Salvation outside the Church – But why, then, evangelize?: Reflections from a Roman Catholic perspective

Salvation outside the Church – But why then, evangelize?

Reflections from a Roman Catholic perspective

By Stephen Bevans, SVD

A Time of Certainty

“Sweet Baby Jesus, help the poor heathen!” This was the repeated refrain in a prayer for the Christmas season in one of the official prayerbooks of my own Catholic religious missionary congregation, the Society of the Divine Word. The meaning was clear. If those who did not believe explicitly in Christ did not come to faith, they would be condemned, sadly, to the fires of Hell for all eternity. I remember one of our priests preaching a sermon on the annual Mission Sunday about the need for missionaries. Unless missionaries were sent to evangelize those who had not yet believed in the gospel, they were sure to be damned. The priest painted a vivid picture of the millions of pagans who, were they to form a queue, would wind around the entire earth several times over. There was so much to do, and so few to do it! Jesus’ command and message were plain: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:20). This kind of conviction was and is not one that is exclusively Catholic. I was shocked, but not really surprised, to see a full-page advert in a Christian Evangelical magazine that read: “In the time it takes you to read this, twelve Muslims will have died and gone to hell…but then again, who cares?” Again, the idea was clear: WE should care. WE should consider becoming missionaries to “help the poor heathen.”

Such a stark perspective was not exactly the explicit and official teaching of the Catholic Church, or of its theological tradition. As the famous 1949 Letter to the Archbishop of Boston explains it, while it has always been the church’s teaching that “there is no salvation outside the Church,” such teaching “must be understood in the sense that the Church herself understands it.”1 That teaching is that women and men have the possibility to be saved who are in invincible ignorance of the gospel and, because they follow their conscience the best the know how, have thereby an “implicit desire” to be associated with the church. In addition to this 1949 teaching, there is a red thread that weaves itself through the Catholic tradition that offers some possibility for salvation outside the church and explicit Christian faith. This thread has roots in the gospels themselves (e.g. Mk 9:38-40—“the one who is not against us is for us”), and runs through the writings of Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Thomas Aquinas, and Bartolomé de las Casas.2

Nevertheless, the common understanding of Christians—Catholics as well as others—was that expressed by my congregation’s prayer or by the preacher on Mission Sunday. If people did not come to faith, they could not be saved. Therefore there was a dire need to send missionaries to convert the heathen and to plant the church, lest God’s children perish.

With this motivation, foreign missions flourished. At the time of the European “discovery” of the New World of the Americas and the exploration of Asia and parts of Africa, whole monasteries in Spain were emptied as Dominicans, Augustinians and Franciscans left Europe to bring the gospel to those who had not yet heard it. At the end of the eighteenth century there was a radical downturn in missionary vocations due to a number of factors: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the corrosive acids of the Enlightenment, and the suppression of the Jesuits. But by 1815 Catholic missions were again beginning to flourish and by the end of the century there had been an explosion of missionary congregations of both women and men. And, after the beginning of the nineteenth century there was an explosion as well of missionary activity among Protestants, often traced back to the vision of British Baptist William Carey. Protestants had been rather reluctant to do missionary work at first, since many felt that the gospel had already been preached sufficiently, but a little pamphlet by Carey on the Christian obligation to “convert the heathen” was a spark that was soon fanned into a flame. Soon a number of Protestant missionary societies had been founded, among them, in 1799, the Church Missionary Society (now the Church Mission Society).

This was the time of great certainty and confidence. This was the time when I entered the seminary and asked the Baby Jesus to “help the poor heathen.”

A Time of Ferment

As the twentieth century progressed, however, events occurred that would change such certainty into doubt. Mission had been inextricably connected with European and North American colonial expansion, and, beginning already in the 1940s, colonialism began to undergo its demise. With this, a nationalism arose in many countries that looked with suspicion on foreign missionaries and what was considered the foreign religion that they had imported. Missionaries themselves began to wonder whether they had not done more harm than good in the countries in which they worked, and some even called for a “moratorium” on missionary work, or for its cessation altogether. As the social science of anthropology developed, new ways of seeing culture emerged. No longer were non-European cultures regarded as “primitive” or “uncivilized,” but every culture was recognized as extremely complex and basically good, equal to any culture of the West. As the study of the world’s religions developed, and as nationalism effected a renaissance of local religions, questions about the legitimacy of non-Christian religions began to be raised, and there developed a new branch in theological studies called “theology of religions.”3

It was in this context of major ferment that the Catholic Church engaged in the great renewal of theology and church life that is marked by the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II, as it is called, was held from 1962 to 1965, and, as Pope John XXIII had outlined its task, was about aggiornamento, or bringing the church up to date with the modern world. A hundred years before such a task would have been unthinkable, for the church had declared itself opposed to all that was “modern.” But after two devastating world wars, the recognition of historical studies in Scripture and theology, and the growth of secularism and atheism in the West, a genuine encounter with modernity was judged not only necessary but basically unavoidable.

