Zenit News Agency has just published a two-part interview on the salvation of non-believers. Professor Ilaria Morali, a lay woman who teaches dogmatic theology at the Gregorian, answered questions based on Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday audience of November 30 . This was the audience that we accused Zenit of “spinning” to say that non-believers can be saved without conversion.
Given Professor Morali’s defense of Dominus Iesus and her careful approach to the texts of Vatican II (as seen here ), she would be considered a conservative theologian in today’s milieu. What perplexes us about the interview is its remarkable avoiding of the big question: Do the non-believers she speaks of need to convert to the Catholic Faith in order to be saved?
There is a notable contrast between the journalist and the theologian. Zenit’s insistence on the salvation of non-Catholics is explicit , while Ilaria Morali’s position is more theologically nuanced or perhaps just ambiguous.
Because what Professor Morali says may be interpreted in a number of ways, we wish to point out the ambiguities in what she said and to ask questions which may bring some true “clarity” to the issue. As for Zenit, we have no problem accusing them for their gross inaccuracies.
Zenit begins the article:
If it is enough to seek peace with good will to be saved, of what use is Christianity?
This is the question posed after Benedict XVI’s address during the Nov. 30 general audience, in which he spoke about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.
As we pointed out, the Holy Father never said that “to seek peace with good will” is sufficient for salvation. The question is a loaded one and prejudices the mind of the reader to a modernist position at the very beginning of the interview.
Zenit asks the first question:
The Pope said in that general audience that the salvation of non-Christians is a fact: “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 an authentic redemption.” How is this possible?
The Holy Father did not say it was a “fact” that non-Christians are saved. This is sloppy journalism, if not outright dishonesty. Note that Zenit’s narrative first sentence and the passage quoted from the Holy Father are not saying the same thing. Doctor Morali apparently did not correct her interviewer for this error.
In her answer, Professor Morali referred to the general surprise elicited by Pope Benedict’s words: “It would seem that he said something absolutely new and revolutionary,” whereas what Benedict XVI presented was simply the common teaching on the subject.
Then she takes issue with the way the Holy Father’s words were interpreted: “Some believe that with these words the Church has admitted at last that it isn’t necessary to be a Christian to do good and to obtain salvation; that what matters is to be men of peace regardless of the faith one professes. It is, of course, a very hasty and superficial reading of the Holy Father’s words.” It would seem to us that this is the very “superficial reading” Zenit gave the Pope’s words when they published the headline, “Nonbelievers Too Can Be Saved, Says Pope.”
Morali then gets to the heart of the matter:
Morali: The Pope affirms with St. Augustine that “God will not allow them to perish with Babylon, being predestined to be citizens of Jerusalem.” But with a very specific condition: “That they be dedicated with a pure conscience to these tasks.”
The Pope, as the words of St. Augustine themselves demonstrate, try [sic] to remind us of a truth that belongs from the beginning of Christian history to our faith and that profoundly characterizes the Christian conception of salvation.
This truth contains two fundamental principles: The first is that God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth, as St. Paul says in the Second Letter to Timothy. To know, in this sense, means to adhere, to welcome the Lord in one’s life.
The second: Historically, the Gospel has not been able to conquer all hearts, whether because it has not arrived materially in all places on earth, or because, though it has arrived, not all have accepted it.”
This second part of the “truth” the Holy Father “tries to remind us of” is notably absent from the Pope’s actual words. While it is an important consideration in the overall subject, the issue of the Gospel not historically conquering all hearts was not being addressed in the Holy Father’s audience.
The Professor puts great weight on the Pope’s condition “That they be dedicated with a pure conscience to these tasks.” One would therefore think the words will be further explained, but the explanation is lacking. Are we to infer that a pagan with naturally good moral qualities will be saved without faith because of this? Of course, this is the very Pelagian error that St. Augustine condemned. Since the words in question are St. Augustine’s, it would be reasonable to interpret them with the intention of the Doctor of Grace.
The Professor then cites some of the writings of Pope Pius IX. What interests us here is the conclusion:
Morali: Pius IX taught us therefore a great prudence and great respect for those who do not have the gift of faith in Christ.
