Roman Catholic universalism

Avery Cardinal Dulles, after surveying Roman Catholic teaching through the ages about who can be saved gives this bottom line answer:

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. 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.

So if Catholicism is correct, I guess most of us in other churches are OK. I worry that the atheists will be unhappy to find themselves in Heaven, irked that in not believing in God they nevertheless worshiped him under some other name, so what kind of Heaven would that be for them?

But let me get this straight, and keep in mind that Cardinal Dulles is no touchy-feely Catholic but a conservative Catholic in close association with the Pope. To be saved, you do not have to have faith in Jesus Christ. You can have faith in God. Or, despite the first commandment, you can have faith in God under some other name. Or, if you don’t believe in any gods, you can have faith in something else, such as truth or justice. Or, if you don’t have faith in anything, you can be saved by your good works, though this seems to be the main point even for Christians.

Certainly, if salvation is by good works, anyone who does good works–people of other religions, atheists–will be saved. And since Catholics define good works as having been produced by faith, one can predicate some sort of efficacious faith to anyone who does them. But what an impoverished view of sin we see here! So even this blatantly human rationalization to make God seem nice turns out to be of little comfort to an actual sinner who is burdened by his bad works.

But more than that, if faith in virtually anything is enough or even optional for salvation, why do we need the church, why should anyone evangelize, and why did Jesus need to die?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fw

    Dr Vieth

    If I understand correctly, a Roman Catholic looks at the idea of being certain of salvation as being a form of presumtion and arrogance and contrary to true piety.

    It seems like the Lutherans alone curve their entire theology around urging certainty in the death of Christ 2000 years ago , AND how to find Him in 2008 in a personally applied, totally objective way, including preachments of the law. Are we really alone here… I hope not.

    I see bapticostals and calvinists super concerned with the idea of “assurance” but sort of by default as something that their systems make them obsess about and at the same time has no organic-part-of response for those seeking assurance.

    Am i missing something here?

  • fw

    Dr Vieth

    If I understand correctly, a Roman Catholic looks at the idea of being certain of salvation as being a form of presumtion and arrogance and contrary to true piety.

    It seems like the Lutherans alone curve their entire theology around urging certainty in the death of Christ 2000 years ago , AND how to find Him in 2008 in a personally applied, totally objective way, including preachments of the law. Are we really alone here… I hope not.

    I see bapticostals and calvinists super concerned with the idea of “assurance” but sort of by default as something that their systems make them obsess about and at the same time has no organic-part-of response for those seeking assurance.

    Am i missing something here?

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    But more than that, if faith in virtually anything is enough or even optional for salvation, why do we need the church, why should anyone evangelize, and why did Jesus need to die?

    Argh. I was thinking very much the same thing while considering the universalism among the Episcopal church and some areas of the ELCA. Now if I post it will look like I copied you. :) Seriously though, good job.

  • http://necessaryroughness.org Dan at Necessary Roughness

    But more than that, if faith in virtually anything is enough or even optional for salvation, why do we need the church, why should anyone evangelize, and why did Jesus need to die?

    Argh. I was thinking very much the same thing while considering the universalism among the Episcopal church and some areas of the ELCA. Now if I post it will look like I copied you. :) Seriously though, good job.

  • Carl Vehse

    So if Catholicism is correct, I guess most of us in other churches are OK.

    Even though Avery Dulles claims atheists can be saved, according to the canons of the Council of Trent, still in effect, Rome declares Lutherans to be in anathema.

    Avery Dulles tapdanced around that issue in his 1999 First Things article, “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration” (http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3250)

    The Missouri Synod response to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was made by then President Al Barry (http://www.lifeoftheworld.com/believe/statements/betrayal.php) and both Concordia seminaries (http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CTCR/justclp.pdf).

  • Carl Vehse

    So if Catholicism is correct, I guess most of us in other churches are OK.

    Even though Avery Dulles claims atheists can be saved, according to the canons of the Council of Trent, still in effect, Rome declares Lutherans to be in anathema.

    Avery Dulles tapdanced around that issue in his 1999 First Things article, “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration” (http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3250)

    The Missouri Synod response to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was made by then President Al Barry (http://www.lifeoftheworld.com/believe/statements/betrayal.php) and both Concordia seminaries (http://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/CTCR/justclp.pdf).

  • Matt L

    This really shouldn’t surprise us, as he is only restating what Vatican II says:

    16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126); But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) 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. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

    Dulles, and every single Roman Catholic is obliged to hold this as true… then again, there is a higher obligation, for it is the obligation of every Christian to denounce such apostacy.

  • Matt L

    This really shouldn’t surprise us, as he is only restating what Vatican II says:

    16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126); But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) 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. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(129) Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”,(130) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.

    Dulles, and every single Roman Catholic is obliged to hold this as true… then again, there is a higher obligation, for it is the obligation of every Christian to denounce such apostacy.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    This is an important, underconsidered point. If there are ways to God outside the of the Cross, then wasn’t Jesus a fool to be crucified? He could have just told his followers to be good Jews, and encouraged Jewish proselytising, and saved Himself a whole lot of trouble.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    This is an important, underconsidered point. If there are ways to God outside the of the Cross, then wasn’t Jesus a fool to be crucified? He could have just told his followers to be good Jews, and encouraged Jewish proselytising, and saved Himself a whole lot of trouble.

  • organshoes

    ‘…if faith in virtually anything is enough or even optional for salvation, why do we need the church, why should anyone evangelize, and why did Jesus need to die?’
    And why did martyrs–Catholic saints among them–die, and then why beatify them? For their stick-to-itiveness? Their courage and vision? Did they only die to prove a point? Which was…?
    What a dishonor to the martyrs (and to the faith and to Our Lord), dying in violence for the faith this man claims to represent (and to present).

  • organshoes

    ‘…if faith in virtually anything is enough or even optional for salvation, why do we need the church, why should anyone evangelize, and why did Jesus need to die?’
    And why did martyrs–Catholic saints among them–die, and then why beatify them? For their stick-to-itiveness? Their courage and vision? Did they only die to prove a point? Which was…?
    What a dishonor to the martyrs (and to the faith and to Our Lord), dying in violence for the faith this man claims to represent (and to present).

  • Richard Lewer

    If I recall correctly, Thomas Aquinas already wrote that all men have an inner gift of grace. In Catholic doctrine, grace is the ability given by God to do good and thus to be saved. This comes close to the Mormon definition of Jesus as the savior. Doctrine is a matter of definitions.

  • Richard Lewer

    If I recall correctly, Thomas Aquinas already wrote that all men have an inner gift of grace. In Catholic doctrine, grace is the ability given by God to do good and thus to be saved. This comes close to the Mormon definition of Jesus as the savior. Doctrine is a matter of definitions.

  • fw

    #6 Richard Lewer

    You recall incorrectly about the Mormon Definition of Jesus as savior..

    God the father had sex with his mother Mary.
    Jesus became savior so that we might become Gods even as God the father was once a man and progressed to become a god and his wives godesses.
    The point of Jesus becoming savior was so that we could progress to “exhaltation” which means that we can become Gods.

    There is NOTHING about this on the oficial mormon site, even though progression to Godhood IS the central purpose of being a good mormon. wow. what deception.

    this is in no way even close to christian or roman catholic teaching. If you are mormon Richard, then you know this is all true. This makes you disingenuous at best….

    click here for more on LDS basic teachings….

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3518122935543352086

  • fw

    #6 Richard Lewer

    You recall incorrectly about the Mormon Definition of Jesus as savior..

    God the father had sex with his mother Mary.
    Jesus became savior so that we might become Gods even as God the father was once a man and progressed to become a god and his wives godesses.
    The point of Jesus becoming savior was so that we could progress to “exhaltation” which means that we can become Gods.

    There is NOTHING about this on the oficial mormon site, even though progression to Godhood IS the central purpose of being a good mormon. wow. what deception.

    this is in no way even close to christian or roman catholic teaching. If you are mormon Richard, then you know this is all true. This makes you disingenuous at best….

    click here for more on LDS basic teachings….

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-3518122935543352086

  • Richard Lewer

    In both cases it is our good works that finally accomplish the purpose. Both stray from Christianity even if not to the same degree.

  • Richard Lewer

    In both cases it is our good works that finally accomplish the purpose. Both stray from Christianity even if not to the same degree.

  • fw

    #9 Richard Lewer

    Absolutely.

  • fw

    #9 Richard Lewer

    Absolutely.

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  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    Dan, what do you mean “in some parts of the ELCA?”

    There are parts of the ELCA which repudiate universalism? Note that I’m not asking whether there are ELCAns who repudiate it. My question is whether there is a single synod in which the operating theology of the ELCA doesn’t assume it.

  • http://watersblogged.blogspot.com Bob Waters

    Dan, what do you mean “in some parts of the ELCA?”

    There are parts of the ELCA which repudiate universalism? Note that I’m not asking whether there are ELCAns who repudiate it. My question is whether there is a single synod in which the operating theology of the ELCA doesn’t assume it.

  • Booklover

    Mr. Avery Cardinal Dulles, I am appalled that you forgot to mention us Moloch-worshippers!!! Surely we are saved also! We sincerely seek god and strive to do his will, so regularly we submit our infants to the flames. Surely we shall be saved because we submit to our god’s demands of truth and justice. Please do not leave us out again.

  • Booklover

    Mr. Avery Cardinal Dulles, I am appalled that you forgot to mention us Moloch-worshippers!!! Surely we are saved also! We sincerely seek god and strive to do his will, so regularly we submit our infants to the flames. Surely we shall be saved because we submit to our god’s demands of truth and justice. Please do not leave us out again.

  • Booklover

    A similar topic was discussed years back on the White Horse Inn. The hosts said that when religions focus on Jesus PLUS good works, eventually the “good works” are all that is needed and Christ is finally left out of the equation. This is what happened with John Wesley’s focus on perfectionism in Methodism, and apparently now in Dulles’ brand of Catholicism. :-( :-(

  • Booklover

    A similar topic was discussed years back on the White Horse Inn. The hosts said that when religions focus on Jesus PLUS good works, eventually the “good works” are all that is needed and Christ is finally left out of the equation. This is what happened with John Wesley’s focus on perfectionism in Methodism, and apparently now in Dulles’ brand of Catholicism. :-( :-(

  • CRB

    So, nothing has changed since the Reformation, and if Luther were here to comment on the assertions of Cardinal Dulles what would he say?

