Saturday, February 22, 2003

Salvation Outside the Church(?) -- and of Jews in Particular

The fan club mailing list has played host recently to a rather provocative debate on the salvation of those outside the Church, and the salvation of Jews in particular. It's a topic that has been frequently discussed in our online discussion lately, spurred in part by the flawed and confusing document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" which seemed to promote the conclusion that it was no longer necessary to envangelize the Jews.

Following is a condensation of several posts of mine to the mailing list expressing my (somewhat muddled) thoughts on this issue, and which I wanted to share with readers of this blog in general:
The Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews says that Christians must "strive to understand the difficulties which arise for the Jewish soul -- rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence -- when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word", and note as well that "it is true that a widespread air of suspicion, inspired by an unfortunate past, is still dominant in this particular area". [Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (n. 4), Jan. 1975].

The doctrine of God-made-man in Christ is difficult to comprehend even for believing Christians, as demonstrated by centuries of theological deliberation as the Church defined its belief in response to numerous heresies with a disproportionate emphasis on Christ's humanity and divinity. Thus it should come as no surprise that such doctrines will be confusing for Jews as well, whose emphasis on absolute monotheism, together with justifiable suspicion arising from centuries of persecution, may very well present a severe impediment to arriving at an understanding of the gospel.

The Vatican's call for Christians to seek to understand the "difficulties arising in the Jewish soul" is relatively new -- and in response those 'traditionalists' insisting on a literal interpretation of 'outside the Church, no salvation" (some moreover harboring extreme animosity towards the Jewish people) have offered citations from the early fathers of the church, and church councils, which quite clearly refer to the damnation of Jews, pagans and infidels, and all those outside the Church, with no exception.
For example, traditionalists often quote the teaching of the Council of Florence in 1442: "It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that none of those outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can not become participants in eternal life, but will depart "into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" [Matt. 25:41]". How does a contemporary Catholic, wishing to remain orthodox and faithful to the Church, square or reconcile this with the subsequent teaching of Vatican II?

I think it is important to recognize the logic behind the teaching of Florence, because such insistence on a literal understanding of this saying springs from an insistence on God's justice. In Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, an extensive study of this very topic, Jacques Dupuis cites Francis A. Sullivan's commentary on Florence:
We have good reason to understand [The Council of Florence] in light of what was then the common belief that all pagans, Jews, heretics, and schismatics were guilty of the sin of infidelity, on the ground that they had culpably refused either to accept the true faith or remain in it. . . . Their [the bishops fo Florence] decree cannot be understood except in the light of their judgement that the culpability of all those who they declared would be condemned to hell. . . . The bishops of the Council of Florence certainly believed that God is good, that being a good he is just and that a just God does not condemn innocent people to the fires of hell. The conclusion is inescapable that they must have believed all pagans, Jews, heretics and schismatics to be guilty and deserving of eternal punishment. [Salvation Outside The Church: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response, Paulist Press, 1992].

St. Augustine said: "When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within the heart are saved in the unity of the ark" (Baptism 5:28:39). He was referring specifically to the Donatists, but I also think his statement has a universal application.

It seems that over the course of time the Church's position evolved from the consideration that all non-Christians were guilty to the recognition that they could in fact err in good faith due to psychological and intellectual barriers to understanding -- that one could be presented with the teaching of the Church and yet fail to comprehend its truth and necessity for salvation; and that such could be distinguished from the conscious acknowledgment of and willfull rebellion against the Church. (This would certainly be the case with a religious Jew, "rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence -- when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word").

And yet, in spite of such empediments to understanding, if they persist in observing natural law and living according to the dictates of their conscience, by what light of truth they have available to them, they are in some mysterious way linked to the Church and enjoy salvation in Christ. And so Catholic apologists like Peter Kreeft can justifiably speculate that a virtuous pagan like Socrates (or even some very surprised atheists) may very well be in heaven, and the Holy Father, echoing the teaching of Vatican II, can assert in the encylical Redemptoris Missio:
The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.  For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that "this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God."

Dupuis also notes that the discovery of the New World in 1492 (50 years after the Council of Florence) was a turning point -- prior to which it was assumed that the gospel had in fact been promulgated to the world. According to Dupuis, the notion that untold masses of savages would be damned for no other reason then their ignorance of the gospel provoked some Dominican and Jesuit theologians to reconsider the requisites for salvation by proposing an implicit faith in Christ, and that the Council of Trent in 1547 would formally define the dogma we now know as "baptism by desire".

I was reading De Lubac yesterday and he says "if it is thought that 'outside the Church, no salvation' has an ugly sound, there is no reason why it should not be put in a positive form and read, appealing ot all men of good will, not 'outside the Church, you are damned' but 'it is by the Church and by the Church alone that you will be saved.' [Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man]. I think John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger , echoing Vatican II, have done precisely this, the most recent manifestation of which is Dominus Iesus.

Nevertheless, it's a subtle and complex distinction, and completely lost on Feeneyites who take 'outside the Church, no salvation' in the literal sense without exception, and why people like Peter Kreeft or even the Pope can be seen as speaking heresy from the standpoint of a 'traditionalist'.

So . . . what about the Jews? -- Regarding "Reflections on Covenant and Mission", I do not feel compelled to offer any thoughts of my own, given the excellent responses by a symposium of the National Catholic Register and Cardinal Avery Dulles. However, given that this blog is linked to a website devoted to a certain Cardinal,, I think it is fitting to close with some words from Ratzinger himself.

Every now and then I'll receive an inquiry regarding Ratzinger's view of Judaism, to which I like to refer them to two of his writings in particular -- the first being the concluding chapter in the book Many Religions, One Covenant: Israel, the Church and the Jews, a version of which is available here. The second is the article The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas, published in
L'Osservatore Romano, in which the Cardinal describes a "new vision" of Jewish-Christian relations, undoubtedly shared by many Catholics today:
We know that every act of giving birth is difficult. Certainly, from the very beginning, relations between the infant Church and Israel were often marked by conflict. The Church was considered by her own mother to be a degenerate daughter, while Christians considered their mother to be blind and obstinate. Down through the history of Christianity, already-strained relations deteriorated further, even giving birth in many cases to anti-Jewish attitudes, which throughout history have led to deplorable acts of violence. Even if the most recent, loathsome experience of the Shoah was perpetrated in the name of an anti-Christian ideology, which tried to strike the Christian faith at its Abrahamic roots in the people of Israel, it cannot be denied that a certain insufficient resistance to this atrocity on the part of Christians can be explained by an inherited anti-Judaism present in the hearts of not a few Christians.  Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong "the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge.

This post is an attempt to address two separate topics -- the first being the traditionalist interpretation of "extra ecclesiam nulla salus", the other being certain traditionalist perspectives on our relationship with the Jews (on both ends of the "progressive"-"traditionalist" spectrum). I'm still in the process of researching and exploring both of these issues, hoping that I haven't presented these topics in too muddled a manner and that you've managed to get something out of it. If you have any good books on the topic to recommend, feel free to comment.

NOTE: Portions of the above were inspired by Shawn McElhinney and the Lidless Eye Inquisition and their commendable efforts to combat Feeneyism.

Fr. Jacques Dupuis' Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, although flawed in some respects and rightfully meriting a notification from the CDF, is nevertheless (in my opinion) a helpful study of the development of the Church's thought on salvation and religious pluralism, and so I make a qualfied recommendation for those who wish to investigate this topic further.

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