More Catholic Than the Popes

Dr. Jeff Mirus of Catholic Culture website has misled his readers by putting his own gnostic interpretation on a thrice-defined dogma, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church).

In response to an article by John Vennari of Catholic Family News defending the unambiguous, ex cathedra teaching of the Church on salvation, as defined by Pope Eugene IV at the Council of Florence, Mirus dissolves the dogma into meaninglessness under pretext of being faithful to the magisterium and the magisterium’s understanding of its own solemn definitions. He faults Vennari for affirming that “ [a]ll non-Catholics, Jews included, must convert to the Catholic Church for salvation.” To twist a papal “definition” (the purpose of which is to clarify, not to be clarified) into meaning its opposite is a patent abuse of language, in this case, the original being Latin.

Abuse of Language, an Assault on Logos

“Unfortunately,” writes Mirus, “the word ‘convert’ seems clearly intended to indicate a formal, conscious acceptance of the teachings of the Catholic Church and a formal, conscious submission to its authority. But it has never been Catholic doctrine that this is required for salvation (my emphasis) . . . No, the ancient phrase ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ means something far less formal—and happily far more substantial—than that. To understand it, we must recall that, for Saint Paul, being joined to Christ is the same thing as being joined to the Church (Christ’s body), and this joining comes through belief in, trust in and obedience to God according to whatever degree of truth the Holy Spirit writes in each person’s heart.”

By the affirmation of this error the integral truth of the definition is negated. The act of Faith is supernatural and integral. The whole is embraced in the acceptance of the fundamental articles because the act is supernatural, grace moving the will to believe the supernatural revelation made known by God through His Church. Because it is God’s act in us, an explicit denial of a revealed doctrine takes away the supernatural foundation of what is a divine act. One must, at the very least, believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation, and have a heart open to accept all other revealed truths, as given in scripture and tradition, on the authority of God revealing and the Church teaching. One cannot have supernatural faith while explicitly denying a revealed truth or a defined dogma of the Church. We must affirm with Saint Paul that there can be no fellowship of light with darkness. (2 Cor. 6:14)

Explicit Faith in Jesus Christ Necessary for Justification

Some argue, however, making use of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, that it is enough in order to be saved to “believe that he is, and is a rewarder of those who seek him” (6:6). But the Apostle was in no way denying the necessity of explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Basing his commentary on the teaching of Saint Thomas, scriptural exegete Cornelius a Lapide writes:

“But if St. Paul speaks here only of these two great truths, it does by no means follow, that he wishes to teach that the supernatural knowledge of these two truths only and divine faith in them are sufficient to obtain justification, that is, to obtain the grace to become the children of God; but they are necessary in order to be greatly animated with hope in undergoing hard labors and struggles for the sake of virtue. However, to obtain the grace of justification, we must also believe other supernatural truths, especially the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ and that of the Most Holy Trinity.” (Comm. in Ep. ad Heb., ix. 6.)

Saint Alphonsus teaches the same: “Some theologians,” he writes, “hold that the belief of the two other articles – the Incarnation of the Son of God, and the Trinity of Persons — is strictly commanded but not necessary, as a means without which salvation is impossible; so that a person inculpably ignorant of them may be saved. But according to the more common and truer opinion, the explicit belief of these articles is necessary as a means without which no adult can be saved.” (Commentary on First Command. No. 8.)

Finally, Saint Thomas: “After grace had been revealed, both learned and simple folk are bound to explicit faith in the mysteries of Christ, chiefly as regards those which are observed throughout the Church, and publicly proclaimed, such as the articles which refer to the Incarnation, of which we have spoken above (Question 1, Article 8). As to other minute points in reference to the articles of the Incarnation, men have been bound to believe them more or less explicitly according to each one’s state and office.” (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q.2, a.7)

And, “It is impossible to believe explicitly in the mystery of Christ, without faith in the Trinity, since the mystery of Christ includes that the Son of God took flesh; that He renewed the world through the grace of the Holy Ghost; and again, that He was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Wherefore just as, before Christ, the mystery of Christ was believed explicitly by the learned, but implicitly and under a veil, so to speak, by the simple, so too was it with the mystery of the Trinity. And consequently, when once grace had been revealed, all were bound to explicit faith in the mystery of the Trinity: and all who are born again in Christ, have this bestowed on them by the invocation of the Trinity, according to Matthew 28:19: ‘Going therefore teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’” (Summa Theologica, IIa IIae, q.2, a.8)

Eugene IV and the Council of Florence’s Ex Cathedra Pronouncement

Before considering Mirus’ interpretation of the declaration of Eugene IV, let’s review the ex cathedra definition:

