Friday, 16 July 2010
Who then can be saved? Traditionalist and modernist heresies and the scope for legitimate theological debate Part I.
It is an important issue, because liberal promotion of the idea of almost universal salvation (encouraged by theologians such as von Balthasar and his concept of an empty hell) have served to completely undermine the idea that we must hold to and practice the Catholic faith and proclaim it to others.
But as ever, heresy holds sway at both extremes of the debate, with sede vacentists and other 'extreme traditionalist' heresies such as feeneyism also gaining ground in some circles.
Somewhere in the middle?
On the conservative side, some traditionalists want Vatican II teachings on the scope of salvation condemned. A recent article on Romano Amerio's (of Iota Unum fame) latest book by Sandro Magister, for example, cites the idea that "the pagans to whom the Gospel is not proclaimed, if they follow the dictates of natural justice and try to seek God with sincerity, will go to the beatific vision" as an example of an error that they claim has long been condemned, and should now be condemned ex cathedra.
That is certainly a position that stands in stark contrast with that taken in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Compendium of the CCC, summarises the position as (No 262):
"Since Christ died for the salvation of all, those can be saved without Baptism... all those who, even without knowing Christ and the Church, still (under the impulse of grace) sincerely seek God and strive to do his will can also be saved without Baptism (Baptism of Desire)...."
Is the CCC's position reconcilable with tradition on this subject?
In fact I think it is. The Roman Matyrology recognises many Old Testament figures as saints. Dante placed some of the great pagan philosophers in heaven. And fully traditional texts such as the Baltimore Catechism go so far as to allow that those who through their own grave fault do not know that the Catholic Church is the true Church can in fact be saved.
But this is an area where both traditionalist and modernist heresies currently run rife. And one that it is difficult to get a good handle on because it is one of those areas of theology where there have been relatively few dogmatic teachings defined, and thus there is a large area for legitimate theological debate.
So I thought I'd have a go at sketching out some of the nuances of this debate over a couple of posts, not least to attempt to clarify my own thinking on the subject. Feel free to leap in and correct me if you think I've got it wrong (or simply don't agree).
It is worth setting out first the outright errors.
There are more than a few 'extreme traditionalist' heresies and potentially erroneous opinions around on this subject, so let me set them out as a starting point, before I turn to the other end of the spectrum.
1. The Church doesn't mean the institutional Church. Actually this is one of those heresies that afflict the liberal end of the spectrum as well, but let's talk about the traditionalist version of it first. Last week I got a message on my phone from some sede vacentist nutter (thanks so much to whoever gave him my name and/or number) that I at first took to be a comment on a post I wrote recently, because it started out with a firm admonition that 'outside the Church there is no salvation'. But perhaps not, since he then went on to inform me that all those in the Vatican were heretics...
Of course it is possible that individual members of the curia could be heretics. As Catholics though, we have to believe that the doctrine of the indefectability of the Church, of the protection accorded to the successors of Peter. In particular, we need to believe that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost that enables the Church to teach (correctly, albeit within some limits), sanctify (ie the sacraments must be valid if performed in accordance with the decrees of Rome) and rule (govern) the faithful in the name of Christ (see the Baltimore Catechism no 3, no 143).
2. Anyone not baptised and not a visible member of the Catholic Church cannot be saved (feeneyism): Feeneyism is another popular heresy on the extreme traditionalist side of the ledger. It is a heresy not least because it denies the notion of 'baptism of desire' (those who die before baptism but with a desire to receive it) and 'baptism of blood' (martyrdom for the faith on the part of the unbaptised).
The real area of theological debate that I think does remain open to some legitimate debate alluded to in the Magister article mentioned above is just what constitutes baptism of desire - how explicit a knowledge of God, the Church and the faith, for example, is required, or can it be entirely implicit? A sub-set of this debate goes to the question of whether the Islamic God is the same as as the Christian God - and hence whether Muslims can be saved. I'll come back to these questions in a later post.
At the other extreme comes the idea that (virtually) everyone is saved. The argument goes that Catholics have to believe in the concept of hell (true) - but not that there is anyone in it (but doesn't that make the concept utterly meaningless?). There are a number of variants on this that are worth setting out.
1) Von Balthasar's idea that hell is empty - which has been comprehensively demolished and shown to be heretical in a book by Alyssa Pitstick. A great exchange on this subject in the journal First Things is alas no longer available online unless you have a subscription to that journal, but a useful explication of von Balthasar's arguments and why they are wrong can be found at New Oxford Review.
2) The almost empty hell - for example because everyone gets another chance to repent at or after the moment of death. The Catholic teaching is that anyone who definitively persists in mortal sin (including rejection of the faith) will be condemned. So some have conjured up the idea that we get one last chance to change our minds, thus no need even for the deathbed repentance. A variant of this idea is that since God is outside of time and space, we can pray for those who might perhaps have been in a state of mortal sin at their death, and potentially change the outcome for them. It's a comforting thought. But there is absolutely no Scriptural or traditional basis for it, so you wouldn't want to depend upon it! And while we can certainly pray for the dead in the hope that they are in purgatory and thus need our prayers - we are not God, and do live in time. Once particular judgment has been passed, which occurs immediately after death, it is out of our hands!
3) Living a 'good life' is enough - Some take the view that one religion or denomination or another is as good as belonging to the Church, or even that no religion at all is fine so long as someone lives a 'good' life. A famous variant of this idea is the theologian Karl Rahner's idea of 'anonymous Christians', potentially including even those who have explicitly rejected the faith. That is clearly not the teaching of the Church in my view. The Church does allow that God can give graces to those outside the (fullness of the) visible Church through no fault of their own. But the fullness of the means of salvation belong to the Church, and the Church provides the safest means to achieving salvation.