‘Extra Ecclesiam’ and the Hierarchy of Virtue: Reply to an Objection

Someone recently told me: you’re right about no salvation outside the Church, but that’s not the most important thing. Love is. The novelty of the objection interested me because it was not a denial of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, nor was it an assertion that our “interpretation” of it is “too strict.” It was essentially an accusation that we give the matter too high a priority.

Now, contrast clarifies the mind, so having an objection to respond to helps me focus my own thoughts, in loose imitation of the methodology of Saint Thomas in the Summa Theologiae.

What I would like to do here is speak in terms of the seven principal Christian virtues, working from prudence up to charity, showing how each one relates to this dogma. If love is what matters, then let us look at the doctrine in light of Christian charity. Before that, though, I would like to answer two questions by way of prelude: (1) “Why are you people so ‘single-issue’?” (2) “Why do you focus on this issue when that’s not really the issue? The real issue is (fill in the blank).”

First, we are not single-issue. We are Catholic, assenting with our intellects and consenting with our wills to the totality of the sacred deposit of faith. We focus on this dogma because it is so commonly denied, obscured, and misunderstood — a dangerous situation that derogates from the saving mission of the Church. When that problem is remedied, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary will not dissolve because our raison d’être has ceased to exist. Rather, we will continue to live in fidelity to our vows; continue to pray, work, and study according to our consecrated way of life; and continue to labor for a Catholic America. Just as all who are dedicated to the pro-life cause will still have much to do as pro-lifers even when abortion is once more proscribed by statutory law, we will not lose our identity or purpose when the cause triumphs. Because of that, we cannot be “single-issue.”

Second, there are many ills afflicting Church and State that are worthy of attention. We would never oppose our Crusade to any movement or organization attempting to promote other important issues. Here are a few other randomly selected “single issues” we happily embrace, listed in no particular order: the recovery of the sacred liturgy, the restoration of Catholic family life, reforming the Catholic priesthood by more intense doctrinal and spiritual formation, the leavening of the temporal order by working to study and implement the Church’s traditional social doctrine, the evangelization of nations, the renewal of religious life in its various forms; reclaiming Catholic healthcare from the culture of death (which has invaded Catholic institutions); rebuilding Catholic education at every level; promoting sound Catholic Biblical studies. All of these and more are truly worthy causes. We are certainly free to discuss the relative importance of each, but one might dedicate his whole life to any one of these “single issues” and do much to glorify God and save souls. If there really is no salvation outside the Church, and if this doctrine really is being widely denied, then its importance should be obvious to those who are spiritually awake. For our part, we see this issue as the key to understanding the crisis in the Church. Due to the foundational character of this dogma, its denial constitutes a deep undermining of the Church’s very identity and mission.

Yet, even then, to say that this cause and not that cause is worthy of our attention is not only facile and silly, but it also sets up a false dichotomy that can only cause fruitless strife. Ultimately, it tears asunder what God has joined together. That is not Catholic.

Now I will proceed to consider “no salvation outside the Church” as it relates to the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues.

Prudence. In July of last year, I wrote a four-part miniseries on the “first of all the virtues.” Dr. Josef Pieper, whose thinking I followed, defined prudence simply as “the perfected ability to make decisions in accordance with reality.” Pieper asserts, with Saint Thomas, that virtue itself is impossible without prudence because all virtue involves contact with reality; we can only do the good once we know the real. Now, the supernatural order and the natural order both constitute reality as the mind of man was made to know it. Moreover, the destiny of man — our final end — is one that is uniquely supernatural. Supernatural prudence demands that we know not only what our end is but also what are the means to achieve that end. (Prudence helps us to proportion means to ends.) Does this not immediately suggest the importance of the dogma in question? The prudence by which we make decisions to secure our own salvation is not selfish (something my interlocutor claimed!) because in faithfully embracing God’s economy of salvation and cooperating with the grace that leads us from here to our final end, we are doing God’s will and giving Him glory. Knowing the real so that we might do the good is prudence, and this pertains both to saving our own souls in the Church and helping others to do so, too.

Justice. While prudence is necessary for the practice of all the virtues, justice is really virtue itself by another name. The just man is the good man; this is certainly the Biblical usage. He is upright because he renders to the other what is his due, whether that other is his wife, child, parent, neighbor, the societies of which he is a part, or Almighty God. The just man obeys the laws of God and attends to the virtue of religion, that part of the virtue of justice by which we render to God the homages that are His due. Now, regarding extra ecclesiam nulla salus, the just man will know that the truth must be told because that is the just thing to do. While not everyone necessarily has a strict right to hear the fullness of the Catholic faith taught (there are the ill-willed “swine” Our Lord speaks of in Matt. 7:6), the just man presumes that those who are willing to listen are entitled to the truth, therefore he gives it to them. Assenting to the Divine Law, which includes the Church’s necessity, he renders the “obedience of faith” to God (Rom. 16:26); speaking the truth to others, he is just towards his fellow men in all things, including the all-important matter of their eternal salvation.