“The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics, and schismatics can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire ‘which was prepared for the devil and his angels,’ (Mt. 25:41)unless before death they are joined with her; and that so important is the unity of this Ecclesiastical Body, that only those remaining within this unity can profit from the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and that they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, alms deeds, and other works of Christian piety and duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they remain within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.” (Florence, Cantate Domino,1443)

Clear enough? To those outside the Church, surely. But apparently not to Jeff Mirus. Hear him explain what the definition really means; I quote:

“This is precisely why the decree of the Council of Florence, which Vennari joins other Traditionalists in constantly yet inexplicably citing, is so careful to say of pagans, Jews, heretics and schismatics not that they must convert to Catholicism or become juridical members of the Church to be saved, but only that they must at some point before death be “joined” to her. (Never mind what many of those at the Council of Florence really might have thought; the Holy Spirit always protects the Magisterium from mistakes in faith and morals, regardless of the personal inclinations, misunderstandings and prejudices of popes, or bishops in council—a truth we can also apply to the teachings of Vatican II.)”

And to think, six hundred years of Catholic understanding, and not just that of traditional-minded Catholics but the liberal-minded as well, has been so un-illuminated as to think that the definition was calling for a conversion.

Dr. Mirus’ Very Original Interpretation of Cantate Domino

I don’t think I have ever heard this interpretation of Florence before. I’d have to say Dr. Mirus is original here. So, let’s get this straight: the council decreed that non-Catholics need only be “joined” to the Church, and we thought that they had to convert and abandon their false religions. “Never mind,” implies Mirus, what the council fathers or even Pope Eugene were thinking as they weighed this monumental pronouncement; “never mind” what error they were trying to clarify by their irreformable definition, these intentions are merely arbitrary to the real work of the Holy Ghost who was using them as unknowing instruments. I repeat again, after six hundred years, we now know what Cantate Domino really means. The truth is that the Church does not teach that the Holy Ghost “inspires” the use of a particular term in an infallible definition, such as the use of aggregare (to join) in Cantate Domino, rather than convertere  (to convert), but only that He guides their crafters, or the pope personally, by protecting a doctrinal decree from error. Although Dr. Mirus doesn’t say so explicitly, his argument implies that the council fathers and Pope Eugene may have meant to use the verb “convert,” or at least intended that meaning, but that the Holy Spirit intervened and, shall I say, “inspired” the use of the verb “join” in order to prevent the Pope from defining an erroneous proposition. This is nothing but an idle and novel speculation conjured up to support what Dr. Mirus erroneously assumes to be a more inclusive sense to the ex cathedra pronouncement with the use of the verb “join.”

Are you confused? You should be. How does an unbaptized adult, who has the use of reason, join the Church without converting from his false religion? And how does one “remain in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church” without entering her, in the first place, as a member? According to Dr. Mirus, this can be achieved invisibly, in spirit, as a “non-juridical member.” Pope Pius XII, in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis, carefully explained that the Soul of the living Church animates the Mystical Body, from Head to members, as one living entity, just as the Body and Soul of the glorified Christ makes one substance. Therefore, there can be no “joining” the Church without becoming a member of the Body, and the only way to become a member is by baptism. It would seem that, in this encyclical, Pope Pius XII intended to correct an error put forth by some theologians of the day concerning a “soul” of the Church for non-members who were invincibly ignorant of the true religion. Borrowing a quote from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Divinum Illud, he made his point firmly: “Let it suffice to say that, as Christ is the Head of the Church, so is the Holy Spirit her soul.”

To Join or to Convert? That is the Question

This spin on the verb “to join,” however, is an abuse of language, a sophistry. The council fathers chose to use the Latin verb aggregare (to join) rather than convertere (to convert, turn around) in the definition. Aggregare covered all those outside the Church; convertere does also, but, it seems to me, it would apply more to those who are heretics or schismatics. Heretics and schismatics, in 1442, were, for the most part, ex Catholics. They were validly baptized and, to be saved, they needed to “convert,” to come back to the unity of the one, true Church which they, or their recent ancestors, had left. Pagans, infidels, and Jews, on the other hand, had never been “joined” to the Church, so their need was not to “turn around and come back” but to “join” by embracing what they had never known. They needed not only divine Faith, but baptism, and, therefore, be “joined” to the Body of Christ, which, unless they were apostates, neither they, nor their near ancestors, had ever been members of.

