How’s THAT for a provocative title?
I’m not about to propose (God forbid) that all of us adopt the mindset of lawyers Jesus interacted with in the Gospels, much less that what religion really needs is a healthy dose of legalism (as others before have observed Christianity, unlike Judaism and Islam, is not a religion of divinely-revealed law). Instead, what I am proposing-arrogantly-is that lawyers have an epistemological advantage when it comes to engaging certain texts. I have said many times, with full seriousness, that my legal training has been an asset in reading documents promulgated by the Magisterium, be they papal encyclicals, the Constitutions of Vatican II, or the Catechism itself. Allow me to elaborate.
To do so, we need to go back in time to 2013, when the media asserted that Pope Francis had declared that “atheists could go to heaven.” The Internet was set a-Twitter, and I even weighed in myself, with my own caricature of the discussion:
Fundamentalist: “The old fool thinks atheists can sneak into a side door of heaven.”
Atheist: “Well I’ll be damned!”
Fundamentalist: “You will.”
As the twits continued to hit the fan, Fr. Thomas Rosica issued a response that was characterized by some as “walking back” the Pope’s statements. Without revisiting the issue in detail, I’d like to quote an excerpt from an article written by Hendrik Hertzberg, an atheist, on Fr. Rosica’s response:
For one thing, there’s a high weasel factor at work here. In that “refuse to enter” passage, Rosica is quoting from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Compendium is a kind of lawbook, and, as such, it has its share of loopholes. I think I can spot one here. To deserve eternal damnation, you have to do more than just “refuse to enter” the Catholic Church. You also have to “know” that being a Catholic is “necessary for salvation.” But knowing isn’t the same as hearing. I’ve heard that Obama is a Muslim, but I don’t know that he is. You can know about something, but if you’re sure it’s nonsense you can’t know it. A technical quibble, but I figure it might get me off on appeal.
Another Rosica loophole I could maybe slip through:
“A non-Christian may reject a Christian’s presentation of the gospel of Christ. That however, does not necessarily mean that the person has truly rejected Christ and God. Rejection of Christianity may not mean the rejection of Christ. For if a given individual rejects the Christianity brought to him through the Church’s preaching, even then we are still never in any position to decide whether this rejection as it exists in the concrete signifies a grave fault or an act of faithfulness to one’s own conscience. We can never say with ultimate certainty whether a non-Christian who has rejected Christianity and who, in spite of a certain encounter with Christianity, does not become a Christian, is still following the temporary path mapped out for his own salvation which is leading him to an encounter with God, or whether he has now entered upon the way of perdition.”
The language is kind of murky, but this sounds to me like an admission that “faithfulness to one’s own conscience” takes precedence over “the Church’s preaching.” In which case the Pope is right (and, in this instance, the Catechism is wrong). Also, as long as I steer clear of “grave faults” other than having heretical religious opinions, I should be O.K. come Judgment Day.
Hertzberg is wide of the mark in his conclusions (he is wrong in suggesting that Pope Francis and the Catechism are somehow opposed to each for other) but he still offers a thought-provoking analysis of what Fr. Rosica was saying (more so than most of those who-either joyfully or with panic-thought that the Pope had proclaimed universal salvation, while an underling was going over the Holy Father’s head).
Before going any further it is important to clarify what the Catechism actually says on this subject. Here are the relevant paragraphs:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.337
848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338
I am going to zero in a bit on each of the three-bolded passages.
First, what is true rejection of the Catholic Church [substitute Christianity, Gospel, Christ, Truth if you like]?
Before answering this question I need to give a disclaimer and then some background. First, the disclaimer, I am somewhat “left-wing” when it comes to the theology of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, but the position I come from is hardly heretical.
Next, the background. Hertzberg’s flippant dismissal of the Catechism and Fr. Rosica’s “weasel words” obscures the fact that Fr. Rosica (and Pope Francis) are voicing a view that has long been held by some of the Church’s greatest minds.
