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Right Diagnosis, Wrong Prescription

by Christopher A. Ferrara
March 22, 2016

An interview of Benedict XVI by the liberal Jesuit Jacques Servais, recently published in Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, at first elicited waves of optimism from Catholic commentators because Benedict noted that for centuries Catholic missionaries were impelled by the conviction that souls would be lost without faith and baptism and then candidly admitted that “in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, this conviction was definitively abandoned.”  Because of this “abandonment,” Benedict further admitted, the Church has witnessed:

a profound double crisis. On the one hand, this seems to remove all motivation to a future missionary commitment.  Why should one ever try to convince people to accept the Christian faith when they can save themselves without it?  But even for Christians a question emerged: the obligatoriness of the faith and of its form of life became uncertain and problematic.

If there are those who can be saved in other ways, it is no longer evident, in the end, why the Christian himself should be bound by the exigencies of the Christian faith and its morality.  But if faith and salvation are no longer interdependent, the faith also becomes unmotivated.

Wow! Except not wow.  The trumpets of jubilation over these admissions could not hide the sound of a laughing trombone as Benedict immediately added: “In recent times there have been formulated different attempts to reconcile the universal necessity of Christian faith with the possibility of saving oneself without it.”

So there we go again: faith in Christ is universally necessary for salvation, but one can be saved without baptism and faith in Christ. The proposition X must therefore be “reconciled” with not X.  A perfect example of what some call “post-conciliar thinking” on what were thought to be settled matters of infallible dogma.  As Christ Himself revealed: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who believes not shall be condemned.” For “without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).”

But there is no need for any reconciliation of these two irreconcilable propositions.  The Church has never taught that a single solitary soul can be saved without faith in Christ and baptism (or the desire for same, as the Council of Trent teaches). What, then, of the invincibly ignorant, such as those living in remote regions who have never heard the Gospel?  We know only what Pius IX insisted upon in his allocution Singulari Quadam (1854): that they are left to the inscrutable mercy of God and that “it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.” 

Moreover, if any such souls are saved, no one has any right to suggest, as Benedict does in this interview, that they are saved without faith.  As Saint Thomas teaches, such souls, if they impose no impediment, might receive an interior illumination that brings them to a Christian faith and thus saves them.  Thus, as even the new Catechism states: “in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him…”

In a conversation with me on this subject, my fellow Catholic and parishioner Michael Hichborn, of the Lepanto Institute, brought up a fundamental point so obvious that we tend to forget it: faith is a gift, and salvation is a gift.  A gift must be accepted by the one who has been given a choice to accept or reject the gift that is offered. Thus no one, not even the invincibly ignorant, is saved without first accepting the gift of faith. 

Nor may anyone assert that salvation without Christian faith is “possible,” for speculations about “implicit faith” or some other substitute for what Christ revealed as necessary for salvation are precisely what Pius IX forbade.  Why?  Because such speculations ultimately destroy adherence to the nulla salus dogma, rendering it in practice a dead letter.  The dogma dies the death of a thousand “exceptions” in order to provide what “contemporary man” thinks is a more acceptable teaching based on an emotional rejection of the idea that a “loving God” could send so many souls to hell.  And that is exactly what Benedict himself suggests: 

There is no doubt that on this point we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma. While the Fathers and the medieval theologians could still be of the view that in substance all of the human race had become Catholic and that paganism now existed only at the margins, the discovery of the New World at the beginning of the modern era changed that perspective in a radical manner.

In the second half of the last century it has been fully affirmed the understanding that God cannot let go to perdition all the unbaptized and that even a purely natural happiness for them does not represent a real answer to the question of human existence.

Now the laughing trombone becomes an air raid siren, for here the first Pope Emeritus in Church history blithely accepts the very essence of Modernism, condemned as such by Saint Pius X in Pascendi: that the dogmas of the faith can “evolve” according to changing circumstances — a notion Pius X called a “sophism” that “destroys all religion.”

Having posed a problem that does not exist — how to reconcile the universal necessity of faith with the “possibility” of salvation without faith — Benedict proceeds to consider and deem “unacceptable” both the “anonymous Christian” theory of Karl Rahner, according to which all men are more or less Christian by virtue of their humanity, and the pluralist view of all religions as but different paths to salvation.  

But then Benedict suggests that none other than Henri de Lubac, leading “light” of the neo-Modernist “New Theology,” has the answer to this non-existent “problem.” This would involve what Benedict calls “the concept of vicarious substitution,” according to which the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, would somehow save souls outside the Church by the very fact of her existence.  But that is just another way of saying that souls can be saved without faith, which is impossible.

Benedict concludes his remarks by stating:  “It is clear that we must reflect on this entire question.”  Actually, no, we must not reflect on it. For it has not been given to us to know how souls are saved short of formal membership in the Church. Again, that is why Pius IX forbade such useless “reflections”: they can only end with the “exceptions” swallowing the rule and the defined dogma becoming a dead letter, as indeed Benedict suggests it has become since “the second half of the last century.”

Benedict did a great good for the Church when he liberated the Latin Mass from its false imprisonment, corrected some egregious errors in vernacular translations of the New Mass, and lifted the always-controversial excommunications of the bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X.  For this the Church is greatly indebted to him. 

But we cannot ignore that on this and other theological questions, Benedict was fully committed to an endlessly invoked but never realized “hermeneutic of continuity” between the novelties of the past fifty years — including the “possibility” of salvation without faith — and the constant teaching of the Church to the contrary. Too often the result has been, as we see here, a correct diagnosis followed by the wrong prescription, leading only to more confusion in a Church that is already afflicted by what Sister Lucia so rightly called “diabolical disorientation.”