Nowhere does Blessed Pius teach a “great respect” for the unbeliever as an unbeliever. This would be to recast the Pope of the Syllabus into a modern ecumenist mold. He does not fit!
Another curious aspect of Professor Morali’s citing of Blessed Pius IX is the fact that she begins the treatment of the Church’s teaching on salvation with him. Why is the nineteenth century the beginning of our inquiry? Pio Nono made three statements that were taken by the liberals ever since as a watering down of extra ecclesiam nulla salus , but what about the infallible pronouncements that preceded him? They are not even mentioned in passing.
The next paragraph concludes her explanation of “the Christian doctrine of salvation,” a doctrine she said, “is very clear”(!):
Morali: “We are not able to understand altogether the reasons for a rejection of faith, nor can we know with certainty that someone who seems to have no faith, in fact has a very imperfect form of faith.”
Here, the Professor is probing into psychology of unbelief, but where is the explanation of “the Christian doctrine of salvation” she was asked to give? While a missionary or evangelist should certainly be interested in why a particular person rejects the faith, is a consideration of the mysterious nature of unbelief an answer to whether or not faith is objectively necessary for salvation? This is a perfect illustration of the “turn to the subject” present in modern philosophy and theology after Descartes. Objective truths get buried in abstract considerations of the subjective.
The “very imperfect form of faith” is more mysterious, more deeply psychological than people’s reasons for rejecting the faith. She will refer to this imperfect faith more in the second part of the interview, which begins thus (note, where the word continued appears in parenthesis, it denotes that our commentary has been inserted without removing any of the original text):
Zenit: Since the Second Vatican Council, what has been the Catholic view of nonbelievers?
Morali: … In No. 16 of the dogmatic constitution “Lumen Gentium,” the Council, recalling the principle of the universal saving will of God, affirmed that those who seek God with sincerity, and make an effort under the influence of grace to do his will with works, known by the dictate of conscience, may obtain eternal salvation.
With or without faith? This remains to be seen.
(continued) This affirmation reflects indirectly the teaching of Pius IX, but it emphasizes an aspect not considered until now: that of grace. The search for the good, the determination and the will to carry it out are effects of the action of grace.
“The action of grace.” What is the purpose of this grace? Does it lead to supernatural faith and justification? This may be a good place to mention that Professor Moreli is an expert on Henri de Lubac, about whom she has authored a book and whom she cites favorably in the interview. Her respect for this “conservative” revolutionary of the immediate pre-Vatican II years could shed light on her ambiguities. De Lubac’s departure from the traditional theology of grace was not as radical as was Karl Rahner’s but, like Rahner, he made grace virtually implicit in human nature by reducing nature without grace to a non-reality. This merited him an anonymous censure in Pius XII’s Humani Generis , No. 26: “Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision.”
(continued) Moreover, the Council added, almost to stress this principle, “Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”
According to the Council, no effort can take place “without grace.” That means that God is also close to those who do not know him. This same teaching is found in the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes,” where in No. 22 the Council acknowledges that grace works in the hearts of all men of good will.
Regarding, these “helps necessary for salvation”: do they include faith and the other theological virtues, as well as sanctifying grace? If they do, then there is no claim being made that an unbeliever can be saved as an unbeliever and the traditional doctrine stands. However, if these “helps” are merely Henri de Lubac’s “supernatural finality” placed in every man, or Karl Rahner’s “supernatural existential,” then what we have is “grace” that does not necessarily lead people to faith or membership in the Church, yet still saves them. Rahner called this the “Anonymous Christian.” Is this what the Professor believes? We cannot say.
God finds “men of good will” and His grace “works in hearts.” But does He do this to leave them as unbelievers or to move them to make a supernatural act of faith in the revelation that God has entrusted to His Church? We are not told for sure, but we do get reminders of the necessity of faith for salvation, including a beautiful reference to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews:
(continued) The people to whom the Holy Father refers are, in a certain sense, the same as those of whom the Council spoke. However, some one might object that the Council, in No. 7 of the decree “Ad Gentes” on missionary activity, underlines the principle of the necessity of faith for salvation, in addition to the need of baptism and of the Church.