Scott Hahn, in his recent book Angels and Saints, writes:
St. Augustine, in one his greatest works, examined the Communion of Saints according to a single metaphor: the City of God. Its citizenship, he said, includes souls already in heaven and folks on earth. Yet its earthly citizenship is not limited to those who are enrolled in a parish. St. Augustine held that many who did not profess Christianity were Christians unawares. Meanwhile, he said, some others who were card-carrying Christians were really living by the laws of another city, the City of Man. Yet in this world the two cities are mixed together, like the wheat and tares in Jesus’ parables about the field, or the fish and trash in his parable about the net.
While we’re on earth, we can’t know which way another individual is tending. The agnostic who struggles may be clawing his way toward sanctity. The pew-warmer who never misses Sunday Mass may go home every week to indulge secret vices behind closed doors. Only God keeps the census rolls of the Communion of Saints. He sees what we do not.
And we never know how any individual story will end. True love is proved through the ordeal, the trial, the testing, the temptation and sometimes the results are surprising…if a wicked man turns to God he’ll be…a saint! If a seeming saint sails sinward-sad to say-he’s chosen a hell of a future. God has called each of us to sainthood. So each of has the God-given potential and the God-given freedom, to choose our path whenever two roads diverge in our moral woods. We can go either way.
If there were social-networking software to track our dealings with God, the relationship status, for many people perhaps, would be stuck on “It’s Complicated.”
This is quite similar to something C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
The situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together. Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs… in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.
The essential point both Hahn and Lewis are making is this: Human beings have an-if I may co-opt a term from the “intelligent design” folks-an “irreducible complexity” that makes engaging in abstract discussion about the salvation of souls impossible. Put another way, we are not cardboard cut-outs. In the words of the great Catholic theologian Karl Adam:
Dogmatic intolerance is…a moral duty, a duty to the infinite truth and to truthfulness.
But so soon as it is a question, not of the conflict between idea and idea, but of living men, of our judgment on this or that non-Catholic, then the theologian becomes a psychologist, the dogmatist a pastor of souls. He draws attention to the fact that the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and mentality of the individual of so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula. In other words the heretic, the Jew and the pagan seldom exist in a pure state. What we actually have before us is living men, with their fundamental outlook influence or dominated by this or that erroneous idea. Therefore the Church expressly distinguishes between “formal” and “material” heretics. A “formal” heretic rejects the Church, and its teaching absolutely and with full deliberation; a “material” heretic rejects the Church from lack of knowledge, being influenced by false prejudice or by an anti-Catholic upbringing. St. Augustine forbids us to blame a man for being a heretic because he was born of heretical parents, provided that he does not with obstinate self-assurance shut out all better knowledge, but seeks the truth simply and loyally. Whenever the Church has such honest inquirers before her, she remembers that our Lord condemned Pharisaism but not the individual Pharisee…life does not express itself in the sharp contrast of Yes and No, Truth and Error, Belief and Unbelief, Virtue and Vice, but in an infinite wealth of transitional forms and intermediate stages; and that in dealing with living man we have to take account not only of the logical force of truth, but also of the particular quality of the mental and spiritual endowment with which he reacts to truth.
It is important to understand what Adam is articulating here. He is not suggesting Truth does not matter-far from it (prior to this passages he zealously defends the Church’s claims to Truth as an essential dimension of Catholicism). What he is getting at instead is that real human beings cannot be reduced to concepts, and indeed the psychological complexity of any given individual is mind-boggling. In St. Paul’s words we are mysteries even to ourselves. Incidentally, it is worth noting Adam wrote this in 1924, well before Vatican II. James Arraj noted that “There have been wide-spread theological opinions in the church before about all sorts of matters that later turned out not to be true. It was widely taught, for example, that there was no salvation outside the church, and when this doctrine was finally examined at Vatican II, it was seen not to mean what it had been commonly understood to mean.” In fact, the groundwork for Vatican II’s interpretation had been laid for many years prior to the council, with roots going back to St. Augustine!