Mirus’ Disdain for “Traditionalists”

It appears to me that Dr. Mirus would prefer that Cantate Domino had never been issued, considering the effort he makes to undo its clear literal sense, the sense in which it had been understood for six hundred years. So, the Council did not use the word “convert” for then, according to him, the meaning would be that in order to be saved non-Catholics would have to make a “formal, conscious acceptance of the teachings of the Catholic Church and a formal, conscious submission to its authority.” And, as Mirus puts it “’extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ means something far less formal—and happily far more substantial—than that.” Moreover, it seems that he finds it annoying that, in his assessment, traditionalists “constantly yet inexplicably” cite this ex cathedra pronouncement in their opposition to false ecumenism. Imagine that! I ask: How else do the faithful fight against false ecumenism and heresy, Dr. Mirus, unless they “constantly and most non-inexplicably” reference the teaching of the solemn magisterium on the subject? The proper hierarchical order is for the lower magisterial teaching to support the solemn magisterial pronouncements. What is happening, however, in our time is that many theologians are using the lower magisterial teaching on salvation to dissolve the clear teaching of the solemn and infallible magisterium. Rather, our duty as baptized defenders of the Faith is to interpret non-infallible teaching in the light of the infallible.

One final point on Cantate Domino. Sometimes it seems to me that the more radical liberals, such as Hans Kung, and the late Edward Schillebeeckx, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and Marie-Dominique Chenu, to name just a few, are more honest on this question than the right-wing liberals who think they are the vanguard of the Church militant today. Why is that? The main reason ultra radicals like Kung give for denying papal infallibility, and they are dead wrong, is that they insist that the Church in our times, in its higher magisterial teaching, has rejected a defined dogma, namely, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. They consider all attempts at reconciling Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (and the ordinary magisterial teaching of the universal Church overall today) with the ex cathedra definitions of the past on the issue of salvation to be disingenuous. I came across one Protestant Evangelical, as well, Dan Corner, who uses this same argument, among others, to attack papal infallibility. Readers may want to check out his article titled “Papal Infallibility” posted by in Christian Love, a magazine published by Evangelical Outreach of Washington, Pennsylvania.

Saint Paul and the Salvation of Israel

Let us take a look at Romans chapter eleven, which Dr. Mirus uses to argue that today’s Israelites in the flesh, who do not believe in Jesus Christ, still have their election with God, and that they can be saved even in their unbelief. Referencing Cantate Domino, which teaches that before death, they (Jews, pagans, heretics, schismatics) must be joined to the Church, Dr. Mirus affirms that, “this joining comes through belief in, trust in and obedience to God according to whatever degree of truth the Holy Spirit writes in each person’s heart.” Conversion to Christ, “formally or even consciously”? Not necessary: “whatever degree of truth the Holy Spirit writes in [ones] heart” is enough for Dr. Mirus. This is the kind of gelatinous speculation that reduces a defined dogma from a pronouncement to be proclaimed in charity to a “phrase” to be interpreted according to deeper understanding or theological development. Nothing could be more contrary to the mission of Saint Paul as revealed in Acts and his epistles.

Dr. Mirus advises his readers to read Romans chapter eleven slowly and carefully. “Don’t approach the text thinking you know everything,” he warns, “or that it is a simple matter to articulate the full implications of Revelation on so deep a subject.”

I did so. Then, again, I kept in mind the warning of another Apostle, named Peter, not to engage in private interpretation, specifically when it came to the letters of Saint Paul (2 Peter 3:16). In brief, I ended up absorbing the same lesson I always did when I read or heard these verses. What was that? That gentiles should not be presumptuous, but should thank God humbly for their vocation, and never despair of converting Israelites to Christ, for the latter can be grafted more naturally into the olive tree whose roots are in Israel. In no way is Saint Paul saying that his fellow Israelites, who do not believe in Christ, can be saved where they are. He is simply saying that, in offering the message of salvation to the gentiles, God has not rejected the children of Israel. They, too, must hear the gospel wherever they are dispersed. Indeed that was the practice of Saint Paul, to preach first to the Jews, then to the gentiles. (Romans 1:16)

Pope Pius XI “a bit careless” says Dr. Mirus

Even Pope Pius XI did not escape Dr. Mirus’ scrutiny How is this? In referring to unbelieving Israelites as “once thy chosen people” in a prayer consecrating the world to the Sacred Heart, Pius XI was “a bit careless,” says Mirus, because the phrase is “theologically unfortunate.” Worse than that, Mirus says that the pope’s words are “at the very least . . . contrary to what St. Paul teaches, namely, that God’s election of the Jews is permanent. You’ll find this in Romans 11, which begins, ‘I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!’ (11:1) and goes on to emphasize that ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’ (11:29 my emphasis).” If Pope Pius XI’s words are “at the very least” contrary to the teaching of Saint Paul, what, pray tell, could they be “at their very most”? One wonders if Dr. Mirus realizes that he is engaging in the very thing he accuses traditionalists of doing — being more Catholic than the pope!

