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Whatever Happened to the Divine Commission?

by Christopher A. Ferrara

Two thousand years ago Our Lord issued what is called the divine commission to His Church:

Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matt. 28:19-20)

Our Lord also warned the world what would happen to those who rejected the sacrament of baptism and the teaching of His Church:

And He said to them: Go ye into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

What has happened to the divine commission in the “springtime” of Vatican II? That is, what has happened to the perennial conviction that the mission of the Catholic priesthood is to convert every soul on earth so that all men may be saved from hell? What has happened to the missionary impulse which impelled Catholic priests in pagan territories to sacrifice their very lives so that even a few souls might be saved through the Church and her sacraments?

A recent public declaration by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states, sheds some light on the mysterious disappearance of the divine commission in the post-conciliar Church. According to Tauran, who works for the Vatican Secretariat of State, “Religions should not compete with one another, but should ‘walk hand in hand to build channels of fraternity.’” (Zenit.org, June 7, 2001) Tauran added that “A believer of another religion is a person to be understood, ‘leaving to God the role of illuminating the conscience.’”

Tauran’s statement is only typical of what results when the divine commission is subordinated to Vatican diplomacy. Yet this sort of talk represents current Vatican policy, even if it is not the teaching of the Magisterium.

Of course, the very purpose of the one true religion — which is to say, the Catholic religion — is to “compete” with other religions, in the sense that God contends for the souls of all men, calling them by grace to abandon their errors and enter His Church. This is why God Incarnate commanded that His Church teach all nations and preach the Gospel to every creature. The Catholic Church by her very nature is incapable of exclusively “leaving to God the role of illuminating the conscience,” since God Himself has declared His will to use human instruments, acting through His Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, to preach the Gospel, administer His saving sacraments, and secure the salvation of souls.

Thus, the function of the Church is not to “understand” non-believers in Christ, but to convert them for the salvation of their souls. There is nothing to “understand” except that those without Christ live in the darkness of error. As Pius XI declared in his act of consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “Be Thou King of those who are deceived by erroneous opinions . . . Be Thou King of those who are in the darkness of idolatry and Islamism, and refuse not to draw them into the light and kingdom of God.”

The other day I had lunch with five diocesan priests. To a man they wanted to know: What is the point of the priesthood if it is not to save souls who would not otherwise be saved? That is a question Archbishop Tauran and his collaborators in the Vatican Secretary of State ought to answer. It is also a question which Father Gruner and his apostolate have posed publicly, echoing the anguish of so many priests who suffer in silence the bitter fruits of post-conciliar ecclesial diplomacy — a fallible human policy which has, in practice, replaced Our Lord’s divine commission.