If Ecumenism is Bad, Indifferentism is Worse

In the March, 2017 issue of Catholic Family News (CFN) there is an article, written sometime after Vatican II (no date is given) by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre entitled “The Confusion Surrounding Ecumenism”. [I have since discovered that the article is taken from chapter 10 of his Open Letter to Confused Catholics, published by Angelus Press, 1985] In an otherwise magnificent issue of CFN this piece can easily add to “the confusion.” The Archbishop begins with several examples of outrageous abuses, all in the name of ecumenism, wherein Catholic churches in France and Italy hosted Moslem services and Buddhist celebrations on their grounds (in the latter case even in a Catholic church itself.) Examples of interfaith ceremonies with Protestants are also cited. Of course, we know that today, long after the Archbishop wrote these words, the situation is even worse, what with the fiasco recently dramatized in Lund with the pope himself ingratiating the Lutherans and rehabilitating Martin Luther. Archbishop Lefebvre cites these sacrilegious debacles, which occurred many years ago, as ecumenism gone amok.

All well and good. Sadly, however, the final message of Archbishop Lefebvre, although it does not contradict his indignation concerning false ecumenism and interfaith celebrations, it puts a doubt as to the literal meaning of the irreformable doctrine that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” I do not know, now with our friend, John Vennari, being very ill (he is said to be dying), who decided to put this particular article in CFN.  What he held on the salvation of non-believers in the early days after the Council may well have been considerably redacted later as his Society of Saint Pius X grew and matured in its theological defense of the salvation doctrine. I do not know. As noted above, the book was published in 1985, only six years before his death. We are fairly confident that Bishop Fellay and the priests we know from the SSPX would not want to identify with what was recorded from their founder in the March CFN. With all due reverence to the Archbishop, who is a hero of the Church to all of us — including to our late beloved mentor, Brother Francis, who met and conversed with him — the following words need to be addressed now that they have ended up in print.

After affirming that no grace is given to the world except through the Church, Archbishop Lefebvre adds: “Does that mean that no Protestant, no Muslim, no Buddhist, or animist will be saved? No, it would be a second error to think that.” He then goes on to expand upon the “formula” of Saint Cyprian “Outside the Church there is no Salvation.” Rather he had said “dogma of the Church,” since the truth expressed in that “formula” of Cyprian has been thrice defined. Clearly, Cantate Domino of the Council of Florence (1441) declared for all time, ex cathedra, that non-Catholics cannot be saved unless they come into the Catholic Church or, in the case of schismatics, return to the unity of the one, true Church.

The Archbishop maintains that these non-Catholics (even non-Christians) “are saved in their religion but not by it.” Prior to this, he says those non-Christians who “are men of good will” are saved by an “implicit” baptism of desire. “They receive,” he says, “the grace of baptism without knowing it, but in an effective way. In this way they become part of the Church.” (my emphasis)

I can testify that Brother Francis, when he personally spoke with Archbishop Lefebvre, in St. Marys, Kansas, back in the early 1980s, respectfully told him that one must not merely affirm that there is no salvation without the Church (which his excellency often emphasized) but that one must affirm that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” And that that is the Church’s explicit definition.

As to an “implicit baptism of desire,” for one who has never heard of Christ (for assuredly the Archbishop did not mean one who explicitly rejected Christ) there must first be a supernatural act of explicit faith in the Trinity, Christ, the Incarnate God and His Redemption. As many reading this column would already know, Saint Thomas Aquinas (in the light of Saint Paul to the Romans, 10:17) insists in his Summa Theologica on this necessity of explicit faith for all justification. What can be “implicit” after this could be acceptance of and determination to receive sacramental baptism once one is informed of its necessity. Thusly, too, the same can be said of all of the other dogmas of our holy Faith, for the act of Faith, as an act of the intellect illumined by grace with the assent of the will, is integral. In other words, denying one dogma of faith places one’s own personal subjective state of mind above God’s revelation through His teaching Church. If one can receive justifying grace without explicit faith in Christ, then it is merely a matter of degree before the doors of salvation will be open to Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christians.”

I need not take this any further. I am certain that John Vennari and the SSPX would agree with my concerns here. A clarification would be helpful in the next issue of CFN.

