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Will Many Be Saved?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 19, 2012 | In Reviews

We’ve all experienced it; we’ve all been affected by it: The endemic lack of concern about evangelizing others so that they can be saved. I’ve already given my most heartfelt response to this problem in The Catholic Side of Salvation, but I’ve hardly exhausted everything that could and should be said on the subject. In particular, there is a need to address the widespread belief, even among Catholics, that salvation is virtually assured to all men and women, regardless of their religious faith.

There are many reasons for this relatively recent fundamental shift among Christians in general on the likelihood of salvation for all, or nearly all, persons. I suspect the greatest single reason is the progressive secularization of Western culture, which for a long time has been living off the declining capital of Christianity. This secularization of the larger culture, progressing slowly over several centuries, has inevitably caused a corresponding secularization of the various Christian bodies, including the Catholic Church.

At first it seemed that the growing numbers of people who lacked faith lived in a very similar way to Christians, and so it came to seem increasingly presumptuous to proclaim that our secular friends and family members were different enough from ourselves to warrant damnation. But also, under the influence of this process of secularization, the spiritual bar has been steadily lowered within the Christian bodies themselves. Therefore, at each stage of decline, the comparison with purely secular neighbors has held good: They are not so very different from ourselves; if we are saved, why not they? Many Christian bodies have been locked, if not in a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least in a self-fulfilling slide down a very slippery spiritual and moral slope. Gradually, even in the Catholic  Church, we have learned to perceive less and less of both the glory of God and the horror of sin.

Reasons for Concern

But there are other reasons which are more positive. Part of the genius of modern culture is its recognition of human psychology. As a result, we tend to be substantially more sensitive to all the factors which color human perception and personal assent to the good, factors which seem very frequently to be beyond human control. This, coupled with a decline in perception of the spiritual impetus of the human will, has made it difficult for men and women of our age to identify an interior locus of freedom in the human person which would be sufficient, for an all-knowing God, to establish a damnable guilt. The too-facile assumption of many earlier Christians that the Word of God must always strike the person quickly and with a power sufficient to elicit conversion, unless it meets deliberate personal resistance, has become increasingly difficult to maintain—and not without legitimate reason.

Finally, there is the seemingly intractable problem of cultural and religious pluralism, so acute outside the confines of a once European Christendom, especially when seen in connection with a justifiably heartfelt belief in the universal salvific will of God. We moderns are accustomed to the diversity of a global world, and we are extremely reluctant to suppose, if such pluralism really is all but inevitable, that God’s salvific will should be so widely thwarted by it. This is not an evil concern; it obviously plays a role in how and when the Church has turned her attention to various aspects of Revelation in order to develop her doctrine of salvation more fully over time. But as we will see shortly, even when we find something difficult to understand—indeed, especially when we find things difficult—we must not spin new solutions to the God problem out of whole cloth. We must continue to take our cues from what God Himself has chosen to reveal to us. 

Doctrinal Development and Theological Speculation

And then there are the legitimate theological developments, over long centuries of Catholic thought and under Magisterial guidance, which have only in the modern period (but well before Vatican II) led us to an absolute certainty that salvation is possible even through an implicit faith in Christ and an implicit desire to enter the Church, a faith and a desire which are determined by a person’s response to the good he is given to know by God in the depths of his heart. This is already expounded in Scripture by St. Paul (see What Does It Mean to Be Saved?). But for the Magisterium, see the Council of Trent’s teaching on baptism of desire (the context is still explicit desire but does not rule out implicit desire) and the more complete explanation in Pope Pius IX’s encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore (1863). What later appeared at Vatican II was actually written up and scheduled for approval at Vatican I, but the Council was interrupted by war. See also Pope Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), and especially the letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston (formally approved by Pius XII) settling the Feeney affair (1949). In any case, Vatican II returned to these sources to complete work almost completely done a century earlier.