I would suspect that Dr. Mirus would find issue with Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos, which most clearly affirmed that salvation can only be found in the Catholic Church and that “interfaith” meetings with non-Catholics (never mind joint religious services) were a scandal. The idea of being “joined” to the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, while rejecting formal membership, while rejecting the Church’s doctrine, would be a most perfidious heresy to Pius XI. Recognizing that the holy Church was the principal target of this movement of religious syncretism he vigorously condemned the error, and false ecumenism, in his timely and timeless encyclical on the subject of religious unity:

“So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it. To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it. During the lapse of centuries, the mystical Spouse of Christ has never been contaminated, nor can she ever in the future be contaminated, as Cyprian bears witness: “The Bride of Christ cannot be made false to her Spouse: she is incorrupt and modest. She knows but one dwelling, she guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly.” The same holy Martyr with good reason marveled exceedingly that anyone could believe that “this unity in the Church which arises from a divine foundation, and which is knit together by heavenly sacraments, could be rent and torn asunder by the force of contrary wills. “For since the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one, compacted and fitly joined together, it were foolish and out of place to say that the mystical body is made up of members which are disunited and scattered abroad: whosoever therefore is not united with the body is no member of it, neither is he in communion with Christ its head. Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors . . .

“Let them hear Lactantius crying out: “The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.”

Let’s quickly review chapter eleven and see if we can see what Dr. Mirus sees, at least in verses 1 and 29. And for a more precise understanding, see Brother André Marie’s “A Slow Reading of Romans XI,” refuting Dr. Mirus’ unique interpretation of this chapter from Romans.

Vs 1: I say then: Hath God cast away his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God hath not cast away his people, which he foreknew.”

The great scriptural exegete Cornelius a Lapide, S.J. (1567-1637) follows the fathers and doctors of the Church in offering this chaste commentary: “St. Paul in this chapter endeavours to comfort the Jews, though the greatest part of them were rejected for their blindness; and to admonish the Gentiles, not to boast for being called and converted, but to persevere with humility, and the fear of God. — God hath not cast away his people. That is, not all of them, nor hath he cast off those whom he foreknew, and decreed to save.”

Romans 11:26-30: “And so all Israel should be saved, as it is written: There shall come out of Sion, he that shall deliver, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this is to them my covenant: when I shall take away their sins. As concerning the gospel, indeed, they are enemies for your sake: but as touching the election, they are most dear for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance. For as you also in times past did not believe God, but now have obtained mercy, through their unbelief.”

I believe that the earlier verses in this same chapter, shed even more light on what Saint Paul is highlighting in the concluding verses of the chapter. From verses 6-10, the Apostle is admonishing Israel, not every Jew, of course, but the nation as a whole for its unbelief, for many individual Israelites at that present day were of “the elect” and believed the gospel. “What then? That which Israel sought, he hath not obtained: but the election hath obtained it; and the rest have been blinded. As it is written: God hath given them the spirit of insensibility; eyes that they should not see; and ears that they should not hear, until this present day. And David saith: Let their table be made a snare, and a trap, and a stumbling block, and a recompense unto them. Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see: and bow down their back always.” Catholic commentators have traditionally noted that God did not interfere with their free will and harden it, for He is All-Good and Merciful, but that in giving them “the spirit of insensibility” He withdrew His grace out of His Justice, leaving them to their own perfidious desires and unbelief.

Either one believes in the New Testament’s divine inspiration or one does not

Saint John writes: “He that does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36). Or, again, in the same vein, he says, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ. He is Antichrist who denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2: 22).

If Israelites could be saved while rejecting their Savior, then how does one who believes this contradiction honor the words of Christ? “If you do not believe that I am He [the Messiah], you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).

Or, how does one reconcile His words to the scribes and pharisees with such a denial of justice? “You search the Scripture because in them you think you have life everlasting. And it is they that bear witness to Me, yet you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40).

Saint Paul cannot be taken out of context and “interpreted” in a sense that would contradict his overall teaching on this subject. What he is stressing in chapter eleven is that his people, not having been cast off forever, are most precious to God because of their fathers, and, for this reason, they are called first by Paul to election, to believe in faith: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Indeed in every age they are called, as they are today; all the children of Israel in the flesh are called to Christ, to His Church, to be re-grafted as a branch onto this olive tree from which they have cut themselves off.

Who are the children of Abraham forever, of whom Our Lady spoke in her Magnificat?: “He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy: As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever (Luke 1:54, my emphasis). Those who are united to the one “seed” who is Christ, and are members of His body. “To Abraham were the promises made,” writes Saint Paul to the Galatians, “and to his seed. He saith not, And to his seeds, as of many: but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ (3:16). And again, “And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:29).

Let us gentile Christians, therefore, not dare to contradict the gospel or add a novel meaning to it; let us “stand fast; and hold the traditions which [we] have learned ” (2 Thess. 2:14); and let us heed the words of Saint Paul: “be not high-minded, but fear” (Romans 11:20).