It might also be underlined that in this number Vatican II affirms that “those cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.”
According to Catholic doctrine, faith of course, is necessary for salvation. This principle, sanctioned in the Letter to the Hebrews 11:6 has been accepted by the Christian tradition since its beginning. And here, in this context, it is proposed again in a clear way.
All this sounds quite doctrinaire. But let us not forget the “imperfect faith” she mentioned. We are about to get a foggy exposition of it.
Morali: Christian tradition itself acknowledges that not all have received the gift of the fullness of faith and that there can also be very imperfect forms of faith.In the chapter on faith, the Roman Catechism, which was composed after the Council of Trent, acknowledges that there are different degrees of faith: There are those who have a great faith and others who have a fragile faith.
It takes this teaching from the Gospel, in reference to the many words that Jesus Christ pronounced on the faith of his disciples, of the people with whom he met.
This is very tricky. Does someone who lacks “the gift of the fullness of faith” still have the Divine and Catholic Faith — the one Vatican I said is necessary for salvation? Here is the passage from the Roman Catechism :
Faith differs in degree; for we read in Scripture these words: O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt; and Great is thy faith; and Increase our faith. It also differs in dignity, for we read: Faith without works is dead; and, Faith that worketh by charity. But although faith is so comprehensive, it is yet the same in kind, and the full force of its definition applies equally to all its varieties. How fruitful it is and how great are the advantages we may derive from it we shall point out when explaining the Articles of the Creed.
Note the italicized sentence. It refers to the “full force of its definition” which, that same Catechism explains here:
Though the word faith has a variety of meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, we here speak only of that faith by which we yield our entire assent to whatever has been divinely revealed.
That faith thus understood is necessary to salvation no man can reasonably doubt, particularly since it is written: Without faith it is impossible to please God. For as the end proposed to man as his ultimate happiness is far above the reach of human understanding, it was therefore necessary that it should be made known to him by God. This knowledge, however, is nothing else than faith, by which we yield our unhesitating assent to whatever the authority of our Holy Mother the Church teaches us to have been revealed by God; for the faithful cannot doubt those things of which God, who is truth itself, is the author. Hence we see the great difference that exists between this faith which we give to God and that which we yield to the writers of human history.
Is the Catechism describing the faith of “someone who seems to have no faith,” as the Professor explains this “imperfect faith”? Is it speaking of someone who “lacks the fullness of the faith”? The answer to both questions is clearly in the negative. The Professor appears to be equating a lower degree of faith in the mind of a believer with the condition of one lacking “the gift of the fullness of faith.” This latter category is ambiguous. Is it like the faith of a child who believes all the truths in the Sacred Deposit, though lacking explicit knowledge of many doctrines? Or, is it the human faith of a non-Catholic? It seems as if she is implying the latter.
The words of Pope Benedict XV in Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum explain the integral nature of the faith in such a way that this latter meaning is positively ruled out: “Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: ‘This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved’ (Athanasian Creed). There is no adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim ‘Christian is my name and Catholic is my surname,’ only let him endeavor to be in reality what he calls himself.”
A few paragraphs later, there is a return to the consideration on Vatican II’s teaching concerning nonbelievers:
Morali: In its complexity, the teaching of “Ad Gentes” helps us to understand two principles.
First, that it is not possible to be saved without faith. [note that she now goes on to discuss only obviously bad people , as if they are the only ones “without faith”…] As history teaches us, men have certainly existed and will exist who consciously deny God, staining themselves with atrocious faults. They will have to answer before God for having exiled and excluded him from their lives, converting that of others into a hell. It is an inescapable fact that there is no salvation for these.
Second, there are many more people who, even stating that they are not believers, will obtain eternal salvation. These are people who give Christians an extraordinary example of generosity and rectitude. If I accept the conciliar teaching, then, for me, who am a believer, the good that they do is already the effect of grace that works in a hidden way in them and I must pray that this grace will one day give them the possibility of being led to an explicit faith.
