The Catholic Side of Salvation
If non-Catholics can be saved, why does it matter if we become Catholic or remain Catholic, or try to convert others to Catholicism? After following our discussion here on the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, one of our readers suggested that it would be very useful to address that question. I agree. If a person can be saved regardless of the religion (or no religion) in which he finds himself, why should we cling to our Faith and attempt to share it with others?
An Initial Catch-22
There is, of course, a Catch-22 here, because once you understand the value of Catholicism, the question is closed. It may be all very well for someone else to remain non-Catholic, but once one knows what Catholicism is, it is clear that to reject it is to turn one’s back on God and His Providence. So those who understand their Faith—but who just once in a while wish it could be otherwise—have eliminated by their own conscious knowledge whatever “hope” for escape they might otherwise have had! If you’re a good Catholic who is tempted by a questionable way to make money, by a romantic dalliance to which you have no right, by a wish that various charitable causes would simply leave you alone (ahem), or by the prospect of lying abed on Sunday morning after having partied all through Saturday evening and Saturday night—well, sorry, but as the saying goes, you’re hoist with your own petard.
In plain English, you’re blown up by your own bomb, and you know it. Ultimately you don’t mind unless you’re really in a personal crisis, because you already understand that the Catholic Church offers the fullness of what God the Father has made available in Christ for our salvation and that, in consequence, the Church is far and away the easiest and most certain road to eternal happiness. Finally, in knowing that, you also know two other things. First, you know that if you turn your back on the Church, you’re rejecting God and the Good you know, which makes salvation impossible in any context. Second, you know that you have an incomparably valuable and wonderful gift which, if you really care about anybody but yourself, you’ll want to share with others.
Turning Things Right Side Up
Now while this is the whole answer in brief, there are much richer ways of expressing it. One of the problems that prevents us from expressing this richness is our preoccupation with the question of personal salvation. I’m reminded of the evangelical Christians who used to walk up to me at college and ask me whether I was saved. Indeed, ever since sectarian divisions arose in the 16th century, even Catholics have thought more about their Faith in terms of salvation than they did before. As recently as the first half of the twentieth century, this preoccupation with the question of salvation too often took center stage in ordinary Catholic life. Thus it has often been said, including by theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger, that there was a strong cultural tendency among Catholics at that time to live the Faith prescriptively: Just give me the rules; tell me the minimum set of things I have to do to get to Heaven; oh, and let me know what it takes to make Purgatory, too.
Yet this almost exclusive focus on the question of salvation actually looks at the Faith from the wrong end, defining it too much in terms of one ego-centric result. I don’t mean to say that personal salvation is unimportant. Certainly Our Lord talked about it. But thinking about religion primarily in terms of personal salvation is an essentially Protestant idea. A religious scholar named Paul Hacker actually turned this problem into an extraordinarily perceptive book about the Protestant Reformation entitled The Ego in Faith. The serious Protestant wants to know if a man has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. In broad terms, the purpose of religion for Protestants is to gain salvation. The essential and far richer purpose for Catholics, however, has always been to give glory to God.
Now as soon as we say this, we grasp instantly that it is true, but how often do we forget! And once we remember that it is true, we suddenly start looking at religion from the right end again; we turn the whole thing right side up. At its very core, Catholicism isn’t about me, or at least not primarily. It’s about God. And secondarily, it’s about my relationship with God, and yours, and every human person’s.
Glory, Love and Grace
God is pure being, without beginning or end, the one whose essence is existence, the only one who can truthfully call Himself “I am who am” (Ex 3:14). He is so awesomely beyond and above us that our only appropriate response is: “Glory!” He is also the Creator of everything else that exists, all of which depends completely and utterly upon Him. Again, “Glory be to God!” And He is a Trinity of burning love, by His very nature impelled to share Himself in love with others, whom He has created simply to be loved, to know what it means to be in love. Once again, “Glory!”
