Avery Cardinal Dulles and Salvation

It is no secret that Father Avery Dulles, S.J., the Jesuit theologian created Cardinal in 2001, was, before his entrance into the Society of Jesus in 1946, a founder of the original Saint Benedict Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Wikipedia article on him mentions this in passing. While Father Dulles retained an obvious respect and even love for Father Feeney (as attested in an article he wrote for America shortly after Father’s death in 1978), his dogmatic outlook was drastically different than Father Feeney’s.

It is no surprise, then, that his article in the February First Things, “Who Can Be Saved,” is not something we are very enthusiastic about, especially his concluding paragraph:

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

Pretty bad — in fact, miserable. But the article has its good moments. One thing that the eminent Jesuit is very good at is admitting that certain liberal propositions have no authoritative foundation. Neither is he afraid to state facts that would counter his own conclusions.

Concerning Vatican II, he says, “The council did not indicate whether it is necessary for salvation to come to explicit Christian faith before death, but the texts give the impression that implicit faith may suffice.” As a friend and correspondent of mine pointed out: “Since mere ‘impressions’ emanating from magisterial documents do not require assent on the part of the faithful, those Catholics cannot justly be labeled as ‘dissenters’ who still uphold the consensus of the first one-and-a-half Christian millennia — to wit, that ever since Pentecost no one can be saved who dies without explicit Christian faith, regardless of whether his ignorance of Gospel truth is vincible or invincible. (In the latter case, according to this classic teaching, he will be punished eternally, not for his inculpable lack of faith, but for other unrepented sins which in fact will always be there, staining his soul at death.)”

Exactly. As Cardinal Dulles points out in the article, this is what St. Thomas Aquinas taught. One may object that this is not a victory for us inasmuch as the author himself holds this “impression” to be orthodox. Point taken. But the admission is nonetheless made: There is no authoritative statement to back up his opinion, merely the opinions of other theologians. Very few are the professional theologians today who would hold that our position of the faith being strictly necessary even falls within the outermost bounds of orthodoxy.

In two paragraphs that do not seem compatible with the conclusion of the article, we are told that Scripture strongly asserts the necessity if faith:

The New Testament is almost silent about the eternal fate of those to whom the gospel has not been preached. It seems apparent that those who became believers did not think they had been on the road to salvation before they heard the gospel. In his sermon at Athens, Paul says that in times past God overlooked the ignorance of the pagans, but he does not say that these pagans were saved. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul says that the Gentiles have come to a knowledge of God by reasoning from the created world, but that they are guilty because by their wickedness they have suppressed the truth and fallen into idolatry. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul indicates that Gentiles who are obedient to the biddings of conscience can be excused for their unbelief, but he indicates that they fall into many sins. He concludes that “all have sinned and fall short” of true righteousness (Rom. 3:23). For justification, Paul asserts, both Jews and Gentiles must rely on faith in Jesus Christ, who expiated the sins of the world on the cross.

Animated by vibrant faith in Christ the Savior, the Christian Church was able to conquer the Roman Empire. The converts were convinced that in embracing Christianity they were escaping from the darkness of sin and superstition and entering into the realm of salvation. For them, Christianity was the true religion, the faith that saves. It would not have occurred to them that any other faith could save them.

Fast forward a few pages — covering the Fathers, the Medieval Scholastics, Pius IX, Father Feeney, and Pius XII — and we come to Karl Rahner:

One of the most interesting developments in post-conciliar theology has been Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians.” He taught that God offers his grace to everyone and reveals himself in the interior offer of grace. Grace, moreover, is always mediated through Christ and tends to bring its recipients into union with him. Those who accept and live by the grace offered to them, even though they have never heard of Christ and the gospel, may be called anonymous Christians.

After some non-judgmental analysis of Rahner’s “interesting” theory — citing criticisms of how some people read it — Father Dulles is not afraid to bring out the tension between tradition and the modern theories. (What many of us simpler folk would consider Hegelian dialecticism, more progressive thinkers would call “creative tension.”)

We seem to have come full circle from the teaching of Paul and the New Testament that belief in the message of Christ is the source of salvation. Reflecting on this development, one can see certain gains and certain losses. The New Testament and the theology of the first millennium give little hope for the salvation of those who, since the time of Christ, have had no chance of hearing the gospel. If God has a serious salvific will for all, this lacuna needed to be filled, as it has been by theological speculation and church teaching since the sixteenth century. Modern theology, preoccupied with the salvation of non-Christians, has tended to neglect the importance of explicit belief in Christ, so strongly emphasized in the first centuries. It should not be impossible, however, to reconcile the two perspectives.

We have already seen from the Cardinal’s conclusion that the reconciliation of these two opposites is impossible, as least for him. For he opted, in the end, to open up salvation even to the atheist. No amount of “lacuna filling” will close the space between “faith in Christ is necessary for salvation” and “faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation.” Lest I appear to be the fundamentalist troglodyte, I hasten to add that Catholic orthodoxy often does involve navigating between certain errant extremes: e.g., our teachings on grace steer clear of Pelagianism and Jansenism; but avoiding extreme errors is a far cry from reconciling the two opposed positions. I will also grant that certain Catholic truths seem to be in tension (the classic example being the pure mystery of man’s free will and the doctrines on grace); but again, this does not involve reconciling the irreconcilable, as the Cardinal proposes in the last sentence of the above paragraph.

Another friend and correspondent pointed out the merits of the following passage:

We cannot take it for granted that everyone is seeking the truth and is prepared to submit to it when found. Some, perhaps many, resist the grace of God and reject the signs given to them. They are not on the road to salvation at all. In such cases, the fault is not God’s but theirs. The references to future punishment in the gospels cannot be written off as empty threats. As Paul says, God is not mocked (Gal.6:7).

This particular writer pointed out three things: “1) His Eminence says something vitally important by reminding his readers that ill-will exists; 2) shows he has not entirely forgotten everything to which he assented in Cambridge nearly 70 years ago; 3) offers additional evidence that unexpected things may be heard from men who walk around with their fingers in the wind when the wind from Rome starts blowing in the right direction.”

Great. Now, let’s pray for more good wind. Saint Bonaventure, pray for us!