Background over. What is true rejection of the Catholic Church? True rejection demands “full deliberation” and “obstinate self-assurance” in shutting out the truth. As Fr. Rosica wisely noted, none of us are really qualified to evaluate when someone has or has not done this. Adam goes on to note that
…the theologian has by means of psychological and historical studies attained a wider understanding and become increasingly cautious of attributing an “evil will” to the heretic. He has become more alive to the thousand possibilities of invincible and therefore excusable error. “It must be regarded as true,” declared Pope Pius XI in allocution of the 9th December 1854, “that he who does not know the true religion is guiltless in the sight of God so far as his ignorance is invincible. Who would presume to fix the limits of such ignorance, amid the infinite variety and difference of peoples, countries, and mentalities and amid so many other circumstances? When we are free from the limitations of the body and see God as He is, then we shall see how closely and beautifully God’s mercy and justice are conjoined.”
Now, this is not the end of the story. One cannot make him or herself invincibly ignorant. Hertzberg, for instance, comes dangerously close to suggesting that he is “safe” in maintaining his self-described “heretical religious opinions” so long as he obeys his conscience. It is quite clear that he has not actually read what the Catechism actually says on this (see Part Three, Section One, Chapter One, Article 6 for the Church’s actual teachings on conscience and it will be clear why Hertzberg is wrong).
In short, Hertzberg is skirting the obstinate self-assurance that the Church’s theologians are in agreement points one toward damnation. As I know not the state of Hertzberg’s soul or how the story will end, I dare say no more. I will stress, however, that anyone who seriously, deliberately, seeks “loopholes” may well be courting damnation (do not look to this lawyer for help in that).
Second, to frame the question positively, how CAN we be saved?
Rather than reinvent the wheel I would suggest reading the essay appropriately entitled Who Can Be Saved? by Cardinal Avery Dulles. I will quote his concluding lines:
Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.
Lest one get too excited about this, however, one should carefully consider the full analysis Dulles has gone through to get to this point. In particular, he warns:
The search, however, is no substitute for finding.
We cannot take it for granted that everyone is seeking the truth and is prepared to submit to it when found. Some, perhaps many, resist the grace of God and reject the signs given to them. They are not on the road to salvation at all. In such cases, the fault is not God’s but theirs. The references to future punishment in the gospels cannot be written off as empty threats. As Paul says, God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).
To put it simply, in order to be saved one must seek the Truth and be prepared to submit to it when found. This is the sine qua non of salvation, the “bare minimum” if you will. The Pope Emeritus further elucidates this subject (Truth and Tolerance):
…salvation does not lie in religions as such, but it is connected to them, inasmuch as, and to the extent that, they lead man toward the one good, toward the search for God, for truth, and for love….Paul does not say, If the pagans keep their own religion, that is good before the judgment-seat of God…he points to another source-to what is written in everyone’s hearts, the one good, from the one God…everywhere and in every age-albeit often with difficulty and in fragmentary fashion-the speech of the “heart” can be heard, because God’s Torah may be heard within ourselves, in our creaturely being, as the call of duty, and it is thus possible for us to transcend what is merely subjective in order to turn toward each other and toward God. And that is salvation. Beyond that, what God makes of the poor broken pieces of our attempt at good, at approaching him, remains his secret, which we ought not to presume to try to work out.
As Cardinal Dulles observes, however, one cannot assume that most people are answering this call of duty and seeking the Truth, much less that they are prepared to submit to it. One who does not seek cannot find. One who refuses to concede to reality (see my previous writings on spiritual realism) cannot attain salvation. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t be too hasty about who we will “see in heaven.” In the words of Scott Hahn
…it’s far easier to dialogue with [materialists, objectivists or empiricists] than with more radical skeptics, like those who doubt the very notion of reality. With the former group, we can at least agree on the importance of material reality, objective reality and empirical reality…materialists, objectivists and empiricists may be well on their way to the kingdom.
