The Catholic Church and Salvation, Part 4

The Catholic Church and Salvation, Part 4

Part 1 documented that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” has been a consistent Catholic teaching. Part 2 examined the current confusion that surrounds the doctrine. Part 3 suggested that the Church has not changed it because it fears compromising its mission to spread the Gospel, scandalizing Catholics, and diminishing its credibility. Part 4 suggests that those fears are unwarranted.

As I pointed out earlier, the Church has changed many of its teachings over time. The sale of indulgences was approved by three popes, then banned. For many centuries slave owning was approved—popes, bishops, and nuns owned slaves—until Leo XIII condemned the practice in the late eighteen hundreds. The torture of heretics was long approved; today it is condemned. Galileo was punished for claiming that the earth is at the center of solar system; today no pope or bishop would defend his punishment. At least four popes condemned religious tolerance; today it is not only approved but lauded. (For a thorough examination of change in the Church, see John T. Noonan, A Church that Can and Cannot Change, 2005.)

The changes occurred in different ways. In Galileo’s case, the Church admitted in the nineteenth century that it had been wrong and in the twentieth John Paul II formally apologized for it. In contrast, the taking of interest on a loan was considered a serious sin, usury, for centuries; then only “excessive interest” was condemned; finally, the Church simply stopped speaking about the subject. (The Catechism, for example, doesn’t mention it.) And Noonan notes that until 1964 and the Second Vatican Council, “not a single word repudiating or condemning slavery” could be found in the definitive collection of papal and conciliar teachings. Nor has a single apology like the one in the Galileo case ever been formally issued for the Church’s long approval of slavery.

Instead of admitting errors and apologizing, the Church’s general pattern in cases like most of those mentioned above, along with Limbo and freedom of conscience, has been to characterize changes in teaching as “developments,” “reformulations,” or “deepenings.” John Paul II was, in one sense, a notable exception, having issued about a hundred apologies for harm done to people—for example to Jews—yet even he stopped short of renouncing the errors that led to the harm. This combination was awkward because an apology has little meaning without an acknowledgment of why it was necessary.

Why does the Church characteristically avoid acknowledging its errors in teaching. In Part 3, I answered, because of fear that changing its teachings—especially a central teaching like the matter of salvation—would undermine its mission to spread the Gospel, diminish its credibility, and cause even more Catholics to leave.

I submit that all three fears are unwarranted.

Fear of Undermining Its Mission

At the heart of the Gospel are these messages: God made us humans in His image and likeness and He loves us. Even when we disobeyed, He continued to love us, giving us commandments for guidance and sending His son to redeem us. Before Jesus suffered and died, He taught us that the two greatest commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31) He also established His church and promised that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, [will] teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” (John 14:26)

This is the essence of the faith. Of course, it would be an oversimplification to believe that there is nothing more to the faith than this. In fact, there is more in abundance. My point is simply that this essential part, together with the creed, is in the main sufficient for the Church to carry out its evangelical mission. Believing that there is only one way to salvation and the Church possesses it is not necessary for that task.

The Church’s teaching on salvation is, of course, closely connected to the Gospel, specifically, to its interpretation of Matt 16:13-20. According to the Catechism:

The Church is defined as the “assembly” of the “People of God” who “become the Body of Christ.” (777) “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” (100) The bishops also share in the papal “office of binding and loosing,” and, they are “endowed with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals.” However, this sharing and endowment are only operative when the bishops are in agreement with the pope. (890-91) By themselves, “the college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head.” (883) The pope, on the other hand, because of his supremacy, enjoys full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (882) [Emphasis added]

Once one starts down this path with Matt 16, the reasoning flows smoothly, inexorably, and seemingly logically. But as a lifelong Catholic, still warmed by Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, I cannot help being chilled by the phrasing, the tone . . . “entrusted solely to the Magisterium,“ “charism of infallibility,” “no authority unless united,” “full, supreme, and universal power,” “unhindered.” Descriptors rush the mind unbidden—haughty, overbearing, imperious, autocratic. Then opposing images— Jesus promising the crowd, “Blessed are the meek”; St. Francis of Assisi composing “let me sow . . . love . . . pardon . . . faith . . . hope . . . light . . . joy.”

