Reply to a Liberal – Introduction

We have been asked many times to explain what we mean by the term “liberal Catholic.” Articles in each issue of From the Housetops have referred to these “liberals,” accusing them of religious indifferentism, or lack of concern for the Faith, of absence of loyalty to the Church, to the Pope, to the officially appointed teachers of Catholic doctrine, and, at times, of open heresy. We have been warning Catholics against the dangers of liberalism, letting them infer, from our statement of the erroneous doctrines, who these liberals are. This policy does not, however, serve to make the issue clear and definite enough, and so it becomes necessary at this point to name our opponents, or at least some of them, and to refute their heretical teachings openly.

This task has been made easier for us than we could have anticipated. In answer to one of the articles which appeared in the December 1948 issue of From the Housetops, Father Philip J. Donnelly, S. J., Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Jesuit Seminary at Weston, has, for the benefit of Boston College, issued a paper under the heading Some Observations on the Question of Salvation Outside the Church. A weaker defense of a theological opinion could not be found, nor a more perfect expression of liberalism.

Those who read my article in the last issue must have noticed the long line of authorities quoted in support of the often-defined dogma that no person can attain eternal salvation unless, before he dies, he becomes a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The priest who attempts to refute my article never refers to the authorities I quoted. He ignores them. Although he is himself a professor of Dogmatic Theology, and therefore one who should know better, all he offers in support of his own liberalism is the theory of a French liberal called Caperan and the statement of an Italian Jesuit called Lombardi, both of whom have no more authority on dogmatic questions than Father Donnelly himself.

He gives us three allocutions composed by Pope Pius XI, one in 1927, one in 1930, and one delivered in 1938 to a group of scientists, all of which are quoted from the L’ Osservatore Romano . And, to give final touch to this comedy, there is appended to Father Donnelly’s note an additional note by his editor, who quotes one sentence from a speech delivered by Pope Pius XII, as it was reported in the New York Times!

Is this the way a Catholic is expected to know the revealed and defined truths of his Faith? Since when does a teacher of Dogmatic Theology have to depend on the good pleasure and honesty of newspapers in order to know what is the Catholic Faith and what he is supposed to teach? And what about the generations of Catholics who lived before the September 6th, 1948 issue of the New York Times? Was it impossible for them to have known the unadulterated Catholic truth? Does Father Donnelly prepare his course in Dogmatic Theology dependently on how a newspaper quotes or misquotes some radio address of the Pope? Or is it that the techniques of our advanced and progressive century require the introduction of a course on Journalism as an indispensable part even of the theological training of our priests? We writers in From the Housetops, who are full of a “spirit of smug Protestant righteousness,” according to Father Donnelly, may be greatly misinformed, but no news from Rome has reached us as yet announcing a papal definition of the infallibility of newspapers!

Apart from these “authorities,” Father Donnelly makes use of the two main documents used by liberals: an allocution by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and an encyclical by the same Pope in 1863. And, as liberals always do, he at times misquotes the Holy Father, misrepresents his intention, and invariably makes the Pope’s statements serve his own preconceptions. All this I have shown in my article on Liberal Theology and Salvation, which appeared in the December 1948 issue of From the Housetops .

The one and only infallible pronouncement used by Father Donnelly in his paper is taken from the decree on Justification, Chapter 4, of the Council of Trent. However, this decree is erroneously explained, and, as I shall show later on in this article, is made to mean the very opposite of what was intended.

Perhaps, before taking up in detail every point of Father Donnelly’s paper, it would be well to quote it in full, so that no reader will be misled, and so that no point will be left confused in his mind, from not having read the original document. The article runs as follows:

Department of Theology
Boston College

Chestnut Hill, 67, Massachusetts

Some Observations on the Question of Salvation Outside the Church

At present there is no work in English that covers adequately the question of salvation outside the Church. Perhaps the best thing to do in the present circumstances is to indicate the contents of two books on this subject:

a) The classic work by Caperan, Le probleme du salut des infideles: essai theologique (1934);

b) b) The more recent work by Fr. Riccardo Lombardi, S. J., the famous apostle of Italy, La salvezza di chi no ha fede (Rome, 1945, Edizione: La civilta cattolica ).

The first point to be made is that the formula “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” must not be understood in the sense that salvation is impossible for any one who does not believe explicitly in the Catholic Church, and does not accept all the revealed truths proposed by her for belief. The same infallible authority which proposes this formula also teaches that sanctifying grace, and consequently, a title to the Beatific Vision, are conferred by baptism of desire. Therefore, the insinuation of a writer in the latest issue of a magazine called From the Housetops that baptism of desire is a device of “liberal” Catholics to christianize heretics, is in direct contradiction to the doctrine of the Council of Trent, which teaches that justification of the unbaptized may be described “as the transfer from that state, in which a man is born as the son of the first Adam, to the state of grace and adoptive sonship of God, through the second Adam, our Savior Jesus Christ; and after the promulgation of the Gospel this transfer cannot be accomplished without the water of regeneration or the desire of it . . .” (Denz. 796.)

Secondly, baptism of desire confers membership in the Church “in voto.” For Pius IX, who taught so unmistakably that “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” also taught just as unmistakably that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not recognize the Catholic Church as the only true Church . . . “and who . . . yet keep the precepts of the law of nature graven by God in all men’s hearts, who are prepared to obey God, and who lead an honorable and upright life, are able, by the powerful workings of God’s light and grace, to attain eternal life. For God, who sees distinctly, who searches into and knows the mind, spirit, habits and thoughts of all men, would never of His supreme goodness and mercy permit anyone to be punished eternally unless he had incurred the guilt of voluntary sin.” (Denz. 1677.)

