The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics
"Chapter 23: Other Sheep I Have"
There are many non-Christian religions and philosophies that have numerous followers in the world. Yet, there is not one of them that would even attempt to give a carefully worked out, rational basis for its faith such as we have given in the main part of this book. Yes, Muhammad, founder of Islam, claimed to be a prophet. But he did not even try to prove it by miracles worked in the connected framework we saw for the miracles that prove Jesus was a messenger sent by God. Nor is there any such thing as an Islamic Lourdes, a center where miracles still happen, which are meticulously checked by the best resources of modern science. Only the Catholic Church can and does claim such proven wonders.
But another question can and must be raised about these sects. St. Paul in Romans 3:29 asked: "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles?" St. Paul meant that if we say that one could only be saved by keeping the law of Moses, then what of the countless people who have never heard of Moses? Did God desert them, as if He were not their God at all? St. Paul says that He is their God too, for He has provided for salvation by faith (we recall the meaning of that expression in Chapter 18).
Clearly, we have to ask the same question about the millions who have never heard of Christianity. Is God not their God too? With St. Paul we say, "Of course He is."
But here we must carefully distinguish two things: the fact that it is true, and how this is accomplished. The fact that God makes salvation possible for them is beyond doubt-just how it is done is a different question.
As to the fact that it is true: Pope Pius IX taught, "God, who clearly sees, examines, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts and attitudes of all, in His supreme goodness definitely does not allow anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault."161 When Father Leonard Feeney said that all who did not have their names on a parish register were lost, Pope Pius XII directed the Holy Office to condemn his error. In its declaration, the Holy Office quoted from the Mystical Body Encyclical of Pius XII, saying people can be saved, "who are ordered to the Church by a sort of unrecognized [by them] desire and wish.''162 Vatican II taught the same concept: "They who without their own fault do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with a sincere heart, and try, with the help of grace, to carry out His will which they know by conscience can attain eternal salvation ..."163 This does not mean a person who knows that the Church has been founded by Jesus as the means to salvation can choose merely to obey the moral law and ignore the Church: "Those persons cannot be saved who while knowing that the Catholic Church was founded by God through Jesus Christ as necessary, still refuse to enter it or to continue in it."164
Thus, it is certain that these millions who are not officially part of the Church are not excluded from eternal salvation. But, as we said, just how this works out in practice is another question. Pius XII made clear that in some way people can by an implicit desire (which they themselves do not recognize as such) pertain to the Church, or be "ordered to the Church" and so, if they fulfill the moral law as they know it, can be saved. (Modern anthropology shows that primitives do know the moral law surprisingly well).
In exploring farther, we recognize that the Church has not given us more information than what we have just quoted. That of course does not forbid us, without denying the Church's words, to add to them to clarify the issue.
How can pagans be saved?
The question of how pagans are saved presents a puzzle. On the one hand, we have the modern, authoritative statements which we have just quoted; on the other hand, some older texts which sound contrastingly severe. For example, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D. taught, "There is one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved."165
Now before going ahead, it must be recognized that in matters of divine revelation, we may easily come upon two truths, and know both are true-yet we may not be able to see how to reconcile them. We saw examples of this conflict from St. Paul in Chapters 19 and 20, and there are more. The way to reconcile seemingly opposite things may be to accept that we can never resolve them, at least in this life. For example, the mystery of the Blessed Trinity is unsolvable in this life. But in other cases, after some time, the answer may be discovered, as we saw previously. It is of major importance to work using the right method. We must take care not to deny, or even to strain the interpretation of either of the two truths. So here we must hold that membership in the Church is required-yet that some can be saved who seem not to have that membership.
Pope St. Clement I, who was of the same generation at Rome as Sts. Peter and Paul, wrote in about 95 A.D. to the Church of Corinth, "Let us go through all generations, and learn that in generation and generation the Master has given a place of repentance for those willing to turn to Him. Those who repented for their sins, appeased God in praying and received salvation, even though they were aliens to God."166
Even more striking are the words of St. Justin, Martyr, written in his First Apology, in Rome, around 150 A.D.: "Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus."167 We left the word Logos in Greek because it has several meanings including word, Word of God, and reason. St. Justin seems to mean the Word of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who in the fullness of time took flesh for our salvation.
