Benedict XVI to the Brazilian Bishops: A Message of Indifferentism?

Yesterday, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the Holy Father received a delegation of Brazilian Bishops in Rome for their ad limina visit. In his address, the Supreme Pontiff reminded their Excellencies that “mission” is integral to the life, not only of the sacred hierarchy and clergy, but also of all the baptized. Or, as the Vatican Information Services English editor awkwardly headlined it: “Mission, An Essential Part of the Mission of the Baptised.”

One passage jumped out at me as a potential new weapon in the arsenal of the indifferentists, who think, despite defined dogma to the contrary, that one need not be a Catholic to be saved:

In his address the Pope praised the efforts made by the bishops who, “often lacking the necessary means”, bring “the Good News of Jesus to all corners of the Amazon jungle, in the knowledge that God wants all mankind to be saved and to know the truth”.

God can achieve this salvation in extraordinary ways that only He knows. Nonetheless, if His Son came, it was to show us, through His word and life, the ordinary ways to salvations, and He told us to transmit this revelation to others with His authority. And so we cannot avoid this thought: man may be saved by other ways, thanks to God’s mercy, without the announcement of the Gospel. But can I be saved if through negligence, fear, shame or erroneous ideas, I fail to announce it?”

The italicized words could be placed in contradiction to the utterance of Our Lord that “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16); they could be opposed to infallibly defined dogma; one could use them to legitimize indifferentism; they might be said to refute the necessity of the Faith for salvation. All granted.

But, ought we not approach the words of the “Pope of the Hermeneutic of Continuity” with the assumption that at least he sees them in direct continuity with two millennia of Catholic teaching?

If we do that, how might we interpret the words in italics? In honor of the liturgical day during which the Pope spoke these words, I cite a Franciscan theologian, Alexander of Hales, speaking of someone ignorant of the Gospel: “If he does what is within his power, the Lord will enlighten him with a secret inspiration, by means of an angel or of a man.” St. Thomas holds a similar position: “Thus, if someone so brought up [“in the forest or among wild beasts” — the archetypal “ignorant native”] followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the faith to him as He sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).” (For references click here.)

Certainly, these means are “extraordinary.” “But,” you may say, “the Pope said that ‘man may be saved by other ways, thanks to God’s mercy, without the announcement of the Gospel‘ … and that would rule out a preacher like Peter sent miraculously to Cornelius.” Perhaps. But it would not rule out an “internal inspiration of what had to be believed”; nor would it rule out the ministry of angels.

The message the Holy Father clearly wants to convey is the necessity that weighs upon the Church — upon all the baptized — to spread the true Faith: “To present Christ and His kingdom in a respectful way, more than a right, is a duty of evangelisation … . The call to mission is not directed exclusively to a restricted group of members of the Church; rather, it is an imperative addressed to all the baptised, an essential element of their vocation.”

Again, after the passage mentioning “extraordinary” means, he asks, concerning the Gospel: “But can I be saved if through negligence, fear, shame or erroneous ideas [like indifferentism?], I fail to announce it?”

The greatest missionary of all times put it this way: “For if I preach the gospel, it is no glory to me, for a necessity lieth upon me: for woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16).

If, instead of assuring those outside the Church a place at the eschatological marriage banquet we brought them to feast at the Supper of the Lamb in this life, there would be more Catholics and fewer outside the Church to make excuses for.