Moreover, I must admit that in this invisible work of grace, God leads them to faith in an absolutely mysterious way.
Morali’s “very clear” teaching on salvation says that, while faith is necessary for salvation, people who say that they do not believe will be saved because they “give Christians an extraordinary example of generosity and rectitude.” This is an interesting twist on the Pelagian doctrine of salvation by personal effort. Whereas Pelagius denied the necessity of grace, Morali takes the good works of an unbeliever and calls it the “invisible work of grace.” Apparently this is what Pope Benedict’s “pure conscience ” means to the Professor: An unbeliever’s sincere good works are the result of grace and that , in itself, is sufficient for salvation. But we insist again, the words are St. Augustine’s, and he did not believe that! While we cannot conclude it positively, this whole manner of speaking leads us to surmise that the Professor is describing Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian.”
Again the reader should note the rapid shift from the objective to the subjective. In this case, consideration of the objective requirements for salvation morph into a discussion of the Professor’s duty to pray for those without faith: “I must pray that they are led to explicit faith.” This does nothing to explain if they need it or how they can be saved without it.
The Professor is supposed to be elaborating on the very objective sounding statement, “there are many more people who, even stating that they are not believers, will obtain eternal salvation,” but she goes on to discuss that the good they do is an effect of grace and that she has an obligation to pray for them to assent to faith explicitly. This turn to the subjective says nothing of how such non-believers are saved, especially if they are among those she mentioned earlier, who are “blocked, as though unable to express a ‘yes’ to faith.”
(As long as someone is “blocked” to faith, he is blocked to salvation, since “faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons.” The words are from the Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 8.)
The “mysterious” reference of the last paragraph is more fog. The workings of grace are generally “mysterious” inasmuch as God works in each soul in a secret, intimate way. But hiding in the obscurity of the inner workings of grace does not serve to clarify anything but that God works “mysteriously.”
Towards the end of the interview, we encounter a bit of theological schizophrenia:
Morali: Speaking again of the “spark” of which the Pope spoke in his address, I would like to recall an affirmation of Tertullian: “alma naturaliter Christiana” [the soul is naturally Christian]. He said this referring to people who lacked education in the faith, but who experienced inklings of faith.
Tertullian’s expression has entered the reflection on faith of those who seem not to have faith, as it reflects the longing, in the depth of every man, to know God.
This longing is inscribed in a person’s heart and, as Henri de Lubac would say, is the proof that we are created in the image of God and that this image is as an indelible sign. Man longs for Jesus Christ because he bears the image of God in his heart, and the image of God is Jesus Christ.
This is de Lubac’s serious error concerning the “natural desire for God,” which he conceived as a moral desire resulting from the “supernatural finality” placed in human nature. He thereby made grace implicit in nature and vitiated nature itself. A logical reduction of the last paragraph leads us to the dangerous idea that man by nature bears Jesus Christ in his heart.
The entire interview ends on this orthodox affirmation, which contradicts about half of what the professor has already said:
(continued) Tertullian also says that “fiunt no nascuntur christiani,” which means: “Christians are not born, but made.” It means that this longing needs to be corresponded by knowledge of God and this knowledge only Jesus Christ can give.
The longing of the heart for fullness is not enough; one must come to this fullness in fact. Thus is understood the importance of the evangelizing work of the Church, called to lead men to that fullness that is realized with baptism and perfected throughout a Christian’s life.
What does this clear and beautiful orthodox profession mean in light of the nebulous attenuations throughout the rest of the interview? It’s hard to see through all that fog.
Tertullian — who was a heretic despite his remarkable genius — also said Credo quia absurdum (“I believe, because it is absurd”). Taking our inspiration from the Montanist master, we say this of Zenit’s interview with Professor Morali: Clarus quia nebulosus : “It is clear because it is foggy.”
- Zenit’s English translation of the November 30, 2005 Wednesday audience [Zenit.org]
- Our own translation.
- The original Italian of the Wednesday audience [Vatican.va].
- Zenit’s November 30 story with the misleading headline [Zenit.org].
- Our Article on the Zenit story.