How could Justin say some followed Christ the Logos centuries before His birth? In his Second Apology, St. Justin explains: "Christ ... was and is the Logos who is in everyone, who foretold through the prophets the things that were to come, and, when He became like us in experience, taught these things Himself."168 St. Justin is saying that even before the incarnation, the Divine Word could speak to men-to the Jews through the prophets and to outsiders in a purely interior way. Those who followed the Word were Christians, even centuries before Christ.
St. Justin is elaborating on an idea of St. Paul's found in Romans 2:14-16 which states, "For when the Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature those things that are of the law; these having not the law are a law to themselves: They show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bears witness to them, and their thoughts in turn will be either accusing or even defending them, in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel."
St. Paul echoes Jeremiah 31:33, where God says, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it in their heart." If the Gentiles obey the law written on their hearts, then their consciences will defend them at the Judgment and they will be saved. If we compare these words with what St. Paul adds later in Romans 8:9: "Now if any man does not have the spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him," we can see that it must be that the Spirit of Christ-the Divine Logos, the Word- writes the law in hearts. If one does not have and follow that Spirit, he does not belong to Christ-but if he does have and follow it, he does belong to Christ. The implications are tremendous and we will explore them in greater detail later.
About the same time as St. Justin, a remarkable layman called Hermas, the brother of Pope St. Pius I, wrote a work on the Church and the Sacrament of Penance called The Shepherd. In it, he reports a vision which perhaps is just a device of the genre in which he was working. In that vision an old woman appears. An angel asks Hermas, "The old woman... who do you think it is?" Hermas thinks it is a pagan prophetess, a Sibyl. But the angel tells him, "You are wrong . . . it is not." "Who then is it," asks Hermas. The angel explains, "It is the Church." But then Hermas asks, "Why the appearance as an old woman?" The angel explains, "Because She was created first of all, and for this reason, She is an old woman."169 According to this vision, the Church has always existed, since the beginning; She is the first creation.
The same idea exists in a very early sermon from about the time of Hermas which was once thought to come from Pope St. Clement I: "The books of the prophets and the Apostles [say] that the Church is not [only] now, but from the beginning. She was spiritual ... She was manifested in the last days to save us."170
St. Justin had said that some people centuries before Christ were really Christians, since they followed the Logos, the Divine Word. St. Irenaeus, the martyr Bishop of Lyons (died c. 200 A.D.), had listened when he was young to St. Polycarp telling what he in turn had heard from St. John the Apostle himself. St. Irenaeus wrote, "There is one and the same God the Father, and His Logos, always assisting the human race, with varied arrangements, doing many things, and saving from the beginning those who are saved-they are those who love God and ... follow the Logos of God."171
The idea that the Church is ancient, from the beginning of time, is put forth by Clement of Alexandria, head of the great catechetical school of Alexandria: "It is clear that there is one true Church, which is really ancient, into which those who are just ... are enrolled."172
The next head of the school at Alexandria was Clement's pupil Origen. The pagan Celsus had attacked the Church, saying: "Did God then only, after so long a time, think of making the life of man just, while before He did not care?" Origen replied, "But He always cared, and gave occasions of virtue to make reasonable beings right. For generation by generation, the wisdom of God came to souls it found holy, and made them friends of God and prophets."173
The objection of Celsus appears again, and is answered, in the work of Arnobius around 305 A.D. Arnobius had long been an opponent of Christianity. When he finally asked for Baptism, the bishop was suspicious. To prove his sincerity, Arnobius wrote Against the Nations. In it he said: "Put aside these cares, and leave the questions you do not know. Royal mercy was imparted to them, and the divine benefits ran equally through all. They were conserved, they were liberated."174
Not long after Arnobius, a dialogue presented as between Manes, founder of Manichaeism, and Archelaus, Bishop of Charchar, speaks similarly. Manes had raised the same objection as Celsus. Archelaus replied, "From the creation of the world, He has always been with just men ... Were they not just from the fact that they kept the law? 'each of them showing the work of the law on their hearts, their conscience testifying to them.'"175 Archelaus, we easily see, is appealing to Romans 2:14-16, which taught the salvation of pagans who followed the law that the Spirit of Christ, the Logos, made known to them in their hearts.
One of the greatest of the Latin Fathers, St. Augustine, wrote in his Epistle 102, "From the beginning of the human race, whoever believed in Him and understood Him somewhat, and lived according to His precepts ... whoever and wherever they may have been, doubtless were saved through Him."176 And again later in the same Epistle: "The salvation of this religion, through which alone true salvation is truly promised, was never lacking to anyone who was worthy, and he to whom it was lacking, was not worthy."
