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Sound Off! Comments on Salvation for Non-Catholics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 10, 2010

The Sound Off! comments on Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea have been on point and very helpful. I want to call particular attention here to what they add to the discussion.

Steve214 and jimgrum697380 both make the point that the real problem concerning the possibility for salvation of non-Catholics is not whether they can be saved but rather indifferentism or universalism. One can be indifferent to the question of salvation without being a universalist, of course, but it would be more charitable to assume that those Catholic leaders and theologians today who seem indifferent to religious differences tend to believe that everybody ends up enjoying the Beatific Vision in the end anyway (universalism). As Steve214 points out, it is hard to imagine the tolerance for poor catechesis and theological dissent if those doing the tolerating really think souls are at stake.

Clearly they do not think so, or else they don’t care about souls. It is better, I think, to be a fool than a knave, so we must assume they are very foolish indeed, because souls really are at stake. Souls are at stake for at least four reasons: First because Catholicism offers the fullest possible truth about God and man as well as all the aids God has given for man to draw into union with Him; second because error clouds the intellect and ennervates the will, so that abandoning someone to error may well prevent him from responding properly to the true or good he might otherwise perceive; third because what begins as sloppiness in doctrinal and moral matters tends to snowball into spiritual lethargy and moral turpitude; and fourth because indifferent Catholic leaders breed indifferent Catholic lay people, which vastly magnifies the scope of all of these problems throughout the length and breadth of our weary world.

Jimgrum697380 mentions in passing an SSPX priest who called those who died in the 911 attacks “martyrs” and insisted that they would go straight to heaven, regardless of their religious affiliation. While this shows that SSPX priests can be open to the salvation of non-Catholics, I suspect Jimgrum 697380 would agree that his anecdotal priest errs on the side of the very universalism he so rightly deplores. It is a very chancy proposition to talk about someone being a martyr who has not consciously chosen to die for the Faith. There are many heroic deaths that are not martyrdoms, and there are many unfortunate and undeserved deaths which are not even heroic. I would not count on being ushered instantly into heaven just because I happened to be killed by an Islamic extremist, unless he first gave me the chance to save my life by renouncing my Faith or at the very least targeted me personally because of my obvious dedication to Christ.

Another commentator, Cornelius, suggests that I “seem to give short shrift to the question of imputable ignorance.” I did not intend to do so, and everything Cornelius says about imputable ignorance is correct. If a person is guilty of not responding affirmatively to the Faith if he recognizes it as true—or indeed is guilty of not responding affirmatively to what he knows of the Good in a more general sense, for everything that is good leads ultimately to Christ—then he cannot be saved. But note the two following points.

First, the fathers at Vatican II were very aware of this need for a person to genuinely desire and seek the good. While Dei Verbum is not the primary place in the Council documents where the possibility for salvation for non-Catholics is taught (indeed, I wrote about it in this context only because I wanted to comment on the Pauline reference), the language used in Dei Verbum is extremely significant: A person bereft of the Gospel must “perseveringly do good in search of salvation.” One who responds lazily, or not at all, or adversely to the goodness and truth he recognizes in Christianity, or to more general truth and goodness elsewhere, obviously does not fulfill this requirement.

Second, a proper understanding of imputable ignorance does not lead to the conclusion that anyone who hears the Gospel but remains in darkness is necessarily guilty of his own ignorance. Imputable ignorance is ignorance that we can impute to a person—that is, ignorance we can blame him for. But to be blamed for ignorance in matters of truth (such as the doctrines of the Catholic Faith or the proclamation of the Gospel), one must actually first perceive them as true. We cannot assume just because someone has heard about Jesus Christ or encountered the Catholic Church that these things have impinged upon his consciousness in such a way that he has entertained them as truths.

We are lost in the depths of human psychology here. God alone knows who has held back (Catholic or otherwise) when his mind, heart and conscience have been animated by the truth, and who—in contrast—simply never recognized these gifts of our salvation as truths no matter what his exposure to them has been. We don’t know, and we can make no judgments as to the numbers in either camp.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rfwilliams2938 - Aug. 12, 2010 7:46 AM ET USA

    I must admit that I do ponder these issues. But who are we to speculate on who the sovereign Lord will save. We know well enough from scripture and the Church to keep ourselves busy enough with our assigned duties. That should be enough.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Aug. 10, 2010 12:29 PM ET USA

    "If a person is guilty of not responding affirmatively to the Faith if he recognizes it as true . . . then he cannot be saved." True, I think, but I doubt one need go so far as to require that he recognize it as true before God finds his ignorance imputable. A minimum requirement for ignorance to be imputable would be (I think) that a person failed to take reasonable steps to acquaint himself with the truth in the first place. There is an active as well as a passive duty involved here.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 10, 2010 10:31 AM ET USA

    I would clarify that the priest stated that some among the non-Catholics who died on 911 made it to heaven in a statement referencing the evil action and God's great mercy. The main pt is that SSPX priests are not feenyites. I would argue as well that the widespread liturgical abuses, catechetical shortcomings, and even the enormous sex abuse problems among others have placed certain additional obstacles before those who might otherwise seek refuge in the Catholic Church. Confusing times.

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