Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Indifference to Evangelization, Rebuked

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 30, 2011

Not long ago I noticed some spam-like emails circulating from a certain Feeneyite source (to which I do not wish to give any publicity whatsoever), in which I was gratuitously denounced once again for my assertion that people can be saved without explicitly embracing Jesus Christ and His Church. This is not merely my assertion, of course, but the clear teaching of the Magisterium.

Let me pause just a moment to mention my sources. The decrees of the earlier councils and popes admit the possibility by referring to being “added” or “joined” to the Church, rather than insisting upon explicit formal membership, as a condition of salvation (e.g., Council of Florence in 1442, Cantata Domino, Denzinger #714); and this traditional teaching has been developed and carefully explained by, among others, Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi (103), by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium (16), and by Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio (10). I have already written on this question in, among other places, The Church: Who’s In and Who’s Out? in 2007 and Salvation for Non-Catholics and Limbo in 2010.

But what interests me most today is the question which has haunted too many Catholics since this teaching was fully clarified in the twentieth century, namely: “If people can be saved without explicitly recognizing Christ and becoming members of the Catholic Church, why should we bother to try to convert people, to evangelize, and to engage in missionary work?” This is one of the big laments of Traditionalists. Though I suspect that the chief problem arises from modern relativism rather than from confusion about what the Church teaches, it is certainly sad to see anyone use this question as an excuse for indifference to the Gospel.

In reality, though, the question is based on a very shallow spirituality. I’ve written about this, too, in The Catholic Side of Salvation (August 2010), which I highly recommend as background for the discussion here. But what I have not yet done is to mine explicitly Pope John Paul II’s answer to this same question, an answer that was the very subject of his Apostolic Exhortation Redemptoris Missio in 1990. In English, this is entitled either “On Evangelization” or, literally from the Latin, “The Mission of the Redeemer”.

Getting the Church’s Teaching on Salvation Straight

Before doing so, though, it makes sense to quote the passage from this same document in which John Paul II sets forth the Magisterium’s infallible teaching on salvation outside the Church:

The universality of salvation [that is, the fact that salvation is offered by God to all, not that all take advantage of the offer] means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.

For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal mystery, went on to declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.” (10)

This is the fullest statement of the Church’s official teaching, and you can see how it takes into account previous teachings which chose to emphasize the point that there is no salvation outside the Church without addressing the different ways in which one can be connected to the Church. Those older teachings do not state or even imply that formal membership is the only way of being joined to the Church, and in fact some of them (as I have indicated) use language which implies that other modes of connection are indeed possible.

Clarifying the Picture with St. Paul

However, if you are having trouble seeing this point, Fr. William Most makes it very clear in his brilliant commentary on St. Paul’s epistles (The Thought of St. Paul, Christendom Press, 1994). Since, by deliberate design, very little of this essay is in my own words, I’ll quote heavily again in order to be sure the presentation is clear. In his commentary on Romans 2:14-16, Fr. Most explains as follows:

Thus far in Romans Paul has used strongly the focused view, as we have seen [that is, a view of man’s hopelessness without grace]. But now he shifts to the factual picture…within which grace is available through Christ, even to gentiles. If they use it, they will be saved.

This is like the thought of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 16…. This grace is, of course, offered abundantly to all, since (1 Tim 2:4): “God wills all to be saved.” John Paul II, in his [Apostolic Exhortation] Mission of the Redeemer says the same thing…. We note especially that the Pope says they are not formally members of the Church. We will return to that point: they can be substantially members, even if not members by formal adherence.

We began above to show how this works out. The Spirit of Christ writes the law on their hearts (cf. Jeremiah 31:33: “I will write my law on their hearts”), that is, He makes known to them interiorly what is required of them. Those who follow it are, without realizing it, following the Spirit of Christ. But, according to Romans 8:9, those who have and follow the Spirit of Christ, belong to Christ. In Paul’s terms, to belong to Christ is the same as being members of Christ, the same as being members of the Church. 8:14 adds: “As many as are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” As sons, they have a claim to inherit along with Christ, for they are members of Christ and sons of God. To repeat: in Paul’s language, to belong to Christ is the same as to be a member of Christ. And that in turn is the same as to be a member of the Church! Their membership will be less full, in that they do not explicitly adhere to the Church. Yet it is substantial, and sufficient for salvation, as Lumen Gentium 16 indicates…. Thus the old problem of the defined doctrine “no salvation outside the Church” is readily solved. In fact, Vatican II in Lumen Gentium says: “All who belong to Christ, having His Spirit, coalesce into one Church.” (The Thought of St. Paul, pp. 174-175).

