So there I was minding my own business when my friend Bob saddled up during a concert intermission to raise a few challenging questions that had come up in the men’s prayer group at his Roman Catholic parish. They had to do with what several who had made their Cursillo asserted about truth and salvation. It ended up with me writing a response for us to use in deeper conversation when we get together. It went like this.
It seems that his Cursillo group may have two characteristics that stand out from others in his parish: a more charismatic/evangelical bent; a grounding in Catholic cultural traditions not in sync with contemporary Catholic theology. Of course I may be entirely wrong about that, but assuming it’s the case, what about cultural traditions? Across the length and breadth of American Christianity are those who complain about the faith submitting to “the world” rather than standing for Christian virtue. For the most part, what they take to be Christian virtue is whatever they were raised to believe is acceptable and normal for them according to the cultural values of the day. Curious isn’t it? They are the products of the very “world” they claim to be against. It’s just that their world existed only for a fairly short time during their formative years, and they’re having a hard time engaging with all the changes since then. I’ve met often with Christians of several denominations whose understanding of what the faith is and who can be saved was cemented into their heads and hearts by incompetent teachers during their grade school years, after which they quit learning anything new about the faith, scripture, tradition, or how to use their own gifts of reason. That God might have something new to say, or that God may never have said what they were taught, are unacceptable alternatives. We demand quality education in everything else. Why are we so content with otherwise intelligent adults going through life with a fifth grade education about God? Some Roman Catholics have the added burden of having been taught that the catechism of their childhood, and the social teachings of the Church according to what some teacher said they were, are a greater, more concrete truth than scripture, unaware of how rapidly changing and flexible that teaching has been over the centuries. Some Protestants who buy into the literal and inerrant truth of scripture are no better off.
As for the charismatic/evangelical wing in his parish, it is good to be open to a more intimate and emotionally felt relationship with God. We could learn something from them. The medieval mystics led the way, and moderns such as Thomas Merton have continued to demonstrate what that path looks like. However, it has often been simplified to mean little more than emotionally “accepting Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior,” and that, to me, is nothing but a cheap bumper sticker form of faith. Jesus said to follow him, another matter altogether. In his letter, St. James dismissed the faith of those who claimed Jesus as their savior if they could not show how they followed him in their lives. I think James got it right. Turning to Cursillo, my own experience was less than perfect. I was troubled by the mind control atmosphere of the weekend combined with the expectation that all should have some kind of mountain top experience to show that they were real Christians. Nonsense!
OK, the next question had to do with whether one can be saved if they are not a what? A Christian? A Roman Catholic? As an Anglican, I can safely say that all Episcopalians are in. Of others one can’t be too sure. What’s the litmus test? Surely there must be one. One can proof text (cherry pick) scripture to make whatever case one chooses to make. Early Church fathers such as Origen favored the possibility of universal salvation. Not all agreed, the debate still rages, but it moves away from exclusivity. For what it’s worth, recent popes have leaned in the direction of universal salvation without tipping all the way over. The point being that it is God, not us, who has the final word. As Bob and I discussed briefly, Jesus healed (and saved) a lot of people, so says the gospel record, and not a single one of them was a Christian. When, in John’s gospel, Jesus says that no one can come to the Father except through him, we are compelled to remember that we are trinitarians. He might has well have said that no one can come to God except through God. Its a tautology that stands on a firm trinitarian foundation. And who is the judge? Not us!
What good Roman Catholics can say with confidence is that their tradition of faith is a reliable pathway, and that walking in it assures them that they are already walking into their eternal life in God’s presence. What they cannot claim is that other Christian traditions are not reliable pathways. The old exclusiveness (there is no salvation outside the ‘Catholic’ Church) never had a leg to stand on, no matter how deeply it was believed. Here’s a brief excerpt from Wikipedia on the question
The Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: “outside the Church there is no salvation”. The 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church explained this as “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.” This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The axiom is often used as shorthand for the doctrine that the Church is necessary for salvation. It is a dogma in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches in reference to their own communions. It is also held by many historic Protestant Churches. However, Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox each have a unique ecclesiological understanding of what constitutes the Church. The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers. Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop, has expressed this doctrine as follows:
“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (G. Florovsky, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church”, in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.
The Catholic Church also teaches that the doctrine does not mean that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned in case of inculpable ignorance. Some of the most pertinent Catholic expressions of this doctrine are: the profession of faith of Pope Innocent III (1208), the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bull Unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (1302), and the profession of faith of the Council of Florence (1442). The axiom “No salvation outside the Church” has been frequently repeated over the centuries in different terms by the ordinary magisterium.
It does raise the question of what to do about those who claim to be Christian but are far outside the Nicene circle, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons for instance. Again, we have to leave that up to God no matter how mistaken we believe they are. It might be well to remember that Jesus is cited as saying something like “whoever is not against me (or you) is for me (or you).” (Luke 9.49).
What about non believers and those who follow other religions? On the one hand we must be bold in affirming that there is only one God, and that this God has been fully revealed to us in Christ Jesus who is the Messiah, and whom we call the Son of God. We tried to explain what we mean by that in the Chalcedonian Definition, but in the end we have to admit it is a holy mystery. Let’s face it, the Definition may have made sense to 5th century Greco-Roman philosophers, but it’s indecipherable gobbledygook to those sitting in today’s pews. Can we be satisfied simply saying there is no other way to God except through God, and Jesus shows us the way? Besides, Jesus (John 5) said that the time is now when even the dead will hear his voice, so it appears that our last chance may not be in this life after all. Who knows? Not me. I’m willing to leave that up to God. Maybe that’s why we Anglicans were such lousy missionaries. Unless, of course, we had the might and rule of the British Empire to back us up, but that’s for another time.
And with that, Bob and I have fodder for hours of conversation.