Finally, to draw us into this ecstasy of love, He makes Himself present to us through the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. And after Jesus Christ came into the world, taught us everything we needed to know about the Father, established His Church and prepared for His final act of obedience to the Father’s will, what does He say to the Father about His purpose and the purpose of His disciples? He says it is all for the glory of God. Read Saint John’s Gospel:
I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made. I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word. Now they know that everything that thou hast given me is from thee; for I have given them the words which thou gavest me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from thee; and they have believed that thou didst send me. I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine; all mine are thine, and thine are mine, and I am glorified in them. (Jn 17:4-10)
An Engine of Unity
To give glory to God, we must keep His every word, insofar as we know it; and if we are so blessed as to know all His words through His only begotten Son, then we must embrace and live in the very Word of God Himself. This is not a demand so much as a gift. Remember that the central task of the Word in history is to reconcile us to the Father or, as I said above, to bring us into an ecstatic union of love with Him. To conceive of this as a burden, or to weigh it up in terms of a series of requirements, is to miss the point entirely. But we cannot be caught up in an ecstasy of infinite love merely by offering our own natural and finite love. Thus a central feature of God’s plan is that He should actually share His Divine life with us, not only loving us but enabling us to love Him back with His own supernatural love, now made our own through grace.
At last we are getting somewhere in answering our question of why we should become Catholic, or remain Catholic, or bring others to Catholicism. To respond to God as He so ardently wishes, by drawing into a union of love with Him, we need all the assistance we can get: All the knowledge of Himself that He has provided; all the guidance He has given as to the attitudes and behaviors we need to modify in order to love properly; and as large a share in His very life—that is, as much grace—as we can pack in. These things come to man through Christ and His Holy Spirit operating in and through the Catholic Church—the Church Christ founded and committed to Peter and the Twelve, the leaders of the Church of whom He said so very clearly: “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16).
The Catholic Church is a veritable engine of unity with God. Her structures and sacred hierarchy, her Faith and securely infallible teaching, her sacramental life of grace, and her very members—sinners in flux, with all their faults—are also Christ’s mystical body, the locus of his presence on earth, and the ultimate source and font of every grace to all, even those outside her visible borders. To enjoy the gift of God’s saving love fully, to draw into the fullest possible union with Him, and so to glorify Him to the best of our ability as He wishes to be glorified, we must participate as vigorously in the Church as we know how, and we must share this immense gift with others as much as we can. For indeed it would be churlish on our part, and more than worthy of condemnation, to be willfully satisfied with anything less than all that God has offered—as if to spurn our Lover’s gifts.
The Kingdom of God
This same criterion of willful satisfaction applies equally to all persons, and the Church’s teaching on salvation both within and outside of the Church’s sacramental system depends on this very thing: We must not turn away from whatever Good we know, and we must always seek earnestly to know more of the Good, and ultimately know the Author of all that is good. Because Catholics have the opportunity to participate more richly than anyone else in this knowledge and in the grace to grow into union with the only One who can truly be called “good” (Mk 10:18; Lk 18:19), Catholics possess incomparable blessings—blessings on which they are bound, so to speak, to capitalize. Remember the parable of the talents (Mt 25)!
So far we have been considering this matter from the personal point of view, which is valid enough, but it is also necessary to broaden it to its full scope, and ultimately to the new heavens and the new earth promised to us by Christ Himself (2 Pet 3). For Our Lord came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, which even now through the Church grows like the proverbial mustard seed in the hearts of men. This Kingdom has, inescapably, a social dimension, an outflowing to others of the love we share with God. Indeed, since the Church worships and grows as a community, its individual members are part of a community of love, a community which extends itself to all in every need, both natural and supernatural.
The reign of God has already begun in Christ: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt 12:28). It is made present each time we share the love of God that we have received, glorifying Him by keeping His words, by living in Christ—that is, by doing His will. Those of us in the West are beginning again to see, with the decline of Christian influence, what we once took for granted: The enormous decline in genuine care for one another and the immense misguidedness of human efforts to make things better. In other places which are becoming heavily Christian for the first time, people can see this from the opposite side: How much more mutual help there is, and how much better-directed human effort becomes, under the influence of Christ!
