Is Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus a ‘Principle’?

Reviewing some correspondences with members of the sacred hierarchy recently, I came across multiple references to the dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which referred to it, not as a dogma or a doctrine, but as a “principle.”

Does that word imply that the truth under consideration is not a dogma, that is, an irreformable doctrine of the Catholic faith?

I suppose that the cynical answer to that question is that the person who uses the word “principle” instead of “doctrine” or “dogma” does so to obscure the binding magisterial nature of the truth that those four words communicate. But for the sake of a better understanding of the concepts involved in this discussion, let us set aside such a hermeneutic of suspicion. If we take the question atop this Ad Rem seriously, we might discover some deeper truths.

A dogma is an irreformable doctrine, meaning a teaching that has been clearly defined by the Solemn Magisterium or so clearly contained in the tradition of the Church so that it is infallibly true by virtue of the “Ordinary and Universal Magisterium.” The Catholic Encyclopedia briefly defines dogma as “a revealed truth defined by the Church.” The word doctrine is a bit broader in concept. It can be used as an exact synonym of dogma; as “the act of teaching” and “the knowledge imparted by teaching,” it is also virtually synonymous with “catechesis”; finally, as “sacred doctrine” (sacra doctrina), it is synonymous with theology (Saint Thomas uses it in this sense).

But what is a principle? The Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy by the Jesuit philosopher, Father Bernard Wuellner, says that a principle is “that from which something in some way proceeds; the starting point of being, or change, or knowledge, or discussion.” There follows roughly half a page of further definitions of different kinds of principle, with another half page devoted to schematizing these different meanings in a handy table.

The major division in this table is between “real principles” and “logical principles.” As is always the case in scholastic philosophy, the distinction between “real” and “logical” has to do with what has existence independent of a knowing mind (i.e., reality), and what is known in the mind (logical truth) and is therefore capable of being expressed in language — at which point we cross from the domain of logic to that of grammar (written language) and of rhetoric (spoken language). Sometimes we can make distinctions in the mind that do not exist in reality, hence they are called “logical” but not “real.” For instance, to distinguish between God’s existence and His essence is a logical but not a real distinction because God’s essence is to exist.

“Real principles” include the following, according to Father Wuellner’s division: beginning and foundation, origin, occasion, condition, cause, and elements of composition — along with further subdivisions of these.

“Logical principles” — again, according to Father Wuellner — include concept and definition, question and problem, sign, general truths (in sciences, mathematics, philosophy, etc.), norms and standards of measurement, starting point of an explanation, premises (as in the major and minor premise of a syllogism).

As an example of how a “real principle” is used in theology, here is Saint Thomas reasoning about God the Father being the “principle” from which comes God the Son:

I answer that, the word “principle” signifies only that whence another proceeds: since anything whence something proceeds in any way we call a principle; and conversely. As the Father then is the one whence another proceeds, it follows that the Father is a principle. [Respondeo dicendum quod hoc nomen principium nihil aliud significat quam id a quo aliquid procedit, omne enim a quo aliquid procedit quocumque modo, dicimus esse principium; et e converso. Cum ergo pater sit a quo procedit alius, sequitur quod pater est principium.] (ST Ia Q. 33, A. 1, respondeo; emphasis mine).

Saint Thomas is saying that the Father is the “origin” of the Son — not chronologically, of course, but ontologically. In other words, while the two Persons are co-eternal, the Son has His being “from the Father,” while the Father is the “origin without origin” or “principle without principle.” The Angelic Doctor’s usage here is consistent with Father Wuellner’s definition of principle as “origin.”

Later, in 1439, the Council of Florence employed the same notion of “principle” in defining the Filioque:

[W]e define that this truth of faith must be believed and received by all Christians, and so all must profess that the Holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and the Son, and he has his essence and his subsistent being at once from the Father and the Son, and he proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and one spiration [ab uno principio et unica spiratione procedit]. (DH 1300; emphasis mine)

In Trinitarian theology, the concept of “principle” is very important, and it is exclusively used as “real principle.” Used in this technical sense, the Latin principium corresponds to the Greek αἰτία (“cause,” but without any notion of “creation”). Both the Latin and Greek words are consecrated terms in the theological lexicon, and both are used to speak of the procession of one Trinitarian Person from another.

