In New Ideas on the Church and Salvation, I addressed the positions taken by Dr. Jeffrey Mirus in his piece, Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea. Here, I will make some observations concerning the first of his two follow-ups: Sound Off! Comments on Salvation for Non-Catholics.
Dr. Mirus proffers the opinion that, to be damned for their unbelief, not only do people need to have heard the teachings of Jesus and the Church, they must have been convinced of them. Without such a conviction, the person left “in darkness” (Dr. Mirus’ phrase) is not culpable and, therefore, is — we are left to conclude — on the path of salvation. After making this point, the good Doctor declares, quite truly: “We are lost in the depths of human psychology here.”
Exactly. And human psychology is not dogmatic. So let us remain on the terra firma of revealed truth so that we don’t get “lost” in those depths.
It is true that one will not be damned for rejecting a Gospel he never heard preached in the first place. It is also true that, “without Faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Dr. Mirus simply disregards the doctrine of Original Sin. His unstated first premise seems to be that man comes into this world with a “default setting” of “saved,” and can only jeopardize that by some explicit, knowing rejection of the divine law. But man comes into this world with a different “default setting”: damned. To be delivered from that, the free and unmerited grace of Jesus Christ is necessary.
There is a place in the sacred sciences for human psychology; it is moral theology, which studies the the law of God as it binds us to do the good and avoid the evil. Within that study, there are subjective considerations involving the individual conscience, moral imputability, formal and material sin, etc. And that study does cross over into the dogmatic considerations of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, at least in this regard: someone who refuses to convert, knowing full well the veracity of the Catholic Church, is far worse off than one who has never heard of the Church before. For, in addition to having Original Sin on his soul, he also has the actual sin of rejecting the known truth. However, to establish that the former is worse off does not prove that the latter is saved without Faith.
How did St. Thomas approach this question of the fellow who has not heard the faith preached? First, let’s see what he says about the necessity of Faith:
“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 and publicly proclaimed, such as the articles which refer to the Incarnation.” (Summa Theologica , II-II, Q. 2, a. 7.) And also: “…once grace had been revealed, all were bound to explicit faith in the mystery of the Trinity.” (Q. 2, a. 7.)
Addressing himself to those who have not heard the Gospel, St. Thomas makes it clear that they cannot be saved in that state, and not because they rejected a Gospel they never heard, but for quite other reasons:
“If we consider unbelief as we find it in those who have heard nothing about the faith, it bears the character of punishment, not of sin, because such ignorance is a result of the sin of our first parents. When such unbelievers are damned, it is on account of other sins, which cannot be taken away without faith, not because of their sin of unbelief.” (II-II, Q.10, a.1.)
We cannot leave sin — neither actual nor original — out of the question. Which brings us to Dr. Mirus’ next piece, the one on Limbo.
We will save that for next time.
Necessity of Justification. The sixth session of the Council of Trent gives us the celebrated decree on Justification, which defines justification as: “a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior” (Session 6, Chapter IV, Decree Concerning Justification). Elsewhere (Chapter VII) that same Decree says that justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.” Mere “children of Adam” are not heirs to Heaven. God’s “enemies” are not saved. They have Original Sin on their souls. (To deny this is Pelagian.) In order to be delivered from that sad condition, to be made God’s “friends” and “sons,” members of our race need the grace of justification, for which Faith is necessary.
Necessity of Faith. Against the Protestant heresy, the Council of Trent stated that Faith is not the only thing necessary for justification, but it is indeed necessary: “But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons;…” (Session 6, Chapter VIII, Decree Concerning Justification). ↩