Over the years, Saint Benedict Center and Father Feeney have been the objects of severe criticism in the pages of The Wanderer. Consider, for example, “The Cardinal Martini Problem for the Church,” by R.M. Pilon, S.T.D. The doctrinal issue that lies at the heart of this controversy was apparently taken up again in a recent “Catholic Replies” column, and the latitudinarian content of that piece brought a response from Father Brian Harrison, O.S., S.T.D.
This piece contains just some of the arguments Father Harrison used in a talk he gave at Saint Benedict Center’s conference in 2007, Can an Implicit Faith in Christ Be Sufficient for Salvation?
Here are five paragraphs from Father Harrison’s letter (emphasis in original, links were added by me -BAM):
Specifically, I don’t think your “take” on the Council of Florence’s uncomfortably severe profession of faith (infallible Ordinary Magisterium) will hold up, either historically or doctrinally.
Historically, it really isn’t credible to suggest that Catholic bishops and the Pope in 1442 thought that everyone on earth by that time “had heard and had understood the Gospel message.” Remote parts of northeast Europe were then still being evangelized; educated Catholics knew that down in Africa there were unreached tribes; the previous two centuries had seen both peaceful and warlike contact between Europeans and the Mongols, Chinese, and other large Asian populations whom educated Europeans knew had never been thoroughly — or, in some cases even partly — reached by Catholic missionaries. In other words, the discovery of the New World 50 years after the Council didn’t change the European Catholic perspective nearly as much as you (following Sullivan?) claim it did.
Doctrinally, there is no hint at all in the Florentine text that only those “pagans and Jews” who are culpably ignorant of the Gospel will go to hell if they are not “aggregated” or “joined” to the true Church before the moment of death. This is a solemn profession of a doctrine that had been universally taught as perennially true ever since the New Testament times — in other words for century after century, including periods when all Christians knew there were vast quantities of people out there who had not yet heard the Gospel, and so were not culpable in their unbelief.
“From St. Paul onward (“How will they believe and be saved if they do not hear? How will they hear without a preacher” — Romans 10:3-4), the constant teaching of the Church, repeated and solemnly confirmed by Florence, had been that everyone needs to hear and believe the Gospel in order to be saved. Whether ignorance of the Gospel on the part of pagans, Jews, or Muslims was vincible or invincible, culpable or inculpable, was understood to be basically irrelevant! For those folks would all be damned anyway, if they didn’t get to believe explicitly in Christ before death!
So it seems that your interpretation of the Florentine dogma, by making it condemn to Hell only those who die culpably outside the Church, basically changes its original meaning — something we are forbidden to do under anathema by Vatican I.
Doubtless, in the last reference to Vatican I, Father Harrison has in mind the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Chapter 4: On Faith and Reason, and, more specifically, an appended Canon on Faith and Reason:
[From the Constitution:] Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by holy mother church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding.
[From the Canon:] If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the church which is different from that which the church has understood and understands: let him be anathema. [Source]
I commend The Wanderer for printing so much of Father Harrison’s excellent response.