Unlike Father Wuellner’s philosophical dictionary, my go-to theological dictionary (Parente, Pietro; Piolanti, Antonio; and Garofalo, Salvatore, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, translated by Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.I., S.T.D., Ph.D. [Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951]) does not have an entry for “principle.” Neither does the old Catholic Encyclopedia. But if we consult Father Parente’s dictionary entry for “dogma,” we find this:

Originally, it meant opinion. The classics use it with the meaning of criterion, rule, law; in this last sense, it is found in the New Testament (Luke 2:1; Acts 16:4). The earliest Fathers use it to indicate a principle of moral doctrine (rather than a principle of faith in general). From the fourth century, the meaning of dogma as truth of faith begins to prevail (Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa). The Scholastics preferred article or sentence in the last sense, from the seventeenth century, the theoretical doctrine of faith is separated from the moral doctrine, and called dogmatic theology — a division which is remained to the present time.

A dogma, in the technical use of the word, is a truth revealed by God, and proposed as such by the magisterium of the Church to the faithful, with the obligation of believing it. Thus understood, a dogma is a divine truth and, therefore, immutable (Vatican Council, DB 1800). … [p. 81; emphasis mine]

In its earliest patristic usage, a dogma is “a principle of moral doctrine (rather than a principle of faith in general)” and later the same word is broadened to mean “a truth of faith.” Presumably, the authors of this dictionary equate “a truth of faith” with “a principle of faith in general,” which would situate their notion of “dogma” in Father Wuellner’s sub-category of “logical principle” that he called “general truths (in sciences, mathematics, philosophy, etc.).” In any science, a “general truth,” is one that will allow the scientist to draw derivative truths. In other words, these are established premises from which conclusions may be reasoned. Such general truths form the bedrock of any science and lend it its stability. Hence, in the science of theology, dogma provides the theologian with the “general truths” that he reasons from to draw theological conclusions. We are blessed in this science to have principles that are so epistemologically reliable that they are properly called “infallible.”

If used in this sense, then all dogmas are principles because they are truths of the faith from which we may logically reason, in tandem with other dogmas, to theological conclusions.

If, however, one were to use the word principle to mean Father Wuellner’s distinct definition, “starting point of an explanation,” one might — especially if one were a Modernist — use the word to imply the very “evolution of dogma” that was condemned by Pope Saint Pius X.

So, to answer our question: Is extra ecclesiam nulla salus a principle? Understood in strict sense of “a truth of faith,” which is synonymous with dogma, the answer is yes, of course it is. Understood in some weaker sense which allows for a more fluid (and even heterogeneous) development, then no, it is not.

What “deeper truths” might we discover in this connection if we appreciate that this dogma is indeed a principle from which we might reason to other truths? We might reason from this principle (when taken in consideration with other dogmatic principles), that:

Moreover, if we use this principle as a way to reason to further truths, we might grow in a deeper appreciation of the Old-Testament typology of Noah’s Ark, of the horror of the sins of heresy and schism, and of the grandeur of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and a supernatural organism, not a mere human institution. At the very least, a fuller appreciation of this principle will prevent us from being sanguine about the salvation of non-Catholics. Meditation on it should also fill us with a profound gratitude for the gift of faith and God’s goodness and providence in giving us this “pearl of great price” and preserving it in us.

In addition to these theoretical considerations, extra ecclesiam nulla salus can also be the principle that motivates the missionary to zealous apostolic action. (Note here how under this aspect, too, the dogma fits the short definition of principle that Saint Thomas gave in the passage from the Summa we cited above: “that whence another proceeds.”) Contrariwise, the denial of extra ecclesiam nulla salus constitutes a false principle which sickens and destroys effective evangelical activity (cf. A Mission That Baptized No One in Fifty-Three Years: The Flawed Evangelization Model of the Pan-Amazonian Synod). As Pope Benedict XVI noted:

The missionaries of the 16th century were convinced that the unbaptized person is lost forever. After the [Second Vatican] Council, this conviction was definitely abandoned. The result was a two-sided, deep crisis. Without this attentiveness to the salvation, the Faith loses its foundation.

The devastation this “deep crisis” has caused is all around us and only the blind can fail to see it. Let us return to the sound principles of Catholic doctrine and live accordingly. If we do that, with God’s help, this deep crisis will soon be over.

Ceiling of the lower part of the Holy Chapel in Paris. Benh LIEU SONG, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons