Them and Us
By Dwight Longenecker
Steve is a convert. In fact he jumped ship from his own little rowboat to that great ocean liner called HMS Queen Mary (aka the Barque of Peter) before I did. Even in our Evangelical days at college Steve was a bit of a hard-liner, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that he’s suddenly gone and joined the Society of St Pius X. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no lover of the services of Fr Folkmass, but I don’t really have much time for Monsignor Maniple either. I’m sure Latin Masses can be beautiful and dignified and I’m sure they are straight down the line on the old time religion. I’m glad those who like the Latin Mass have more permission to celebrate the old ways. But why oh why do they have to go off on such an extreme and form their own little ‘us and them’ group? Then the icing on the cake is when I get this email from Steve quoting three popes and saying how all non-Catholics are headed for hell. Phew! Lefebvrist and Feeneyite all wrapped up in one.
The first papal snippet was by Pope Innocent III from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. It says, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved.” The second one was a real whopper. In 1302 Pope Boniface VIII said, “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” The last one is from Pope Eugene IV in 1441. He writes, “The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. Only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.”
Steve forgot to say that even in the Middle Ages this teaching wasn’t new. Cyprian of Carthage wrote a wonderful discourse on the unity of the church. Called De Catholicae Ecclesiae, it’s where you find the quote, ‘He cannot have God for his father who has not the church as his mother.’ Cyprian is also the one who first coined the phrase, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation.’ As it stands, the evidence seems pretty strong for Steve’s position. There is the dramatic statement by Cyprian, and there are three strong and unequivocal statements by three Popes. If this is so, how can the new Catechism come up with the following statements?
‘The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptised who are honoured by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptised are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” (CCC, para. 838)
Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to Catholic unity. (CCC, para. 819)
Has the modern Catholic Church really changed the age-old faith in a touchy-feely attempt to be all ecumenical and nice?
Where’s Your Audience?
In attempting to understand any ancient text it is important to look at the context. This means looking at the whole document, but also looking at the historical context, and asking to whom the document is addressed. When Cyprian wrote his treatise on the unity of the Church he was dealing with the schismatic group called the Novatians. They were followers of a Roman priest called Novatian who was a rigorist. He opposed the merciful position the Roman church took towards those who had compromised during the persecutions under Decius. When Cyprian said, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation, ‘ he was not talking about the eternal destiny of pagans, but addressing fellow Catholics who had gone into schism.
Likewise with Pope Innocent III. Pope Innocent was a great medieval Pope. He tried hard to root out heresy with discussion and debate. He was the Pope who espoused the Franciscans and encouraged them. Innocent’s statement at the Fourth Lateran Council was, like Cyprian’s, aimed at Catholics who were tempted by schism and heresy. The Pope’s teaching is for people who know and understand the claims of the Catholic Church and deliberately depart on their own way because they do not like the present trends of the Church. Innocent therefore calls his sheep and reminds them that to have known the way of salvation and departed from it is far worse than never to have known it.
Pope Boniface VIII was one of the notorious popes. J.N.D.Kelly says of him, he ‘was singularly unsympathetic, combining exceptional ability with arrogance and cruelty, insatiable acquisitiveness for his family, and insensitive contempt for his fellow men, feared and hated, he could not keep a friend.’ Boniface’s famous statement from his bull Unam Sanctam is tainted by the fact that it was more a frustrated call for Philip IV of France to submit politically than it was a call for spiritual submission to the authority of Peter’s successor. Nevertheless, the audience for this papal call to unity in the church is addressed, once more, to a son of the Church who is finding it difficult to submit. It is not a statement about the condition of non-Catholics. The same is true of Pope Eugene IV’s statement. Made in 1441, his words are not so much a comment on the eternal state of Protestants, pagans and infidels as they are a call to the Catholic faithful not to lapse into schism or depart in heresy.
Its interesting then to look more closely at Cyprian’s debate with the Novatians. The Novatians were rigorists. They saw every issue in black and white. They even called themselves Puritans. They not only wanted a strict policy of rehabilitating those who had given in under persecution, but they also wanted to withhold absolution from anyone guilty of mortal sin. Like all self-righteous people they wanted to boost their own stakes in the goodness game by putting others down. Novatian got himself elected as an anti-pope and began setting up an alternative purist hierarchy. In other words, their rigorist self-righteous position meant they would even divide the church. Am I the only one who sees the startling similarity to the Feeneyites and Lefebvrists? Convinced that they are the pure church, undefiled by modernism, they are willing to form a schism or even divide the church if need be.
Cyprian’s stern words were spoken about these schismatic Catholics—not pagans. Those who know and understand the truth are in a different category than those who have never heard the truth, cannot understand the truth, or through no fault of their own, cannot submit to the truth. Likewise when, Innocent III, Boniface VIII and Eugene IV declare that there is no salvation outside the church they are not speaking to those outside the church, but to those who are inside and are thinking of leaving. Their declarations are not statements about the eternal destiny of non-Catholics, but a warning to Catholics.
What’s the Point?
It is sometimes argued that the modern church has turned its back on the stern assessment of Cyprian, Innocent III, Boniface VIII and Eugene IV. It hasn’t. The Catechism re-affirms,
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism explains: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone,which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.” (CCC, para. 816)
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. (CCC, para. 846)
However, we also have to admit that we are in a different historical context. Cyprian, Innocent III, Boniface VIII and Eugene IV all lived in an era of undivided Western Christendom. The New World with its hoards of pagan peoples hadn’t been discovered and the Western Church had not yet been torn apart by the Reformation. Now we live in a situation where many are baptised and live the life of Christian faith in a separate orbit from the Catholic Church. If they have been born into a community which is separated from full communion they cannot be blamed for the sin of schism. So the catechism says, ‘
However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers… All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church. (CCC, para. 817)
Notice it doesn’t say that those who are outside will be saved. It simply acknowledges that by God’s grace it may be possible for them to be saved.
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. (CCC, para. 847)
The full teaching of the Catholic Church therefore is subtle and graded. Looking at the whole picture, it is still true that there is no salvation outside the church, but those most in danger from this warning are Catholics, who, for whatever reason, dissent from the full teaching of the Catholic Church and go their own way. In this category are both the extreme liberals who make up their own religion and contradict the Pope and the extreme conservatives who do the same. The second category of warning is to those Christians who know and understand the claims of the holy Catholic Church, but deliberately reject those claims or refuse, for selfish reasons, to come into full communion with the Catholic Church. In this category may well be a large number of Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox. The third level of warning must be to those who are somewhat interested in the Catholic Church, and are attracted to her, but because of selfish or lazy motivations do not move further towards the fullness of the faith. Below them are sincere non-Catholic Christians who have been born into schism and who genuinely believe the Catholic Church is wrong. Finally there is the category of people who have never heard of the Catholic Church or the Christian faith. They too are warned that there is no salvation outside the church, but that warning is accompanied by the realisation that Christ’s sacrifice was for all mankind and that God is not willing for any to perish. Christian charity demands the faith and hope that God is doing far greater things than we can ever ask or think in the lives of those who have never hear of his Son.
This doesn’t let us off the hook though. Full scale missionary and apologetics work still needs to be engaged in. The Catechism goes on to exhort us to reach out in dialogue, in evangelisation and in apologetics work to explain the fullness of the Catholic faith. This fullness is one which is both strict and forgiving. It is full of both justice and mercy. It has room for our friends and foes. After all, the reason its called the Catholic faith is because it is universal. That means it has room for both liberals and Lefebvists, Puritans and Pacifists, Feminists and Feeneyites. Just think of it, if the church has room for all of those loonies it might just have room for you and me too.