In addition, during the latter period of these doctrinal developments, many Catholic theologians began to propose theories which suggested not only the possibility of salvation for those who are not formal members of the Church but its likelihood. While one can argue that much of this relatively cavalier theologizing simply reveals the unfortunate Modernism of the academy, itself a clear form of theological secularization, there were two highly regarded theologians who contributed to this speculation with comprehensive analyses of their own, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Rahner is studied by theologians of all stripes today, though he is generally championed primarily by those who find themselves uncomfortable with certain official Catholic teachings. The insights of Hans Urs von Balthasar, by contrast, are very frequently admired, though not without key reservations, by theologians who are unquestionably orthodox, including Pope Benedict XVI.

Since the Second Vatican Council, a great many theologians have cited section 16 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) as justification for the likelihood that very few if any persons will be cut off from God for all eternity. Largely as a result of all of these factors, missionary fervor—including missionary vocations—collapsed rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, and (at least relatively speaking) Catholics everywhere stopped trying to convert their neighbors. This is despite the facts that Vatican II emphasized both the missions and the overall missionary character of the Church, Pope Paul VI issued a major encyclical on evangelization, Pope John Paul II issued a major encyclical on the missionary character of the Church, and Pope Benedict XVI has called for a new evangelization, even making it a theme of the upcoming year of faith.

It is nearly axiomatic in Church history that the fruits of an ecumenical council are not clear until at least fifty years have passed. We can see now, as the genuine renewal of the Church called for at Vatican II finally begins to take hold, that the reluctance to evangelize is arguably waning. New orders, communities and apostolates with admirable evangelical fervor are springing up throughout the Catholic world. The efforts of the Holy See, the explosive growth of the Church in Africa (which is sending out its own missionaries), and even the gradual reconversion of the bishops of the Western world from their Modernist/secularist dissipation are all beginning to have some effect. In the United States, one apparently minor but telling example, announced just this week, is the appointment of Jonathan Reyes as the new Executive Director of the USCCB’s Department of Peace, Justice and Human Development. Reyes has demonstrated throughout his career that he places evangelization at the heart of all Catholic efforts to foster the goals over which his department presides. Compared with the last fifty years, this is something which seems both very old and very new.

Nonetheless, as a prevailing Catholic cultural attitude, and most certainly in the academy, this theological unconcern with the need to save souls is manifestly still dominant. Moreover, as I said at the outset, it affects all of us. What is the solution?

Recovering the Full Teaching of Vatican II

According to Ralph Martin, director of graduate theology programs in the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit,  the simplest and most direct solution is to pay attention to the complete teaching on salvation in Lumen Gentium instead of focusing only on the first part of it. Too many theologians, as well as Catholic intellectual culture as a whole, have seized upon the first seven out of ten sentences in Lumen Gentium 16. These seven provide four sentences of introductory material on relations among the entire human family and the universal salvific will of God, and then the three most famous sentences which explain how those can be saved who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to respond to the Gospel, including those who (again, through no fault of their own) have not yet come to a basic knowledge of God. “Whatever good or truth is found among them,” the Council states, “is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”

With respect to the possibility of salvation, this emphasis is fair enough. Martin’s most compelling point is merely that theologians should not get so excited by the beginning that they pay no attention to the end. For there are three more sentences which follow immediately to round out the whole ten:

But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:21,25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, “preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:16), takes zealous care to foster the missions.

In other words, what the Church teaches, including through the Second Vatican Council, is that while it is possible for each person to be saved without effectively hearing the Gospel, this is not probable. Very often, in fact, this does not happen because of the darkening of the intellect, the perversity of our fallen nature, the manner in which human cultures can inhibit the workings of grace, and even despair itself. Again, note the language: Very often. Thus Ralph Martin argues that our obligatory Catholic recognition of the truth of all ten sentences of Lumen Gentium 16 makes a huge difference. The teaching, when taken whole and entire, ought clearly to stimulate a sense of Catholic urgency about evangelization and the conversion of others to the Catholic Faith.

Now our salvation is an exceedingly complex theological topic. For this very reason, it is fortunate that Martin has gone far beyond expressing an opinion. He has written a brilliant and comprehensive book on this subject, new from William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, entitled Will Many Be Saved?. The subtitle is “What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization”. As I indicated, Martin is a theology professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He holds an S.T.D. in systematic theology from the Angelicum (the University of St. Thomas) in Rome. He is also president of Renewal Ministries and a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. Moreover, his lifelong concern for evangelization from the heart of the Church equips him very well for this important task.