  • Scott LeBeau

    Thank you for this illuminating and thought-provoking article. This particular topic is surely a struggle for almost everyone in this day and age, such day and age being suffused almost completely with Modernism (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Pope Pius X). Thus, almost no person living today can be said to be entirely free of the influence of that immense and all-encompassing perfidy (I recognize it in myself daily). One understands the weight and import of such a topic implicitly, I would hope, as it deals with nothing less than the final disposition of souls. What is of particular interest to me in light of your article is the Church’s teaching regarding “judging” others–in particular the concept that we are not to judge a person as to the final disposition of that person’s soul with regard to its eternal destination upon the death of the body. [Note: To be as clear as possible here, I of course am not referring to Particular Judgement itself, as all reasonable Catholics would agree that such belongs to Christ alone, but instead am referring to the more subtle idea that we are not to presuppose Christ’s Particular Judgement for any particular soul–we are not to assume we can know what that Particular Judgement is or will be for any particular soul]. Per my understanding, this is so because while we can (and must of necessity) judge the outward manifestations of persons in light of the full body of Catholic Orthodoxy, and thereby judge those particular manifestations (acts, pronouncements, etc.) with regard to whether they adhere to or deviate from said Orthodoxy, we can never know the internal disposition of the soul with regard to its relationship with Christ, his Church, and the eternal Truth espoused thereby (and whereby eternal salvation or damnation hangs in the balance). To put it simply, while we may know the particular criteria Christ will apply to all souls in rendering his Particular Judgement (as he has necessarily made this criteria explicitly known to us so that we may know whereby we may be saved), we cannot know the internal disposition of any particular soul to which such criteria is to be applied. Thus, it should be stressed that with regard to your exposition of (and disposition of) this topic in the subject article, as I understand it you are implicitly articulating the fact that this immutable church teaching expounds on an “if, then” proposition (i.e., if a soul is so disposed towards Christ and his Church, and therefore is necessarily in a particular relationship thereto accordant with such disposition by the application of certain explicitly known criteria, then, upon death, a particular consequence results regarding the eternal disposition of said soul). In other words, as I understand it, you are not stating (implicitly or explicitly) that the Church or its members are making judgements regarding the internal disposition of a particular soul in any particular case or cases, as I fear might be inferred by some readers (and for the reason I mention above regarding the day and age in which we live), but rather, you are merely restating, clearly and succinctly, an infallible eternal truth declared and taught by the Church regarding how eternal salvation is obtained (and, consequently, how it is lost or how one fails to obtain it). In other words, and with reference to my note above, this immutable Truth goes to the objective criteria by which a soul will one day be judged by Christ (Particular Judgement), and not to the internal disposition of particular souls with reference to that criteria. This is an important distinction, because such an erroneous inference on the part of a reader might possibly lead to any of the following: i) confusion or doubt in their minds as to your interpretation of how that Truth is applied (which would be unfortunate, as your interpretation is nothing more (or less) than the iteration of a clear and unchanging declarative statement of infallible Truth, the application of which is simply the edification of all souls who hear it regarding what is an explicit requisite for their salvation), ii) a temptation to subjectivity in interpreting clearly stated and unambiguous Truths when such are perhaps uncomfortable to contemplate (which would be even more unfortunate, as this of necessity is an example of private discernment) or, iii) even to questions or doubts concerning the infallibility of the teaching of the Magisterium, either by way of questioning patently unambiguous declarations when one does not like them or agree with them personally (and thereafter using one’s own reason to reinterpret them in a way more conforming and comfortable to one’s personal predilections or inclinations–what else is Modernism than this, after all?), or, alternatively, by way of a selective attitude regarding what one chooses to believe and accept in reference to the body of infallible teachings and declarations of the Church (either of which would be most unfortunate, with no further exposition required).

    If we are Catholics, if we love our Lord, if we love the Blessed Virgin, if we love our Church, if we are to persevere to the end, then we must be obedient unto death; we must believe with uncompromising loyalty and faithfulness the entirety of God’s eternal Truth in all of its fullness, embracing the hard sayings along with the easy ones. The Lord tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. How very true that is when we stop trying to equivocate our way out of his loving embrace.

    May God bless you.