Thus Fr. Most, in studying the many passages in St. Paul on this point—some seemingly restrictive and others universal—sees in St. Paul exactly what the Magisterium of the Church has taught. But this raises again the larger question which John Paul II set out to answer in Redemptoris Missio, the question of why we should care about conversion, evangelization and missionary work if people can be saved without it.

Reasons for Conversion, Evangelization and Mission Work

And so, without further ado, I am now going to list the twenty-four interrelated reasons (count them, 24) which John Paul II gave for the compelling importance of missionary work, evangelization, and conversion to Christ. Once again, I will refrain as much as possible from using my own words:

  1. “Christ alone fully reveals man to himself. The person who wishes to understand himself thoroughly must draw near to Christ.” (2)
  2. “By accepting Christ, you open yourselves to the definitive Word of God, to the One in whom God has made himself fully known and has shown us the path to Himself.” (3)
  3. “The Church’s fundamental function in every age, and particularly in ours, is to direct man’s gaze, to point the awareness and experience of the whole of humanity toward the mystery of Christ” because “the redemption event brings salvation to all” [so, obviously, knowing this is to know the most important thing about who we are, our destiny, and our common history]. (4)
  4. In Christ, “God has made himself known in the fullest possible way. He has revealed to humankind who he is. This definitive self-revelation of God is the fundamental reason why the Church is missionary by her very nature.” (5)
  5. “No one…can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s one, universal mediation…is the way established by God himself…. Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his.” (5)
  6. “In the process of discovering and appreciating the manifold gifts—especially the spiritual treasures—that God has bestowed on every people, we cannot separate those gifts from Jesus Christ, who is at the center of God’s plan of salvation.” (6)
  7. “The urgency of missionary activity derives from the radical newness of life brought by Christ and lived by his followers…. ‘It is love which not only creates the good, but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself.’” (7)
  8. “All are impelled by their own nature and are bound by a moral obligation to seek truth, above all religious truth. They are further bound to hold to the truth once it is known, and to regulate their whole lives by its demands.” (8)
  9. “[The Church] herself has been established as the universal sacrament of salvation. ‘To this catholic unity of the people of God, therefore,…all are called, and they belong to it or are ordered to it in various ways, whether they be Catholic faithful or others who believe in Christ or finally all people everywhere who by the grace of God are called to salvation.’” (9)
  10. “[The Gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16). (11)
  11. “True liberation consists in opening oneself to the love of Christ. In him, and only in him, are we set free from all alienation and doubt, from slavery to the power of sin and death.” (11)
  12. “This grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8) and “the Church, and every individual Christian within her, may not keep hidden or monopolize this newness and richness which has been received from God’s bounty in order to be communicated to all humankind.” (11)
  13. “If they [Catholics who have been given so much] fail to respond to this grace in thought, word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely.” (11)
  14. “In this way the kingdom of God comes to be fulfilled: the kingdom prepared for in the Old Testament, brought about by Christ and in Christ, and proclaimed to all peoples by the Church, which works and prays for its perfect and definitive realization.” (12)
  15. “Two gestures are characteristic of Jesus’ mission: healing and forgiving…. [These] are signs that indeed ‘the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Mt 12:28).” (14)
  16. “The kingdom aims at transforming human relationships; it grows gradually as people slowly learn to love, forgive and serve one another.” (15)
  17. “The kingdom cannot be detached either from Christ or from the Church.” [This is explained in response to the common error of reducing missionary work to mere human development.] “The result is a unique and special relationship which, while not excluding the action of Christ and the Spirit outside the Church’s visible boundaries, confers upon her a specific and necessary role; hence the Church’s special connection with the kingdom of God and of Christ, which she has ‘the mission of announcing and inaugurating among all peoples’.” (18)
  18. “Two elements [of the missionary mandate] are found in all the versions [of the Gospels]. First, there is the universal dimension of the task entrusted to the apostles, who are sent to ‘all nations’…. Secondly, there is the assurance given to the apostles by the Lord that they will not be alone in the task, but will receive the strength and the means necessary to carry out their mission.” (23)
  19. “The ultimate purpose of mission is to enable people to share in the communion which exists between the Father and the Son.” (23)
  20. “Whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions, serves as a preparation for the Gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ, the Word who took flesh by the power of the Spirit ‘so that as perfectly human he would save all human beings and sum up all things’.” (29)
  21. “Every form of the Spirit’s presence is to be welcomed with respect and gratitude, but the discernment of this presence is the responsibility of the Church, to which Christ gave his Spirit in order to guide her into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13).” (29)
  22. “The Lord Jesus sent his apostles to every person, people and place on earth. In the apostles, the Church received a universal mission…which involves the communication of salvation in its integrity according to that fullness of life which Christ came to bring (cf. Jn 10:10).” (31)
  23. “All forms of missionary activity are marked by an awareness that one is furthering human freedom by proclaiming Jesus Christ.” (39)
  24. “Missionary activity is nothing other and nothing less than the manifestation or epiphany of God’s plan and its fulfillment in the world and in history.” (41)

