Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Father William Most Collection

Membership in the Church

[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]

Vatican II, in its Decree on Ecumenism §11 taught: "It is altogether necessary that full doctrine be lucidly explained. Nothing is so foreign to true ecumenism as that false irenicism in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers detriment, and its true and certain sense is obscured."

Sadly this injunction of the Council has often been violated. Two outstanding breaches are to be noted:

I. The Balamand [Lebanon] Statement of the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Commission, agreed on June 17-24, 1993 and published July 15 (Origins Aug. 12, 1993). In §10: "... The Catholic Church developed the theological vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted." This view seems to be rejected by the Commission. In §15: "... there is no question of conversion of people from one church to the other in order to ensure their salvation." And in §22: "Pastoral activity in the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Oriental, no longer aims at having the faithful of one church pass over to the other... ."

II. Eugene J. Fisher [of the U. S. Bishops' office for Jewish relations], said in: "The Church's Teaching on Supersessionism" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Mar-Apr. 1991. p. 58: "Rather, the Jewish 'no' is properly understood as a 'yes' to God's continuing call to them. Jewish refusal to convert to Christianity is not to be understood as anything less than a faithful witness to God."

To respond to these errors, we need to keep three points, in a delicate balance. It is essential to hold each fully without any trimming.

1. There is no salvation outside the Church. But it would be terribly wrong to hold this in such a way as to say, in effect, that if someone does not get his name on the register of some Catholic parish, even if he never had a chance to hear there was such a thing as the Church, such a one is damned. So God would damn millions upon millions without ever giving them a chance. But that would not be a god, but a monster. And, logically, unbaptized infants would have to be damned too. But that is ruled out by the text of Pius IX (also cited below): "God... in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishment who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault."

L. Feeney committed such an error and was rightly condemned by the Church for it. Cf. the Holy Office text cited below.

2. Some who do not get their names on the register of any Catholic parish can reach heaven. This is taught repeatedly, e. g, Pius IX in 1863; Pius XII in Mystical Body Encyclical, Holy Office in condemnation of Feeney, Vatican II in LG §16, John Paul II in Redemptoris missio §10.

Here are the texts:

Pope Pius IX, Quanto conficiamur moerore (1863: DS 2866): "God... in His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault.

Pope Pius XII, Mystici corporis (1943: DS 3821): "They who do not belong to the visible bond of the Catholic Church... [we ask them to] strive to take themselves from that state in which they cannot be sure of their own eternal salvation; for even though they are ordered to the mystical body of the Redeemer by a certain desire and wish of which they are not aware [implicit in the general wish to do what God wills], yet they lack so many and so great heavenly gifts and helps which can be enjoyed only in the Catholic Church."

Holy Office, Aug 9, 1949, condemning doctrine of L. Feeney (DS 3870): "It is not always required that one be actually incorporated as a member of the Church, but this at least is required: that one adhere to it in wish and desire. It is not always necessary that this be explicit... but when a man labors under invincible ignorance, God accepts even an implicit will, called by that name because it is contained in the good disposition of soul in which a man wills to conform his will to the will of God."

Vatican II, Lumen gentium §16:(1964 AD) "For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."

John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio #10 ( Dec. 7, 1990): "The universality of salvation 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... . 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 a 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." [emphasis added].

From all these texts it is definitely clear that some who do not get on the register of a Catholic parish can reach salvation. but it tell us only the fact. It DOES NOT TELL US the how. Yet we are sure it tells us it is a fact, for since no one can be saved outside the Church, these texts make clear that in some way these people are members or in some way pertain to the Church.

Vatican II, in Lumen gentium §14: "They are fully incorporated into the society of the Church, who, having the Spirit of Christ, accept all its organization and all the means of salvation instituted in it, and are joined in the same visible union with Christ, who rules it through the Supreme Pontiff and the Bishops. that is [they are joined] by the bonds of profession of faith, of the acceptance of ecclesiastical rule and communion." We notice the word fully. It implies there can be a lesser membership, still sufficient for salvation. What is that lesser membership?

St. Justin Martyr in Apology 1. 46 said that some in the past who were considered atheists were really Christians, since they followed the Divine Word, the Logos. He mentions Socrates as an example. Then in Apology 2. 10 he says that the Divine Word, the Logos is within each person. Now that presence is not spatial, does not take up space. A spirit takes up no space. It means that the spirit is present wherever he is causing an effect. What effect? We turn to Romans 2:14-16: "The gentiles who do not have the law [revealed religion] do by nature the things of the law. They show the work of the law written on their hearts." And according to their response, they will or will not be saved... . So Socrates perceives what the Spirit of Christ writes on his heart. That means: Makes known to him interiorly how he should live. Socrates believes this, has confidence in this, obeys this - and so has what Romans 1:5 calls "the obedience of faith," that is, the obedience that faith is. Now St. Paul in Romans 3:29 asks: "Is He the God of the Jews only? No, He is also God of the gentiles". He means that if He had made salvation depend on keeping the law of Moses, He would act as though He did not care for anyone but Jews. But He dos care. So He has provided, and He does that by salvation by faith, or justification by faith. Faith in Paul includes three things, the three enumerated above.