He likewise teaches in the same place that only those who are “contumaciter” and “pertinaciter” divided from the Church cannot be saved outside the Catholic Church, and that those who contumaciously resist her authority and definitions and “who obstinately remain separated from the unity of that Church and from Peter’s successor, the Roman Pontiff — to whom the custody of the vine was entrusted by our Savior — cannot obtain eternal salvation.” (Denz. 1677.)

Pius IX likewise forbids unconditionally any manifestation by Catholics of a spirit of enmity toward those outside the Catholic Church. “But let the children of the Catholic Church in no way whatsoever be hostile to those who are not one with us in faith and love . . . ” (Denz. 1678). As for that spirit of hostility manifested in the scarcely veiled assumption that Protestants are to be convicted of bad faith, and henceforth to be treated as formal heretics, the same Pope said: “We have to hold, as of faith, that no one can be saved outside the Apostolic Roman Church, that she is the one Ark of Salvation, that whosoever does not enter her will perish in the flood. But at the same time it is to be held equally certain that those who labor under ignorance of the true religion will never — provided their ignorance is invincible — be held guilty in the eyes of God of this fault. Who would dare claim to be able to assign limits to such ignorance when he reflects on the diversity he sees among peoples, localities, characters and a host of other points? Assuredly when, released from the fetters of the body, we shall see God as He is, we shall then clearly see the intimate and exquisite way in which the mercy and justice of God are combined; but let us, so long as here on Earth we are weighed down by this mortal body which dulls the soul, hold firmly to our Catholic doctrine: ‘one God, one faith, one baptism’; to try and probe deeper is criminal . . . ” (Denz. 1647).

These statements are the more pertinent, since they are located in the strongest statements of any Pontiff against religious indifferentism. It is quite one thing to maintain that Protestants or pagans are just as favorably situated with regard to salvation as Catholics, and quite another thing to maintain that they are in bad faith and are to be spurned because they do not submit to a distorted interpretation of Catholic doctrine (Cf. Caperan, op. cit., pp. 138-142).

The spirit of these two citations of Pius IX were several times repeated and developed by Pius XI. “Sad are these conditions, it is true, but nevertheless, they provide some consolation, because the greater the ignorance — and who can ever presume to judge a person’s good faith except God? — the less the responsibility. So true is that that Jesus Himself sought, as it were, His last consolation in the fact of ignorance, when He cried out from the Cross to the Father: ‘Pardon them, because they know not what they do. ’ ” (Allocution of Pius XI, January 11, 1927; L’ Osservatore Romano of this date.) More explicitly, Pius XI said: “The limits of vincible and invincible error are among the most difficult to define, even for the most penetrating intellect. Only God, who is TRUTH, who is ALL TRUTH, who calls every creature to the TRUTH, who gives the means according to His measure to arrive at the TRUTH, only God can, with certainty, define the limit between vincible and invincible ignorance.” (Allocution published in the L’ Osservatore Romano, 31 January 1938.)

Even more remarkable and to the point, in an exhortation not to judge those outside the faith, is the following: “We are filled with sadness when We see so many countless souls so neglectful of the guarantees which God gives of His continuous presence and of His activity [in the Catholic Church]. Truly, in the light of this consideration, some have been tempted to conclude that these souls, without grace, have reached such a stage of degradation, that they are inexcusable. But such a judgment is beyond our pertinence or power: God alone knows the limits of vincible ignorance and of good faith, and we have an obligation to leave to Him all decision and judgment on this question.” (Pius XI, “Discourse of March 10, 1930, at the reading of the Decree approving the Miracles for the Canonization of Blessed Catherine Thomas,” L’ Osservatore Romano, 11 March 1930.)

Father Lombardi, in concluding his survey of Papal doctrine, adds the following practical consideration: “In addition to these authoritative statements, there is a reason of the practical order, which urges a benevolent attitude towards infidels: it is the importance for the Apologist or the Missionary of starting his work with the greatest possible amount of good-will. This is only in accord with the example of Christ; true, He never countenanced the approval of evil to obtain good-will; but, on the other hand, He laid it down as a duty, to love and to excuse as far as possible all persons; He forbade us to judge temerariously, bitterly, or to interpret actions as due to evil motives or malice: ‘Judge not and you will not be judged, condemn not and you will not be condemned’ (Luke, 6:37).” (Lombardi, op. cit., II, p. 229.)

In this question of the possibility of salvation outside the Church and the related problem of the invincible ignorance of those outside the Church, it is perilously easy for some Catholics, whose zeal outruns their knowledge of Catholic truth, to fall into the state of mind that they condemn so bitterly, namely, a spirit of smug Protestant righteousness, of arrogating to oneself the prerogative of judging others with the mercilessness of a Lutheran or Calvinistic God, and of superficial private judgment in a totally unfounded interpretation of the subjective state of Protestants generally, and in a corresponding depreciation of authority, which borders on contempt. Such a spirit not only alienates Protestants of good faith, but is also a positive scandal to Catholics.

Philip J. Donnelly, S. J.,

Professor of Dogmatic Theology,

Collegium Maximum Sancti Spiritus, Weston

Editor’s Note: On September 5th, 1948 in a speech delivered in German and broadcast by the Vatican radio on the occasion of a Catholic celebration in Mainz, Pope Pius XII, referring to movements outside the Catholic Church for the unification of Christians said: “We know how insistent is the desire in many, both Catholics and non-Catholics, for unity of faith; the [Catholic] Church surrounds dissenters in the faith with sincere love and prayer for their return to her, their mother, from which God knows how many are separated without any fault of their own.” (Cf. New York Times, Monday, 6 September 1948, p. 1, col.4.)