Almost everything the Council did had an impact on its understanding of mission. It recognized that God’s revelation was not given primarily as a list of truths or propositions, but as a person who calls women and men into friendship and partnership with God’s work in the world.4 It renewed its understanding of the church as more essentially a community, made equal by Baptism, rather than as an institution marked by hierarchical distinctions.5 It spoke, in its decree on missionary activity, of the church as “missionary by its very nature,” rooted in God’s own overflowing trinitarian life.6 For the first time in history, the document on the church in the modern world dealt with the reality of culture, and dealt with it positively.7 The decree on missionary activity echoed this positive treatment, calling for missionaries to enter into a “sincere and patient dialogue” in order to discover “what treasures a generous God has distributed among the nations of the earth.”8

The Council’s declaration on the church’s relationship to non-Christian religions said that such treasures included insights from the world’s religions. Each in its own way, said the Council, often reflects “a ray of that Truth which enlightens all people.”9 This is why, then, the Council can say—in accordance with tradition, yet for the first time so clearly—that “those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”10 Interestingly, the Council does not quote the traditional dictum that “outside the church there is no salvation.” It does teach clearly, however, that the church is necessary for salvation, in the sense that “whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”11 In the end, it comes down to following one’s conscience, being an authentic human being, not accepting certain formulas or performing particular rites, but being women and men of faith who live sincerely before God. Even if one is in the church, the Council warns, one is not thereby completely safe from damnation: “All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.”12 Personal authenticity is what saves, not simply belonging to the church.

A Time of Doubt

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is possible outside of its boundaries. But then, why evangelize? Why try to convert women and men to Christ? Why invite them into the church? Why go to all the trouble of traveling to foreign lands, learning new languages, struggling to adapt to other cultures, exposing oneself to all sorts of hardships for the sake of the gospel? The time of ferment at the time of the Council gave way among missionaries to a time of confusion and doubt. The urgency seemed to be gone from the missionary vocation. In fact, it was often vilified as the cause of wholesale destruction of culture and ethnic identity, and as a colonialism-inspired transplantation of a Western religion among peoples who had possibly been better off before the missionaries’ arrival.

Missionaries doubted with their feet. This was less true in more conservative Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church, but that was because such conservative churches still believed that salvation was possible only by explicit faith in Christ. While in the early 1960s there were thousands of Catholic missionaries throughout the world, this number began to be reduced drastically. Missionaries came home for good, and young men and women ceased to join missionary congregations in the West. There are still a good number of missionaries coming from the majority world—in my own congregation, coming especially from Indonesia and India. But even here the numbers do not match those that our Society was sending fifty or sixty years ago.

The doubt and hesitation about missionary activity was noted by Pope John Paul II and was the major motive for his great missionary encyclical of 1990, Redemptoris Missio. In his introduction, the pope acknowledged a kind of “new springtime” in missionary activity since the Council. There certainly had been a greater commitment to issues of justice in the world, a lively interest in some parts in dialogue with other religions, and a call to present the gospel in ways relevant and understandable to the women and men of the cultures where Christianity had not yet been firmly established. Nevertheless, the pope admitted that there was a “negative tendency” in thinking about mission. “Missionary activity,” he wrote, “specifically directed ‘to the nations’ (ad gentes) appears to be waning, and this tendency is certainly not in line with the directives of the Council and of subsequent statements of the Magisterium. Difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church’s missionary thrust toward non-Christians, a fact which must arouse concern among all who believe in Christ.”13 The encyclical is a call to renewed commitment to the uniqueness of Christ as the world’s redeemer, and so to preaching Christ’s saving message to those who have not yet known him.

But Why Then Evangelize?

But why? The pope calls for a renewed evangelization of those who do not believe in Christ, but he retreats not one whit from Vatican II’s teachings. He acknowledges more than once that salvation is possible outside the church, that “the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in the Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.”14 He does not, in other words, retreat into the more naïve attitude prevalent before Vatican II. Nor does John Paul simply make an appeal to the authority of Christ, and his command in Matthew 28, Mark 16 and Acts 1:8—an appeal that I have always found a bit extrinsic. Rather, in addition to obedience to the Great Commission, John Paul says that our preaching of Christ in mission should arise “from the profound demands of God’s life within us. Those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that very reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith and to the Christian life as a service to their brothers and sisters and as a fitting response to God.”15

What I’d like to do in the rest of this paper is to unpack John Paul’s phrase a bit, and thus answer the question posed in its title. I’ve given quite a bit of thought to the answers I am proposing, especially over the last year or so. I do not know if they are adequate answers, or if they go beyond the reasons the pope offers in his encyclical, or which the Vatican has offered in subsequent documents such as Dominus Iesus. Nevertheless, I find them more adequate, and so have people that I have proposed them to in more informal ways in the past.

I offer three reasons for the need for evangelization, even in the face of the fact that women and men can be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ, and outside of the boundaries of the church. They are (1) faith in Christ in the church provides a surer guide; (2) the story of Jesus is really good news, because only in him do we meet the true God; and (3) knowing and following Jesus offers a capacity for a fuller, richer life—both in this life and in eternal life.

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