Further, in Romans 8:9 we learn that if someone has and follows the Spirit of Christ, he is a member of Christ. But in Paul's terms, member of Christ = member of the Body of Christ - which is the Church. So Socrates had a substantial, not a formal membership in the Church. This agrees with John Paul II in Redemptoris missio §10 who speaks of a grace offered to all that does not formally make them members of the Church. But yet it implies that in some way less than formal, they are members. That is the way we have just described for Socrates. It applies to other people too. (Socrates is often quoted in Plato as saying that the man who seeks the truth should have as little as possible to do with the things of the body. So he was far from being a homosexual).

Further, a person may be in good faith and have a subconscious block that keeps him from seeing the force of the reasons for joining. Then he may still be saved.

There are many other Fathers with broad view of membership in Church. I have them all, with comments, in the 28 pp. appendix to Our Father's Plan.

How does this all relate to the statement of Vatican II in LG §8 that "This church, in this world, as a society constituted and ordered, subsists in the Catholic Church... even though outside its joints many elements of sanctification and truth are found, which, as gifts proper to the Church of Christ, impel to Catholic Unity." The relatio on this passage explains: "Now the intention is to show that the Church, whose deep and hidden nature is described and which is perpetually united with Christ and His work, is concretely found here on earth in the Catholic Church. This visible Church reveals a mystery - not without shadows until it is brought to full light, just as the Lord Himself through his 'emptying' came to glory... . the mystery of the Church is present in and manifested in a concrete society.' [cited from Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Jan. 1984, p. 14]. This does NOT mean that the Catholic Church is merely the aggregate of the visible Catholic Church plus the orthodox, and perhaps even Protestant churches. By no means. It means only what we have explained above: some who fulfill the conditions given by St. Justin Martyr, and St. Paul, as found concretely in men like Socrates, are substantially, not formally, members of the Church, not with visible adherence, but yet to an extent sufficient for salvation. They have true membership, otherwise they could not be saved. But this is as individuals not as members of another church. It is this merely substantial, yet true membership, that makes possible their salvation. Hence the words of Redemptoris missio § 10 can say this sort of membership does not make them FORMALLY members of the Church, i.e., fulfilling all the conditions given in Mystici corporis, and repeated in LG §14 cited above.

3. Anyone who really knows that the Church is founded by Christ for our salvation, and refuses to enter cannot be saved. It is not enough to be a Jew, or an orthodox etc, if one knows that the Catholic Church is the true Church, and yet refuses to enter. This does not wipe out the possibility of #2 above. Again, there is such a thing as a subconscious block, that is a person perceives subconsciously, not consciously, that if he joins, there will be unacceptable consequences for him. This may not cause a person to reject what he knows explicitly is true (then he would be guilty and not saved), but it may keep him from perceiving the force of the reasons for the conclusion that he should enter the Catholic Church (and so he is not guilty, and comes under Lumen gentium §16 and, and Redemptoris missio §10 and other texts). If we deny this, we imply that anyone in the US, since all know about the Catholic Church, if he does not enter it, goes to hell. This is terribly false.

However, to say as does Eugene Fisher (Office of US Bishops for relations with Jews, in his statement in Biblical Archaeology Review of March-April 1991, p. 58) that when a Jew says no to Christ he is saying yes to God, is a terrible error. And a similar thing is to be said about the Orthodox who say no to the Church in a way not explained by the subconscious blocks.

In fact, for even a Jew to be a member of the People of God, this conversion is necessary. Yes, we know that St. Paul in Romans 11:1 and 28 wrote: "Has God rejected His people?. Of course not!.... God's gifts and His call are irrevocable." How then could the same St. Paul, in the middle of the same chapter, give the image of the two olive trees, the tame tree standing for the People of God, the wild olive standing for the Gentiles - how could Paul give that imagery which clearly implies the Jews who reject Christ have fallen out of the People of God, like the branches broken from the tame olive? The problem is not difficult: God's call to them to be His people still stands, will always stand. But it is one thing for Him to call - another for them to accept. If they do not accept, they are out of the tame olive, the People of God. The Pharisees understood this to their horror when Jesus had finished giving the parable of the unfaithful tenants of the vineyard that was Israel, when he said: (Mt 21:43): "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will yield a rich harvest."

In Romans 9:25-16 St. Paul quotes their prophet Hosea:"Those who were not my people, I will call my people" In the original setting. Hosea was saying that the Jews, because of their sins, brought on the Babylonian exile, and had fallen out of the People of God. But after their repentance, God would gladly take them back: "Those who were not my People I will call my People. In the original words of Hosea 2:23: " I will say to lo ammi [not my people]: "You are my people." For they had ceased being God's people, and had remained many days (Hosea 3:4) "without king or prince, without sacrifice or pillar, without ephod or teraphim," but when they repented, He would gladly say to them the words just cited: "You are now my people again".

So St. Paul looks forward to the day when the same words will be applied to the Jews who rejected their Messiah (Rom 11:25): "A blindness in part has fallen upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles enter" the People of God. Then, Paul adds "all Israel will be saved" - will enter the kingdom of their Messiah.



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