The Kingdom of God struggles against the darkness, of course, and appears often to be intermingled with it. But insofar as Catholics become better and more numerous, and insofar as they invest the social order with Catholic teaching and the love of Christ, so does the Kingdom of God penetrate the world more widely and deeply in both its natural and supernatural dimensions. For grace, while it does not replace nature, always perfects it.
Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ
This matter of extending the Kingdom of God brings me to a final point. God wishes to be glorified by entering into a union of love with you and me, and He also wishes to be glorified by this union with every soul. It is for this reason that He has made His Church a font of grace, and for this reason He has also given it a missionary charge: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). This is a clarion call to make converts, insofar as we are able, for the glory of God, a process of glorification which also includes that other little result, personal salvation.
But there is a deeper mode of participation in Christ’s work than missionary work. St. Paul put it this way: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). By an almost incredible act of condescension, God makes us partners with Christ in doing exactly what Christ Himself claimed His supreme sacrifice would do: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). This is, if you will, a stunning amplification of the parable of the talents. Indeed, to whom much has been given, from him much will be expected. We Catholics are privileged—yes, privileged—to become so intimately united with Christ that we can enhance in our own lives His very sufferings for the good of the Church. Note that the other side of this rare coin is the supremely high calling to help extend Christ’s salvific power.
We possess, then, by virtue of being Catholic, a share in the spiritual responsibility for all of our brothers and sisters, both within and outside the visible borders of the Catholic Church. We are called to make reparation for sin, to win forgiveness, and to increase the flow of grace available to all those who, in whatsoever condition, are or should be struggling to know and follow the good that must ultimately lead to God through Christ. By our own holiness, which is a deep union with God through the effective appropriation of grace, we are invited—no, we are actually expected—to strengthen and increase the mysterious ways in which the Holy Spirit, flowing out from Christ and His Church, touches the hearts of each and every person in the continuous drama of bringing all of them closer to their Father in Heaven.
Above all we are called to do this by our intense glorification of Christ in the Church, by which we offer everything we have to Him and with Him to the Father for the sake of souls. How was it that Saint Paul described God’s method? To his saints, said the Apostle, “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). It is Christ we proclaim, Paul continued, “warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).
Being Catholic is our glory, the glory due to God, and an incomparable potential gift to every man, woman and child whom God calls son, daughter and friend. Here we find glory upon glory. Ultimately, that is why we are to become Catholic, to remain Catholic, and to do all we can to draw others to embrace Catholicism. Ad majorem Dei gloriam. To the greater glory of God!
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Posted by: James Matthew Wilson -
Aug. 19, 2010 9:51 AM ET USA
To echo the other comments: this essay preaches the Gospel and so, naturally, it proclaims truths of permanent value. But, beyond that, it affords those truths a form of expression also of permanent value. This is a wonderful creed or Symbol of the Faith.
Posted by: -
Aug. 17, 2010 1:27 AM ET USA
Rousing good words. This gets forwarded to many.
Posted by: -
Aug. 14, 2010 3:58 PM ET USA
This is a master class in Catholic evangelism. I have been looking for ways to approach members of my family that are fallen away. God has provided it through you. Thank you.
Posted by: dschenkjr9859 -
Aug. 14, 2010 10:51 AM ET USA
We are missionaries; Christ instructed us to be so. It is like giving travel advice. “Here, is the interstate. Stay on it and you will arrive at your destination.” You can take the back roads. You might get there. You might enjoy the scenery. But it isn’t about the scenery, it is about the destination. ". While Jesus opened the path to salvation for all mankind, "the fullness of means to salvation" can be found only in the Catholic Church. Dominus Jesus says it best.
Posted by: lamontan20007497 -
Aug. 14, 2010 7:25 AM ET USA
Amen! Thank you for stating this so eloquently!
Posted by: koinonia -
Aug. 13, 2010 11:43 AM ET USA
I think this is his best essay to date. It's unfortunate that many Catholics across the spectrum of opinion often cannot put it all together. This said, I would emphasize that the "possibility of salvation for non-Catholics" is more exceptional than implied. In other words, being outside the Barque- especially in a shrinking world where invincible ignorance is more difficult to come by- is certainly a tenuous position. Being Catholic is an obligation with limited exceptional circumstances.