everyone. They are hence, according to the definition of papal infallibility, “irreformable.” Give them a new “form” under the pretense of “development of doctrine” and you have changed their meaning. Vatican II did not do that, even though, for the sake of a false ecumenism, perhaps some of the council fathers who approved of this Consitution, may have wanted to do that. In any event, since Vatican II did not define anything, its teaching must be measured by the ex cathedra teaching of the solemn magisterium. That is our hierarchy of truth and Pope Benedict has made that perfectly clear when he spoke about the degree of submission required of the faithful in their assent to the council’s teaching. A sensus fidei (consent of Faith) is not required. The Catholic assent of conscience that is proper in considering the texts of Vatican II (mind you, more text than all previous twenty ecumenical councils put together) is the sensus religious, which is due to the teaching of the ordinary magisterium on matters not directly deducible from defined doctrines.
As Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, then Cardinal Ratzinger spoke these words about Vatican II in 1988 in an address he gave to the Bishops of Chile:
“The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular Council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.”
But the assent of Faith is necessary for the three definitions on the necessity of being in the Church for salvation that Dr. Mirus never even referred to. Here is one of the three:
“The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Eugene IV, Cantate Domino, papal bull issued during the Council of Florence, 1441)
Now where does true charity lie? Idle speculation? Burying this ex cathedra doctrine, lest we “offend”? Trying to be more inclusive by applying all kinds of loopholes to the ex cathedra teaching? At least Hans Kung was being honest when he said that the pope cannot be infallible because past popes pronounced from the chair that there is no salvation outside the Church. And the Church certainly doesn’t teach that today. Such was his argument.
I think that if we truly loved our non-Catholic neighbors, we would kindly invite them to become Catholic, enter the Church, for there is no salvation outside of her. That’s charity. For there is no true charity if it comes with a false hope, or misinformation, about a soul’s state in relation to eternal life.
Those who believe in the salvation doctrine as defined have often been mocked, and they still are mocked, by the most outrageous caricatures. There they pictured as patting themselves on the back, these exclusivist Catholics, thanking God they are not like the rest of men. They are all set, they are in; keep from mortal sin and they’ve got it made. To hell with everybody else! They are described often as gloating over the sorry fate of those who die outside the Church, muttering things like, “Too bad, it’s your own fault; you rejected grace; now you get what you deserve; alleluia, praise the Lord.”
This is sad. Those who despise those who defend the literal sense of the doctrine haven’t talked to the folks I know at Saint Benedict Center. They haven’t a clue about the love for neighbor that I see in their actions and words. They are out there offering their neighbor the beauty and solace that will be theirs in the Catholic Church. They weep for their friends and relatives who are outside the Church. They pray for them. Many of the folks I know are converts themselves, either from Protestantism or from absentee Catholicism, or they come from a family of converts. They understand the challenge of love that the salvation doctrine really is, because they know what it is like to have been outside the Church. It’s Catholics that are more upset (read, embarrassed) by the salvation doctrine than non-Catholics. Non-Catholics expect the Church to teach that she is the one and only Church of Jesus Christ, the one and only Church of salvation, and that, if one wants to be saved, one must be joined to her.
These are my general thoughts after reading Dr. Mirus’ article. They are not intended as a disputation, but just as a commentary with an opposing view. All in the hope that the truth becomes more clear and prejudices dissipate.