Will Many Be Saved? poses the basic problem I have identified here, but in a more focused theological context. It thoroughly explores the long history of doctrinal development which lies behind Lumen Gentium 16, the Scriptural foundations of Lumen Gentium 16, Rahner’s universalist theology of the “anonymous Christian”, and von Balthasar’s influential theological “hope” that all will be saved. Everything is considered in light of the Catholic tradition of theological analysis and Scriptural interpretation, the questions and insights of contemporary theologians, and the full teaching of the Church. The book concludes with recommendations for a change in pastoral emphasis with respect to the question of salvation.

Martin’s study will appeal strongly to both the serious student and all those who take genuine delight in deep theological and Scriptural reflection and commentary. The work provides the most thorough exploration to date of the importance of the preaching of the Gospel to our eternal destiny; it is full of references to Church documents, Scripture (especially Romans), and the work of scores—perhaps hundreds—of Fathers, Doctors, saints and theologians who have written on the subject. Sixty-nine pages of notes and a seventeen-page bibliography emphasize the scholarly acumen Martin brings to his thesis. Yet the book is always readable, the references and quotations always interesting and apt.

If you can read only one book on this topic, which is so critical for a continuing Catholic renewal and the salvation of souls, read Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved?. You will find it a valuable exercise in spiritual growth, and a vital means of setting the record straight.

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: bnewman - Sep. 22, 2012 4:08 PM ET USA

    This is a vey interesting article. The problem is that the world is divided into two quite different camps. Globally and in terms of population the world is much the same as it has always been: believing strongly in the supreme importance of God or spiritual and moral matters.Catholicism has been increasing rapidly here particularly in Asia and Africa. But there is also the WEIRD world; Western-Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. This world has a big problem with all religion and morals.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 22, 2012 2:51 PM ET USA

    The new English translation of the Roman Missal may help in the new evangelization of formerly Catholic societies. For example, my 1960 missal translates "Credo" as "I believe," not as "We believe." Likewise the words of institution are translated: "For this is the chalice of my blood of the new and eternal testament, the mystery of faith, which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins." Cf. the new translation's use of "I believe" and "poured out for you and for many."

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Sep. 20, 2012 2:40 PM ET USA

    Everytime I pray I ask our Lord to save souls, especially the souls of the sick and the dying. I still do not believe that anyone can be saved without an explicit faith in at least Jesus Christ and the Trinity but I tend to believe like Father Brian Harrison that God could give dying souls the opportunity to make explicit acts of Faith, Hope and Charity right before they die even if we can't see it happening; therefore I trust in his mercy for dying souls.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 19, 2012 9:51 PM ET USA

    It is one of the great ironies of our time that many who profess the greatest compassion and reject Catholic teachings as too harsh actually fail to grasp the remarkably generous charity that has gushed forth from Holy Mother Church since that gush of blood and water on Calvary. The salvation of souls is central to the Church's mission. The life of grace is the life of love. There is mystery, but there must be a "Catholic urgency" about "the conversion of others" if there is Catholic charity.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 19, 2012 8:07 PM ET USA

    In my humble opinion I do not think that there is "much" concerning the heart and the mind that it takes to be saved. The problem is the pervasive tendency of the human heart toward depravity. We NEED the graces and the disciplines of our holy Catholic Church to fortify ourselves against the enemy's final attacks. When I consider my own fraility at times I shudder to think how anyone who has not prepared themselves can endure the rigours of death.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Sep. 19, 2012 6:40 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this analysis. I am concerned that the root of the problem is faith. If folks don't really believe, I mean really believe, they have an immortal soul and how you live makes a difference - they may be lost; period. Even for those of us who believe, how do we know we are on the right track - not deceived by our own selfishness or Satan. Do we really believe God is real and Christ really lived, died and rose - for each of us. Troubling indeed is this effort and our complete response.