News agency falsely reports statement concerning non-believers and salvation.
Summary: Under the headline “Nonbelievers Too Can Be Saved, Says Pope,” Zenit International News Agency gave an indifferentist spin to Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audience of November 30.
“Nonbelievers Too Can Be Saved, Says Pope,” read the headline. The problem is that the Holy Father did not say it. Reading Zenit’s narrative as compared with Pope Benedict’s audience reveals a great discrepancy.
Here is what the Holy Father is alleged to have said: “Whoever seeks peace and the good of the community with a pure conscience, and keeps alive the desire for the transcendent, will be saved even if he lacks biblical faith, says Benedict XVI.” This excerpt from the November 30 dispatch gives the impression that a non-believer can be saved without conversion. What the Holy Father actually said was quite different.
In his weekly meditation on the Psalms, Pope Benedict was speaking about Psalm 136 (137), using St. Augustine’s commentary as the basis of his brief presentation. Here is the crucial passage from the Holy Father’s address:
“We want to commend to St. Augustine a further meditation on our psalm. In it, the Father of the Church introduces a surprising element of great timeliness: He knows that also among the inhabitants of Babylon there are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the Eternal City to which we aspire. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for a genuine redemption.
“And he says that among the persecutors, among the nonbelievers, there are people with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope, in the measure that is possible for them in the circumstances in which they live. With this faith in an unknown reality, they are really on the way to the authentic Jerusalem, to Christ. And with this opening of hope, valid also for the Babylonians — as Augustine calls them — for those who do not know Christ, and not even God, and who nevertheless desire the unknown, the eternal, he exhorts us not to look only at the material things of the present moment, but to persevere in the path to God. Only with this greater hope can we transform this world in a just way.”
The text does not suggest that a non-believer can be saved without conversion. Zenit has implicitly accused the Holy Father of a serious misreading of St. Augustine. What Pope Benedict and St. Augustine were explaining in the language of the Psalm, was that there are citizens of “Babylon” (worldly people who do not know Christ), whose natural virtue inclines them to “Jerusalem” (the Church). These naturally virtuous people are predestined by God to enter Jerusalem, not to be saved as citizens of Babylon, for the Holy Father went on to quote this passage from St. Augustine’s commentary: “God will not allow them to perish in Babylon (perire in Babylonia), having predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem, on the condition, however, that, living in Babylon, they do not seek pride, outdated pomp and arrogance.”
St. Augustine did not hold that some non-believers are predestined to salvation without entering the Church in this life. And the Holy Father certainly knows the mind of the Doctor of Grace better than to say otherwise. With many of the Church Fathers, St. Augustine considered truth and virtue in the lives of non-believers to be a praeparatio evangelica i.e., a preparation for the Gospel. Vatican II echoed this traditional teaching in Lumen Gentium 2, 16: “Whatever truth is found among them [those who “have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God”] is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” In the official text, the expression, praeparatio evangelica, has a footnote referencing another Father of the Church, Eusebius of Caesarea.
The commentary on Psalm 136 is one of many passages in St. Augustine’s works where the Great Doctor expounds the doctrine of “the two cities,” the major subject of his City of God. Nowhere in his writings is a hint of the notion that one can enter the City of God in Heaven without first belonging to it on earth. Indeed, St. Augustine’s exclusivist ideas on the necessity of the faith and of the Church for salvation are well known:
“No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesiae plebem)
Orestes Brownson, the great nineteenth-century American apologist and theologian, expressed the matter this way: “That those in societies alien to the Church, invincibly ignorant of the Church, if they correspond to the graces they receive, and persevere, will be saved, we do not doubt, but not where they are, or without being brought to the Church. They are sheep, in the prescience of God Catholics, but sheep not yet gathered into the fold. ‘Other sheep I have,’ says Our Blessed Lord, ‘that are not of this fold; them also I must bring; they shall hear my voice; and there shall be made one fold and one shepherd.’ This is conclusive; and that these must be brought, and enter the fold which is the Church in this life, St. Augustine expressly teaches.” (“The Great Question,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October, 1847).
Here is the relevant passage of St. Augustine’s commentary cited by Pope Benedict:
“This city too which is called Babylon has its lovers, who look for peace in this world and hope for nothing beyond, but fix their joy in this [world], end it in this [world]; and we see them toil exceedingly for their earthly country. But whosoever lives faithfully even therein, if they seek not therein pride, and perishable elation, and hateful boasting, but exhibit true faith, such as they can, as long as they can, to those whom they can, in so far as they see earthly things, and understand the nature of their citizenship, these God suffers not to perish in Babylon; He has predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem. God understands their captivity, and shows to them another city, for which they ought truly to sigh, for which they ought to make every endeavor, to win which they ought to the utmost of their power to exhort their fellow-citizens now their fellow-wanderers.” (translation from Przywara, S.J., Erich, An Augustine Synthesis [London, Sheed & Ward, 1936], pg 267.)
Here is the Latin text the Holy Father used:
Habet et haec civitas quae Babylonia dicitur, amatores suos consulentes paci temporali, et nihil ultra sperantes, totumque gaudium suum ibi figentes, ibi finientes, et videmus eos pro republica terrena plurimum laborare: sed et in ea quicumque fideliter versantur, si non ibi appetant superbiam et perituram elationem odiosamque iactantiam; sed veram fidem exhibeant, quam possunt, quamdiu possunt, quibus possunt, ad quantum vident terrena, et ad quantum intellegunt speciem civitatis; non eos sinit Deus perire in Babylonia: praedestinavit enim eos cives Ierusalem. Intellegit captivitatem eorum Deus, et ostendit illis aliam civitatem, cui vere debeant suspirare, pro qua debeant cuncta conari, ad quam capessendam debeant cives suos secum peregrinos, quantum valuerint, adhortari. (Full text here.)
- Zenit’s English translation of the Wednesday audience [Zenit.org]
- Our own translation.
- The original Italian of the Wednesday audience [Vatican.va].
- Zenit’s story with the misleading headline [Zenit.org].