Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Newtown, the reality of evil, and the promise of salvation

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 19, 2012

Something terrible happened to the children of Newton, Connecticut, last week. Yet something even worse happened to the twisted young man who killed them.

No, I do not plan to use his name. With our obsessive focus on the killer we have made him a sort of anti-hero, a potential model for other sick souls. Far better, I think, to focus public attention on the heroic acts of teachers who tried to save young lives, and let the murderer pass into obscurity.

And no, I do not plan to explain the cause of this atrocity. Frankly I have been appalled by the opportunists who have pounced on the tragedy as a means of advancing their ideological causes. We don’t know what social or psychological forces drove this young man to slaughter innocent children. He is dead, too; he cannot explain himself to us. He must now answer to a higher court.

But this much is clear: When he shot those children, the killer was guilty of a profoundly evil act. Maybe he had some sort of diminished capacity, and did not properly understand what he was doing. Maybe he repented in his final minutes on earth. But it is certain that when he began gunning down the students at Sandy Hook, he was doing the work of the Evil One.

Evil is real: a powerful force, never far from our doors. We would like to explain away this massacre without reference to Satan: to suggest that if we had the proper laws and policies, the proper training and supervision and counseling for everyone, such tragedies would be impossible. Not true. There will always be evil people—or rather, to speak more accurately—people much like ourselves who are tempted to do evil things.

Just a few weeks before the shootings in Newtown, people in roughly the same geographical area were menaced by hurricane Sandy: an enormous, potentially deadly force that we could neither predict nor control. The power of evil, too, is unpredictable, and even more deadly because it can reach beyond the grave. The ultimate danger is not that we will die—we all will, sooner or later—but that we will die in the grasp of evil, that we will be damned.

Damnation: when was the last time you heard that possibility discussed? Yet it is a possibility, accepted by all orthodox Christians: a possibility not only for mass murderers but for you and me. We are all tempted toward evil actions—sometimes gravely evil actions--every day. It is all too easy to succumb.

And what about those people who don’t live in the light? As it happens, I heard the horrible news from Newtown just after I began reading Ralph Martin’s new book, Will Many Be Saved. Jeff Mirus has already commented on this book, which is a thorough investigation of a few critical lines from Lumen Gentium, in which the fathers of Vatican II discuss whether salvation is possible for those who do not know Christ. Written for a scholarly rather than a popular audience, Martin’s book is an important contribution to a debate that has continued among Christian theologians for centuries.

Today most Christians are uncomfortable with that debate. We prefer not to think that some people may be damned, because they do not have access to the only sure means of salvation. Yet that is the doctrine taught by the Church—and, as Martin points out, confirmed by Vatican II. Those who do not know Christ may be saved, Lumen Gentium teaches, but they are unquestionably at risk.

Reading Martin’s analysis as the gunshots in Newtown reverberated through the media, I was powerfully reminded that we are engaged each day in a deadly serious struggle. Maybe the American public is fascinated by the Newtown massacre in part because we are grappling with a display of an evil that we all know, deep down, is never too far away. Horror-movie fans can enjoy a frisson of terror, knowing full well that they will be safe when they leave the theater. But we never escape the theater of spiritual combat, until death. This is a reason not so much for fear as for care. With Christ our salvation is assured. But it is possible to separate ourselves from Him; we are tempted in that direction constantly. And many people do not have our assurance because they have never come to know Him.

Among my friends I count many followers of Father Leonard Feeney, who energetically advanced a strict interpretation of the Catholic dogma (and it is a dogma) that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: the proper interpretation of that teaching has been the subject of some fiery debates over the years. Can someone be saved by “baptism of desire”—even if he doesn’t know what it is that he desires? Frankly—with apologies to my friends—I don’t find these debates terribly interesting, because they cannot be resolved in this life. We don’t know who is saved.

But we do know that the Church offers the one sure hope of salvation. We know that the Lord gave us the command to spread the Gospel, to bring people to the Church, to baptize all nations, to open the possibility that all men might be saved. All through the Gospels, Jesus tells us to serve our neighbors. With equal clarity He tells us that there can be no greater service than the service of evangelization, no greater gift than the gift of faith.

Ralph Martin writes Will Many Be Saved from this evangelical perspective. The purpose of Lumen Gentium 16, he argues, is not to stimulate further debate among theologians, but to spur Christians to missionary activity. We may not be sure which of our neighbors will be saved, but we can be sure how to give them the best chance: by bringing them into the Church.

When the Council fathers wrote of those “who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church,” they were probably thinking of people living in remote regions of the world where the Gospel had not yet penetrated. Today we might include residents of Main Street in an ordinary American town. The “New Evangelization” announced by Blessed John Paul II and encouraged by Pope Benedict XVI is a response to the sad recognition that in many parts of the world the Gospel has been preached and then forgotten. Our neighbors may need evangelization as much as the natives of Borneo’s jungles.

Moreover, their salvation affects our salvation. We have been sent on a mission, and we dare not fail—certainly not for lack of effort. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” writes St. Paul (I Cor 9:16), and we should all feel the same way. Jesus tells a cautionary story about Dives, who is consigned to Hades because he ignored the material suffering of his neighbor Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). We cannot expect a more favorable judgment if we ignore our neighbors’ spiritual needs. Starvation is bad, but damnation is worse, and damnation is a real possibility.

Pope Benedict opens his encyclical Spe Salvi with the observation that the Christian virtue of hope is based on the promise of redemption. But to accept that promise one must first recognize the need for redemption: the reality that without a Savior we are doomed. As we prepare to celebrate the unquenchable light that shines from Bethlehem, it is healthy to take a moment to recognize the darkness that it shatters—a darkness that could, without that light, easily overcome us.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 19, 2012 8:39 PM ET USA

    Thank you for your kind words. These considerations remind us that Christian charity is a duty for all baptized in the sanctifying charity of our Redeemer. We must share the Faith as is encumbent upon us by our vocation in Christ and as a reflection of his undying love for us- each one of us. Yes, our hope demands our assent that we "need" Him, that "without a Savior we are doomed." Thank you for this fundamentally Christian message animated with Christian love. Holy Innocents pray for us!