Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Msgr. David Q. Liptak

What is so difficult for the secular media to understand about the simple distinction between (1) judging propositions and (2) judging persons? Whereas the Church can and, indeed, must render judgments about theological propositions, it does not presume to issue final judgments on persons who adhere to such propositions.

The context of this column is the most recent Vatican statement, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the unicity (i.e., uniqueness) of Christ’s true Church; and in defense of the premiss that the only path to salvation is through Jesus of Nazareth.

Christ explicitly revealed this doctrine; for example, his words to the Apostles recorded in the Gospel according to John: “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6)

Thus the words “Jesus Christ” encapsulate the only road to salvation. There is no other avenue, none whatsoever. To be a Catholic is to accept this doctrine unreservedly.

Does this mean that those who do not embrace Jesus as Lord are, by virtue of their action, not saved?

This question triggers endless chapters in Church History of movements and even of churches which in protest defined the “Catholic” Church in their own exclusive, limiting terms. They refused to grant the distinction between the Gospel truth, which can never change, and each person, whom the Gospel invites and draws to salvation.

There is an ancient Latin adage that is perennially true; namely, Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus, meaning, literally, “Outside the Church, no Salvation.” But this principle must be understood only in the sense in which it was formulated by the Church. And this sense means, “Wherever salvation occurs, there the Church necessarily is.” To interpret this adage as to exclude non-Roman Christians (e.g., Protestants), or non-Christians (e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, Jews) is to distort seriously the Church’s doctrine.

Early in the Church, the great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, observed that God has some whom the Church has not, and the Church has some whom God has not.

Church doctrine has always granted that many a believer not within the visible structures of the Church can give Catholics a lesson or two on Gospel living. Think of the God-intoxicated Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, or of the Danish existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard. Among non-Christians, consider Mohandas Gandhi or the Jewish philosophers Martin Buber and Simone Weil. Even in ancient times, before Christ was born to give us the fullness of Divine Revelation, there were the pagan Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and at the summit, Aristotle, all fourth-century B.C. thinkers. (Aristotle was so great that St. Thomas Aquinas was later to cite him repeatedly simply by the title, “the Philosopher.”) And think of the pagan Roman poet Vergil (70-19 B.C.) whose epic Aeneid was used through medieval times as a textbook for virtue in the Catholic education of youths. (Vergil even appears as a guide for the pilgrim Dante, in the supreme poem created by man, the Divine Comedy.)

Vatican Council II, in its keystone doctrinal document, Lumen Gentium, puts all this in magnificent language, which anyone should be able to comprehend.

“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their consciences – those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.” (Sec. 16)

The latest (29 June) Vatican statement, promulgated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the title, “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church,” strongly asserts perennial doctrine.

The context in which the new document was issued is one of confusion (needless, I could add) regarding Vatican II’s statement that the Church of Christ “subsists” in the Catholic Church. (No. 8) “Subsistence” simply means the “perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church...,”as the latest document reads.

Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.