If You Knew the Gift of God

About half way through this rich Apostolic Exhortation, John Paul II moves on to explain how the Church accomplishes this evangelical mission. Just before shifting his focus, the Pope concludes his treatment of the reasons for conversion, evangelization and missionary work with this beautiful consideration:

Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non-Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of “proselytizing”; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, that it is enough to build communities capable of working for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. What is overlooked is that every person has the right to hear the “good News” of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ, so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling. This lofty reality is expressed in the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman: “If you knew the gift of God,” and in the unconscious but ardent desire of the woman: “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst” (Jn 4:10,15). (46)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Jul. 03, 2011 11:48 AM ET USA

    @Justin8110: Why would you think He *can't* do it? Of course he could, but he does not. If God were to interfere in everything, we wouldn't need our faith. The crux of the question you ask is, "Why doesn't God do his own evangelizing?" Certainly when we consider the things he is capable of, that would be more efficient, yes? Remember, though, that God did give us the free will to reject him, also.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 03, 2011 9:33 AM ET USA

    The miracle of the Good Thief's conversion is a consolation and a great mystery. But the Church has always emphasized the importance of evangelization and that even if "a connection to the Church" exists it is still expedient that a formal conversion take place. It might feel better to both parties to pursue mutual understanding, but it does not correspond to the exercise of true charity in Christ. Pius XII emphasizes the importance of the Church's sacraments in #s 18-20 of Mystici Corporis..

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 03, 2011 12:52 AM ET USA

    Why can't God save whomever He wills through the normal means? If He could create the world out of nothing than why can't he keep someone with good will alive long enough to become Catholic in the normal way? This is a Fenneyite objection that I have never seen adequately answered.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 02, 2011 8:05 PM ET USA

    jimgrum697380 is surely right that there is a different emphasis on this subject today as compared with earlier periods. But while theologians, teachers and commentators may well have taught that salvation without formal membership in the Church was rare, the Magisterium has never commented on its frequency at all. And of course we must take care with our wording: It is never a question of being saved outside the Church, but rather with a connection to the Church other than formal membership.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 02, 2011 5:37 PM ET USA

    Steve214 has misunderstood my point, which I admit was not clearly expressed. I don't think there is a Traditionalist alive who is not concerned that this question of "why bother converting people" has haunted Catholics since the mid-20th century. The Modernists, of course, don't care.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 02, 2011 3:54 PM ET USA

    "This is one of the big laments of Traditionalists." Still another misunderstanding of traditionalists from Dr. Mirus. While it is true that Feeneyites could be fairly described as traditionalists, few traditionalists are Feeneyites. You'll even find a SSPX book that makes many of the points of this article.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 02, 2011 9:05 AM ET USA

    The possibility of salvation outside the Church has always been taught as rare with very specific exceptions. The Church has had great urgency in evangelizing precisely due to this grave concern for souls. For the most part, today's writings and actions no longer reflect this urgency. There is an emphasis on mutual understanding. A major shift has occurred. May the hearts of Jesus and Mary shower graces on our Church and upon all souls who seek to know, to love and to serve their Creator.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 01, 2011 10:22 AM ET USA

    Your presentation here is entirely accurate, sir, but a point deserves greater emphasis, I feel. That is, those who are outside the Church, and even those who do not know Christ at all, may achieve salvation if their position is not imputable, i.e., if it is through NO FAULT OF THEIR OWN. The non-imputability of their position is a critical factor in their (possible) salvation, and I know you are aware of it, but I think sometimes it does not receive the emphasis it deserves.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jun. 30, 2011 9:23 PM ET USA

    A hallmark of post-conciliar language is extensive verbiage. #9 among the reasons for evangelization is a classic example. What does it really mean? This clearly lacks the precision typical of previous papal writings. It's clearly a departure; perhaps it's for the better. But how is it possible to write 24 compelling reasons for missionary work and not speak to the necessity of participation in the sacraments given to us by Our Lord to allow our participation in his divine life? Just asking.