Contrast the Catechism’s interpretation of Matt 16:13-20 with this very different Protestant understanding, which many Orthodox Christians would also affirm:

Jesus is the builder of the Church. The foundation is the apostles. Peter was the first to make [the] profound confession, and so he is prominent in the early church. But the other apostles have equal authority, even to rebuke Peter (Acts 11:1-18; Gal. 2:11-14). Peter is simply first among equals. If there had been succession, then Peter’s successor would have had authority over John and the other apostles still alive. And that is not the case.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting that this view is correct and the Church’s is incorrect. Frankly, I am not certain which is correct. Perhaps some blend of both is better than either alone. Yet the emphasis of the Protestant interpretation is on the One who saves rather than the authority of those who preach salvation, and that has the sound and form of the Gospel.

If the Church should fear any obstacle to its mission, it is the weakening of the Gospel emphasis.

Fear of Scandalizing the Laity

As documented earlier, there has been deep concern about salvation doctrine for centuries and in recent decades that concern has been joined by increasing confusion about the doctrine’s meaning. The source of confusion has not been the machinations of those who hate the Church, but rather the Magisterium’s simultaneous softening and hardening of the doctrine. Surely that is a more significant and growing scandal than any clear and forthright change in the doctrine would be. The irony that the Magisterium was genuinely trying to avoid scandal even as it was causing it in no way lessens that scandal’s impact.

Fear of Losing Credibility

We all, to some extent, are concerned about our credibility. We’d like to be sure we know what we are talking about and have a firm basis for our convictions and assertions. Curiosity about whether we actually do, is healthy—it keeps us alert to the possibility of errors and motivated to address them and become wiser. Unfortunately, certain conditions reduce or diminish that curiosity. One is ideational insularity, being locked within one point of view and thereby prevented from considering others. When a group experiences this insularity, the result is what psychologists call “groupthink,” which allows members to adopt a set of thoughts rather than develop their own, and thereby gain a level of credibility presumably greater than available to them as individuals. Of course, their personal credibility varies according to that of the group and fear of losing it varies accordingly.

That, I submit, is the psychological condition of the Magisterium. I in no way intend this description to deny the singular identity of the Church and its hierarchy. Far from it, for that special identity has, if anything, heightened the condition, and that fact goes a long way in explaining why the Church has been so resistant to acknowledging even small doctrinal changes. Let me clarify further with specific reference to salvation doctrine (though similar reference could be made to other doctrines).

For centuries in an unbroken line, one generation after another of pope(s), bishops, theologians, priests and religious have taught that there is no salvation outside the Church. The message has been transmitted in official documents, scholarly books and manuals, and homilies. All who took part understood that deference was required not only to their superiors but to the superiors’ predecessors back through time, many of them illustrious for their intellects and/or holiness. Even to consider the possibility that a doctrine enunciated by such individuals was mistaken was considered an occasion of sin; to express that it might be mistaken was to risk excommunication. Little wonder that the natural inclination of many priests, religious, and scholars of theology to curiosity and thoughtful independent analysis was effectively stifled. Even less wonder that the stifling was more pronounced among the guardians of doctrine, the Magisterium.

Given this historical process, it is understandable that for the contemporary Magisterium the fear of losing credibility goes far beyond merely personal embarrassment and encompasses embarrassment for the entire Church and the diminution of its history, traditions, and the records of the innumerable thinkers and saints who lived its faith. Moreover, from the Magisterium’s perspective, admission that the Church was mistaken about salvation could destroy its image among leaders of other churches and governments, academic scholars, the international media, and the Catholic laity.

It would be unreasonable to deny that the admission of error in the doctrine of salvation would cause some loss of credibility, at least in the short run. Yet it seems clear there has already been an equal if not greater loss of credibility from the Church’s slowness or outright refusal to admit other mistakes (their handling of the pedophilia problem is but one example). This admission would provide a positive contrast to that.