However, we need not despair. As Dulles says
We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7)
This point is made vividly by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Lewis puts the following words into the mouth of the literary incarnation of George MacDonald:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.
Third, what then of the mission imperative? Does it actually matter?
Finally, the points I have made above flow into the third-has the Church been relieved of her obligation to evangelize? By no means. Cardinal Dulles explains why:
…it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth…God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.
A friend of mine said recently that she is reminded of the line from Spider-Man “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Indeed. Truer words were never spoken.
If I can turn East for a moment, Kallistos Ware explains of “outside the Church there is no salvation” that
All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church. Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked, ‘How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!’ While there is no division between a ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense we cannot always say.
It is, of course, true that there are many who with their conscious brain reject Chris and his Church, or who have never heard of him; and yet, unknown to themselves, these people are true servants of the Lord in their deep heart and in the implicit direction of their whole life. God is able to save those who in this life never belonged to his Church. But, looking at the matter from our side, this does not entitle any of us to say “The Church is unnecessary for me.”
In short, the mission imperative absolutely matters. The Catholic Church knows what the rest of the world either thinks is unknowable or knows only in part. Much has been given to us. Much is expected to us. Indeed, to quote Rev. Fleming Rutledge, it would be selfish of us to keep the Gospel (Good News) to ourselves. We MUST share it. And our work is all the more important today, in a world where-in the words of Pope Francis-human beings are trying harder and harder every day to emancipate themselves from reality-as I have said in this essay and in many others, there is tremendous spiritual danger in that. We are needed now more than ever.
A final point. Hannah Hurnard, in her book Wayfarer in the Land, struggles to come to terms with the unexpected death of a woman she had been evangelizing. In her grief she received a ‘message’ from God, which prompted her to make a most insightful reflection.
God: Can you trust her to me and my love? Will you not believe that nothing has been left undone, nor will be left undone, that can help her? Trust her to me.
Hannah: It was not that I felt afterwards that it did not matter so much if we did not urgently seek the lost before they left this world, for in the end all shall be well. Rather it was an overwhelming sense of our Lord’s passionate love and longing for the souls whom he has created, and his determination to seek them at all costs, and his longing that we should cooperate with him in this work. The one thing w cannot do, we who have tasted of his love and grace, and been lifted out of the darkness and brought into all the joy and power of knowing him, is to sit back comfortably and leave him alone in his task of searching for the lost.
Yes, we have a great responsibility, but we have also been told, by St. John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”
So, what does all of this have to do with legalism? As I recently noted, reality is never simple. Many would prefer that the question of salvation be simple, to know without any qualification who is saved and who is damned. Even easier would be to take for granted that everyone is saved in the end. We are given no such assurances. The Church has made clear-and has never reversed-Her assertion that She alone carries the words of eternal life handed over by the founder. Yet, with human beings, things are never quite that simple.
Lawyers are justifiably the butt of many jokes-I have invented a few myself along the way. Yet if there is one thing our mindset is good for it is problem-solving, of making sense out of complexities. It is our profession that is charged with trying to “incarnate” justice, of resolving innocence and guilt, of working to rectify injustice, to hold some to account and to vindicate others. It is a deeply biblical, I daresay even spiritual, calling.
When it comes to the salvation of souls lawyers cannot of course achieve God’s justice-only God can do that. However, we can help elucidate God’s justice, to help explain why our faith that the Judge of All the Earth shall do right, rests on solid grounds. It may case it has meant applying my legal training-a certain method of reading and analysis-to the Magisterium. In so doing I arrive at the same place as the Church’s greatest theologians.
And as unnecessarily complicated and legalistic as the Magisterial teaching on salvation may seem, there is no “weasel factor” at work here. To the contrary. The truth that Pope Francis and Fr. Rosica speak of is a truth as complex as humanity and legalism-whatever its faults-is sometimes the best way to make provisional sense of the justice in these teachings. And for this I dare to say: Thank God for legalism.