Near the end of his life, when he made a long review of all his works, called Retractations, we find: "This very thing, which is now called the Christian religion, existed among the ancients, nor was it lacking from the beginning of the human race until Christ Himself came in the flesh, whence the true religion, that already existed, began to be called Christian."177
We could quote many more statements from the Fathers, but let us be content with brief mention of a few more. St. Gregory of Naziansus, at the funeral of his father, who had been pagan but died a bishop, said, "He was ours even before he was of our fold."178 St. John Chrysostom interpreted Romans 2:14-16 just as we did.179 Pope St. Leo the Great spoke of Christ establishing one and the same cause of salvation since the foundation of the world.180 Pope St. Gregory the Great spoke much as did St. Augustine, and in a Homily on Ezechiel added, "They were, then, outside, but yet not divided from the Holy Church, because in mind, in work, in preaching, they already held the Sacraments of faith, and saw that loftiness of Holy Church." Although they were outside the Church in that they were not official members, they were "not divided" from the true Church.181
Finally an answer
It has been proven that many Fathers held that the Church existed from the beginning of the human race. Others, like St. Justin, said that some before Christ were really Christians because they followed the Logos, the Divine Word. So now we ask: In what sense was and is the Logos in each man, so that, by listening and obeying, men could be Christians even before Christ?
As we hinted above, the answer lies in the great Epistle to the Romans. In Romans 2:14-16, the Spirit of Christ was sent into the hearts of pagans who had not heard the revealed law of Moses. The Spirit wrote the law on their hearts-anthropology today says that primitives did and do know the moral law. Those pagans, of course, did not know it was the Spirit of Christ. Yet, objectively, many of them did follow that Spirit, and so, objectively, if they complied, they were following the Spirit of Christ. We saw further, from Chapter 8 of Romans, that those who do not have and follow that Spirit do not belong to Christ, but those who do have and follow the Spirit of Christ do belong to Christ. Now, in St. Paul's language, to "belong to Christ" means to be a member of the Body of Christ-but that Body of Christ is the Church. Hence, this remarkable conclusion is evident: The good pagans really did belong to Christ, or belonged to His Body, the Church. They were unaware of that, of course, and so did not turn in their names to a parish register, as it were. In that respect, they were members in a lesser way or lesser degree, but yet, in a basic and true sense, they were members of the Church.
Were this not true, St. Paul could not have written "Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles?" (Rom. 3:29).
It is apparent that many of the Fathers could say the Church existed from the beginning. It was in this way that it did exist.
It is also obvious how the Fourth Lateran Council could say flatly that only those who belong to the Church are saved. This statement is quite right since these pagans we have described, who followed the Logos, the Spirit of Christ, really were Christians and were members of the Church.
Consequently, there is an answer to what seemed a great puzzle: How can we reconcile the opposing views that one must be a member to be saved; yet many who never get their names on the parish register are saved. Now we can have it both ways.
Whether or not they realized it, the Fathers of Vatican II expressed the same idea: "All who belong to Christ, having His Spirit, coalesce into one Church."182
But a further objection can be raised. Some say that before Christ, there was provision for those who did not know the revelation given to the Jews; after Christ, anyone who does not get his name on a parish register, as it were, is damned, even if he had really no chance to get to know the Church. This is a horrendous error, really, the most hideous of heresies, for it makes God, who is Love, to be a monster, damning untold millions through no fault of their own. On the contrary, St. Paul, in five different ways, repeats in Romans 5:15-21, that the redemption is more abundant than the fall. These people would make it far less abundant!
Further, the words of the Magisterium, cited above, clearly rule out the heresy of the objectors. Pius IX said that God ... "does not allow anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault." He was referring to the present, not to the time before Christ, for he used the present tense. Similarly Vatican II says: "They who without their own fault do not know the Gospels of Christ and His Church" can be saved if they do what they know. If the Council meant only people who formally get into the Church, there would be no point in writing these words. Pius XII too said those who are merely "ordered to the Church by a sort of unrecognized [by them] desire and wish" can be saved.
All this does not mean that we should not work and pray for the conversion of those whose names are not on the parish register. We should, definitely. It is the will of God that they should enter fully, for there they find more abundant, more secure means of salvation, and "God desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth." (1 Tim. 2:4).