The challenge for any Catholic is to remain committed to the Catholic faith while recognising that it is intrinsic to our faith that we stay open to others. It is, in fact, one of the implications of the word ‘Catholic’ (i.e. ‘all-embracing’). It is central to our self-understanding that truth, beauty and goodness are to be celebrated wherever they are found. And, as has been the case since the very beginnings of Christianity, the wisdom that we encounter as expressed by those who do not consider themselves to be Catholic, deserves consideration and, at times, inclusion within our deepening understanding of the truth entrusted to us. The impact of the Greek philosophers on the development of Catholic theology is but one significant example. Another is found in the significance of the writings of the Jewish mystic and theologian, Philo of Alexandria, on the Catholic mystical tradition.
It is an approach we witness in the ministry of Jesus. In his encounter with the woman of Samaria (John 4), he uses her understanding of things as a starting point, and he then builds on that to lead her to a deeper awareness of the life God is offering to her. Any genuine encounter with God starts with where the person is, and not with where we might think they should end up. That which is true and authentic is to be celebrated, and that which is untrue and inauthentic is, when the time is right, to be gently challenged. A point that remains true for all us – Catholics included.
Admittedly, this is a perspective which is at times difficult for Catholics to embrace. Schooled in a particular understanding of the teaching extra ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside the church), any thought that this is being undermined in any way is considered to be an attack on the faith. For this reason, how this teaching is to be understood in light of other church teachings on the possible salvation of those who do not identify themselves as Catholic, is the focus of this short article.
The first thing to be acknowledged is that ‘no salvation outside the church’ remains the teaching of the Catholic Church, and rightly so. This is because it is only in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that salvation is made available for the human race. Jesus Christ, as God-made-human, is the bridge between the human race and God. As St Irenaeus taught: God became human, that the human being could become divine (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460).
None of us, Catholic or not, can enter into the life of God without going through Jesus Christ in some way: the only one who is both human and divine. The Catholic (and by extension, those of other Christian denominations) have the consolation and the obligations that come with being explicitly aware of this. However, it is the Catholic conviction that explicit awareness is not the prerequisite for salvation. Instead, in keeping with 1 Tim. 2:4, the Catholic Church understands that it is God’s desire that all people be saved, and that God is just and merciful. However, this is not universalism, which has been condemned. Rather:
“Lumen Gentium and the Declaration of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1965) set out a series of concentric circles expressing the closeness of relation to non-Catholics. First, there are other Christians…followed by the Jewish people, then Muslims, then Hindus and Buddhists, and nonreligious people who seek truth sincerely” (my emphasis) (D’Costa, Gavin: ‘Roman Catholic Reflections on Discerning God in Interreligious Dialogue: Challenges and Promising Avenues.’ in Criteria of Discernment in Interreligious Dialogue, Catherine Cornille (ed), Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock, 2009, pp. 115-116).
Furthermore, and of great significance as we ponder the connection of the Church to those who are not members of the Church, the question of who is living in response to the salvation offered only in and through Jesus Christ “tends to express the inner response to grace, not the external elements that form a religion.
“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 conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16).
As it is the life and grace of Jesus Christ that both brings us into salvation and into the Body of Christ, it remains true that salvation is for those within the Church. However, there are those (perhaps many) who participate in the life of the Church who are, for now, unaware that they do so.
Of course, this raises the obvious question: if this is true, why be Catholic at all? This deserves some exploration, even if only briefly, here. To be aware of having been called into the life of the Church, with the assistance that Church teaching, a life of prayer, access to sacraments, and the fellowship that our brothers and sisters in the faith can offer, is a wonderful grace that deserves to be celebrated. We are to be the salt, the leaven, and the light that Jesus calls his disciples to be. Our lives are to be beacons of hope for a world looking for meaning and distracted by the illusory and transitory. Joy comes with knowing we have been called by Jesus Christ, and that we are being healed, taught and fed by him. So, too, does obligation: the obligation to become true disciples of Jesus transformed by the Spirit into apostles: those who are sent to a world in need to announce the Good News: that in Christ all may receive the life God wills for us all.
Original text by Shane Dwyer
Holding hands photo by Remi Walle on Unsplash
Fr Anthony Mellor, 30 October 2019
Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane, 30 October 2019
30 October 2019