Today I had a letter published in a large, secular newspaper in which I came to the defense of the recent Vatican statement regarding the necessity of the Church for salvation. Last week the paper published a mischievous, front-page article blasting the Church and especially the Holy Father for taking a position that allegedly flies in the face of the Catholic Church’s more ecumenical, pastorally sensitive approach since Vatican II. I say “mischievous” because the article inaccurately presented the Church’s statement in order to generate controversy.
Of course the Vatican statement contains no new doctrinal teaching. And, for that matter, it wasn’t even intended for our ecumenical partners. Rather, it was directed to bishops and theologians to clarify issues that have arisen in recent decades concerning salvation through the Church and how this truth relates to other Christian communities. Certainly the Church has not reversed her “irreversible” efforts to foster the unity of all Christians—a unity rooted in both truth and charity.
I thought another published letter in the newspaper shows how much work we have left to do “in house,” as we strive to do a better job of catechizing our own flock. Here’s the letter in full, with the name omitted:
The Pope declares that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church ‘Only one church,’ (7/11, A-1, “Pope-approved document has Protestants wondering about ecumenism’s fate”).
The words are not new. I just haven’t heard them since childhood when I worried about the fate of Protestant friends, prayed for souls languishing in Purgatory, and saved pennies for pagan babies on hold in Limbo.
My faith formation was rooted in fear and confusion.
As a rational adult, I believe there are many roads to salvation. Otherwise, the kind-hearted Methodists, Jews and atheists who cross my path will be standing at the gates of hell along with mass murderers.
Must we return to the alienating discussion of a true church? Shouldn’t we focus on living the message of Jesus and serving others in the best way we can?
The Church might claim direct lineage to Peter, but it does not have a direct line to the mind of God.
There’s much open to comment here, such as the Chuch’s being directly linked to Peter, but not to God. I'm especially taken by the comment about her being a “rational adult.” I wonder why a “rational adult” would remain in a Church that’s not necessary for salvation.
Anyway, this reminds me of a letter I once received that began like this:
“I think your organization is an embarrassment to all thinking Catholics. . . .”
What do I make of such letters? I’m not a "thinking Catholic" on the order of a James Likoudis or Scott Hahn, but after many years of education and formation I think I can competently explain the Church’s teachings. Surely in the article to which that person was responding I did not espouse crossing a busy street without first looking both ways or some other unreasonable proposition.
Rather, the term "thinking Catholic" (or “rational adult”) is a code word to identify Catholics who consider themselves sophisticated and educated enough to choose for themselves what Church teachings they accept. As the above letter suggests, anyone who accepts all the Church’s teachings, even on such foundational matters involving personal salvation, is, in their estimation, simply not thinking. And this from someone who still claims to be Catholic!
In this letter we also see the latent universalism that has fostered tepidity and spiritual decay throughout the Church today. By this I mean the attitude that pretty much everybody is saved, that it really doesn’t matter what one believes, because we all end up in a “better place.”
We see this especially illustrated in contemporary funerals, which typically are “mini-canonizations” rather than privileged opportunities to pray for our beloved deceased.
This of course is a species of presumption, which is a defect of the supernatural virtue of hope.
It’s also strikingly similar to the Bible Christians’ theory of “once saved, always saved.” Once someone accepts Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, the theory goes, there is no way he or she can “lose” his salvation. Personal conduct is, in the end, irrelevant, and the theological virtue of hope is superfluous.
The above letter, representative of what we might call a “washed out” Catholicism, presents a similar perspective. Once one is born (this is much less complicated than having to be “saved” or “born again”), that person will be saved. Faith, religious belief, moral conduct, relationship with God, etc.—none of that ultimately matters. Now this group is willing to carve out a very narrow exception for the occasional Hitler or mass murderer, but the rest of us have it made.
Of course, if that’s true, who needs Jesus Christ, the one savior of the world? And who needs His Church, the instrument of salvation for the entire world, built on the rock of St. Peter? Why not take a road other than the way of the cross, since after all we "rational adults" know that there are many other more comfortable roads to salvation.
The truth is, God’s grace is unlimited. It’s not absent outside the visible boundaries of the Church. God calls each one of us by name, seeking a personal relationship with us as He offers us eternal life. Yet, God will not save us without our cooperation, in keeping with our human dignity. How dare we, at the moment of our death, cry out “Lord, Lord,” yet be unwilling to do what He says in this life? (see Matthew 7:21). Are we ready to meet Him if He calls us tonight?
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