  • CRB

    So, nothing has changed since the Reformation, and if Luther were here to comment on the assertions of Cardinal Dulles what would he say?

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  • J.T.

    I think the point of Jesus’ death, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, is that all sins needed to be forgiven BEFORE all people could find communion with a God that is All-Love.

  • J.T.

    I think the point of Jesus’ death, from the Catholic Church’s perspective, is that all sins needed to be forgiven BEFORE all people could find communion with a God that is All-Love.

  • http://priest2b.blogspot.com/ Vaughn Treco

    As a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism, your comments regarding “Roman Catholic universalism” are particular import to me. Recently, though, I have encountered something of great concern to me regarding the rise of “Evangelical Universalism” (See http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-am-evangelical-universalist.html). Would you care to offer some comment regarding this strand of Evangelical theology?

  • http://priest2b.blogspot.com/ Vaughn Treco

    As a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism, your comments regarding “Roman Catholic universalism” are particular import to me. Recently, though, I have encountered something of great concern to me regarding the rise of “Evangelical Universalism” (See http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-am-evangelical-universalist.html). Would you care to offer some comment regarding this strand of Evangelical theology?

  • mary

    “This is an important, underconsidered point. If there are ways to God outside the of the Cross, then wasn’t Jesus a fool to be crucified?”

    Oh, no. That is not an underconsidered point. It’s one of the two most wearingly overused points, (along with, why should we speak of/show people the love of Christ if he isn’t intending to condemn for not having been told about him).

    And Pope John Paul II, and all orthodox Catholics are quite aware that there is no way to the Father, except through the Son. They believe, however, that it is Jesus himself who saves us (and who also can save those who have little or no intellectual knowledge of him). We do not save ourselves by having correct thoughts about Jesus.

    Yes, Jesus, and the appostles speak a great deal about believing, but I don’t think that the Jewish understanding of belief is the same as ours. As one of my pasters explained it, we modern westerners think that to believe means to intellectually assent to a proposition. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, to believe meant to give yourself to a reality. So when someone who doesn’t understand the doctrine of salvation, or who has not heard of Jesus, tries to love and do what is good, they are, according to the ancient understanding of belief, believing in the one who is the source of all good.

  • mary

    “This is an important, underconsidered point. If there are ways to God outside the of the Cross, then wasn’t Jesus a fool to be crucified?”

    Oh, no. That is not an underconsidered point. It’s one of the two most wearingly overused points, (along with, why should we speak of/show people the love of Christ if he isn’t intending to condemn for not having been told about him).

    And Pope John Paul II, and all orthodox Catholics are quite aware that there is no way to the Father, except through the Son. They believe, however, that it is Jesus himself who saves us (and who also can save those who have little or no intellectual knowledge of him). We do not save ourselves by having correct thoughts about Jesus.

    Yes, Jesus, and the appostles speak a great deal about believing, but I don’t think that the Jewish understanding of belief is the same as ours. As one of my pasters explained it, we modern westerners think that to believe means to intellectually assent to a proposition. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, to believe meant to give yourself to a reality. So when someone who doesn’t understand the doctrine of salvation, or who has not heard of Jesus, tries to love and do what is good, they are, according to the ancient understanding of belief, believing in the one who is the source of all good.

  • http://greater-emmanuel.org/Hope4You/ Rodger Tutt

    A Catholic theologian’s universalist point of view.

    Google up
    DARE WE HOPE THAT ALL MEN BE SAVED?
    Hans Urs Von Balthasar
    Ignatius Press

  • http://greater-emmanuel.org/Hope4You/ Rodger Tutt

    A Catholic theologian’s universalist point of view.

    Google up
    DARE WE HOPE THAT ALL MEN BE SAVED?
    Hans Urs Von Balthasar
    Ignatius Press

  • Grace

    i am a conservative, evangelical Christian who has a hope that all may be saved. as it is God who helps us to recognize and come to Christ (Matthew 16:15-17 and John 6:44), and as the Father is willing that none should perish but that all should repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:9), i do have a hope that at some point, all will be able to recognize and call upon Christ, and be reconciled to the Father through Him. whether this happens in heaven, hell, or on the Last Day, if God is willing and patient that all should repent, i see no reason to think that it won’t happen, or that the hope of reconciliation ends when this mortal life is over.

  • Grace

    i am a conservative, evangelical Christian who has a hope that all may be saved. as it is God who helps us to recognize and come to Christ (Matthew 16:15-17 and John 6:44), and as the Father is willing that none should perish but that all should repent and be saved (2 Peter 3:9), i do have a hope that at some point, all will be able to recognize and call upon Christ, and be reconciled to the Father through Him. whether this happens in heaven, hell, or on the Last Day, if God is willing and patient that all should repent, i see no reason to think that it won’t happen, or that the hope of reconciliation ends when this mortal life is over.


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