Temperance. Temperance is the moral virtue whereby we moderate our desire for pleasure. In its most restricted sense, it pertains to food, drink, and (as chastity) venereal pleasure, but in its broad sense, it pertains to all pleasures. Of all the seven virtues we are discussing here, this one seems to be the most remotely associated with the subject at hand; however, there is this connection: When one takes a “hard line” on difficult questions — especially moral and religious questions — one can lose friends and suffer alienation from family. No doubt many who are reading my words now have painful memories coming to mind along these lines. The dogma under discussion is clearly one of those hot-button issues that can occasion the type of strife Our Lord warned us of: “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword” (Matt. 10:34). A Dominican theologian once told me that the dogma we defend is “neuralgic.” He was right, but only secundum quid, not simpliciter, as Saint Thomas might say. Jesus, after all, caused a bit of neuralgia in His public life, but that was not His essential mission. Burning bridges because we are dedicated to the truth makes us forfeit certain pleasures of enjoyable companionship, and the willingness to do that demands temperance.

Fortitude. This virtue was defined by Saint Thomas (and Cicero before him) as “the deliberate facing of dangers and bearing of toils” (IIa IIae, Q. 123, A. 2). It pertains to the arduous and difficult. There are times when the practice of all the virtues — including faith, most especially making a public witness of the faith — requires fortitude. The courageous or brave man (the man with fortitude) tells the truth even when it is not popular, even when he will be despised for doing so. While not being foolhardy (which is vicious), and while moderating his anger by the virtue of meekness, he is able to stand up with moral and spiritual strength. Again, professing unpopular doctrines, such as the necessity of the Church for salvation, will require the practice of this virtue. Our Brother Hugh used to say that to fight this Crusade, “we need the patience of Job.” Well, patience is a “part” of the virtue of fortitude.

Brother Francis’ contention was that the faith must always remain a challenge (hence his book, The Challenge of Faith). This dogma certainly reminds us what a challenge the faith is! Challenges require fortitude.

Faith. Faith is the infused supernatural virtue by which we believe on the authority of God revealing and the Church teaching. Here we are in that part of our interior landscape where any truth of revealed religion most immediately finds its home. What we know here in via by faith will perfectly align with what we see in patria if we find ourselves among the blessed. Father Feeney used to say that there will be surprises in Heaven, but none of them will contradict what we know here by faith on earth. The real thrill and surprise, he said, will be for us to see just how true our faith is. There is something “reflexive” in looking at this doctrine in light of the virtue of faith: The virtue of faith knows itself to be necessary; that is, a teaching of our Catholic faith teaches us that the Catholic faith is necessary for salvation.

Hope. Unlike charity, which loves God for Himself because He is so good (and what is good ought to be loved), Christian hope reaches out to God as my greatest good. It is not selfish because supernatural beatitude is the end for which God created us, though hope does lack the perfection of charity. We hope to receive — based upon God’s mercy and His promises — both the helps we need in this life for salvation and the gift of ultimate beatitude in Heaven. We know that we must persevere in faith and in grace to attain this object of our hope. This touches on our dogma. Worthy of note regarding our non-Catholic loved ones is a teaching of Saint Thomas I summarized elsewhere: “[W]e hope for ourselves only and not for other people — but with one exception: If we are joined to another by charity, that person is ‘another self,’ and we can hope for him as we hope for ourselves and by that same theological virtue of hope. [Saint Thomas] likens this to the fact that the theological virtue of charity is one, even though with it we love both God and neighbor. Similarly, with this second theological virtue we hope both for ourselves and those to whom we are united in charity. This is a profound encouragement for those of us with fallen-away loved ones. If we are united to them by divine charity, we can make acts of hope both for their and our conversion and salvation.”

Charity. Having arrived at “the greatest of these” (1 Cor. 13:13), we can now see what grain of truth may exist in my objector’s claim: You’re right about no salvation outside the Church, but that’s not the most important thing. Love is. Of the three theological virtues, this is the one that abides in eternity. Faith gives way to vision, hope to possession, but charity remains in the souls of the blessed. The object of charity is twofold: God and neighbor. Regarding the first Object, we not only believe by faith and obey by justice, but we must also love Him with the whole of our heart, soul, and mind. We also love everything that He gives us by way revelation because it comes from One who loves us: “O how have I loved thy law, O Lord! it is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 118: 97). Regarding the second object of charity, our neighbor, “the charity of Christ presseth us” (1 Cor. 5:14) to labor and pray for his salvation. Does not this dogma help to focus and specify our charity towards our non-Catholic neighbors, whom we ought to evangelize precisely because we love them?

There are people who see the importance of this doctrine yet they approach those outside the Church with “bitter zeal” (James 3:14). They weaponize the truth and make of it a bludgeon with which to beat others. When we dilate our hearts to our non-Catholic neighbor by charity and other virtues that serve it (patience, meekness, kindness, gentleness), then we will our neighbor’s true good, and we also will the means to that good. This will motivate us to try to help him receive the grace of faith. As Brother Francis said, “If going to heaven is the greatest good, then showing the way to heaven is the greatest work of charity.”

We see that emphasizing this dogma for the reasons stated above is not contrary to divine love; in fact, it can even serve to stimulate, excite, and goad the virtue of charity in a way that benefits our neighbor for the glory of God.

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“MY GOD, I believe, I adore, I hope, and I love Thee! I beg pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not hope and do not love Thee.” —Prayer taught by the Angel of Portugal to the Children of Fátima.