More important, however, is the likelihood that such an admission would produce a corresponding increase in credibility for several reasons. First, because it would demonstrate the Magisterium’s moral integrity to the world by honoring their obligation to God’s truth, an obligation the Catechism has declared binding on all Catholics:

God “is the truth and wills the truth . . . [He] is the source of all truth . . . [and] his people are called to live in the truth . . . Man tends by nature toward the truth . . . [and is] bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth . . . [and] bound to adhere to the truth once [he comes] to know it and direct [his] whole [life] in accordance with the demands of truth . . . In justice, as a matter of honor, one man owes it to another to manifest the truth.” 2464-69

The Magisterium certainly have as serious an obligation to the truth as any individual’s obligation, and arguably more serious because of their pastoral role. Indeed the essence of that obligation is to teach the truth in its fullness and that unquestionably entails correcting any deficiency in what it teaches.

Another reason is that such an admission would reinforce a number of important guidelines of the Catholic faith, among them the lesson in Proverbs 28 to confess and forsake transgressions rather than conceal them; Luke 13’s admonition to repent or perish; and, most notably, Matthew 5’s to “be reconciled to your brother” before approaching the altar.

A third reason that such an admission about salvation would likely increase the Church’s credibility is that it would identify the Magisterium themselves in a dramatic way with the words they have heard untold billions of penitents recite over the centuries: “I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.”

If, as I have argued, all three fears are unwarranted, the only remaining question is: What could the Magisterium actually say to change the Church’s teaching on salvation without compromising its mission to spread the Gospel, scandalizing the laity, or losing its credibility? Before answering that question, however, it may be helpful to cite an argument Pope Benedict XVI offered some years before his elevation that invites the discussion of this change of doctrine. (See Joseph Ratzinger, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood. Ignatius Press, 1993, p. 88.)

There is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of ‘heresy’ is no longer of any value. . . The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy . . . can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic   . . . The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined. [Emphasis added]

Close examination of the words in bold leads logically to this question: If the character of Protestantism has changed so much that it is “essentially different” from what it was and now has “its own positive ecclesial nature,” and is therefore sufficiently “different from heresy in the traditional sense” that those who practice it are “not heretics,” are we not free to consider whether Protestantism (and, as he adds, “the separated churches of the East”) represent valid paths to salvation? Benedict himself clearly indicates an affirmative answer when he says that Protestantism’s “true theological place has not yet been determined.”

With Pope Benedict’s implied blessing of this doctrinal discussion in mind, I respectfully recommend the following statement of change for the consideration of Pope Francis and the Magisterium:

In the fourth century, two very similar statements of Christian faith were composed, the longer Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s Creed. Both versions refer to Jesus as the only Son of God who will “judge the living and the dead,” the longer one adding that He suffered and died “for our salvation.” Both also profess belief in “the Holy Spirit,” “the holy catholic [universal] Church,” “the forgiveness of sins,” “the resurrection of the body,” and “life everlasting.” To this day, most Christians recite these creeds, often in ecumenical versions. But though they share a common belief in the One who saves, they have differed in the means of salvation.

The Catholic Church has long taught that outside it salvation is not possible. Arising from zeal for the sacred charge of spreading Christ’s gospel, this teaching hardened, first into religious conviction and then into doctrine, and over time became sincerely held and professed by many Church leaders, scholars, and holy individuals. (Whether any degree of sinful pride or animosity toward neighbor influenced that belief is known only to God.)

In our time, however, reflection on the spiritually rich and noble lives of innumerable Christians (and others) outside the Catholic Church has revealed that its teaching on salvation has not only been mistaken, but has done grave injustice to its neighbors, and continues to be a serious obstacle to realizing what Jesus asked of the Father, “that all may be one.” (John 17:21) In the future, as the Catholic Church carries out its mission of preaching the Gospel, it will continue to profess that salvation is only through Jesus Christ but will no longer define, in a narrow way, the means by which that can be accomplished.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero