Chapter Thirteen


There are two ways of looking at other religions. They can on the one hand be viewed as systems of belief claiming men's total allegiance. In this respect they appear as rivals to Christianity and obstacles to its acceptance. Or they can be seen as part of a general effort by the non-Christian world to make sense of life and the universe without the help of divine revelation, unless with some dim relics of the primitive revelation given to Adam, each attempt containing elements of truth embedded in a greater or lesser number of errors. From this standpoint, the elements of truth can be regarded as a "preparation for the Gospel". (The exception of course is the religion of Israel, Christianity being its fulfilment).

Both the above ways of looking at the non-Christian religions say something true about them. But with the Second Vatican Council, the magisterium was persuaded to give pride of place to the second more sympathetic approach.

Pressure for the change came partly from missionaries. They pointed to the lack of success of the traditional approach with regard to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists. Why had centuries of missionary effort not produced more conversions? The wise missionary; it was argued, does not immediately confront his hearers with the total wrongness of their beliefs. Like St. Paul on the Areopagus (the Athenian law court mentioned in Acts), he looks for points of agreement  in St,. Paul's case, the Athenians' acknowledgement of the existence of an "unknown God". This had also been the approach of the 17th-century Jesuits, Frs. Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili, towards the Chinese and Indians.

The new theologians, on the other hand, favoured the more sympathetic approach for theological reasons. It fitted their "universalism". God is interested in all men, not just Christians.

In his little book The Salvation of the Nations (Sheed & Ward, London 1949), the Jesuit Fr. Jean Daniélou describes the four stages through which thinking about non-Christian religions passed in the decades before the Council. 1

Stage One

Non-Christian religions are inadequate rather than false, therefore a bridge rather than a barrier to the faith. This seems to have been the view of Fr. Pierre Charles writing around 1929. When speaking of the moral and religious truths to be found in non-Christian religions, the second-century apologist and martyr St. Justin had used the phrase "seeds of the Word". These "seeds of the Word" he attributed in some way to God the Son, the Eternal Word, not just to human reason. Did that mean they were a kind of proto-revelation?

Stage Two

Should we not think of a revelation in three stages? First, God speaks through creation. Of this preliminary revelation the non-Christian religions are the main recipients and beneficiaries (even if they have got some of the facts wrong). Then comes the revelation to the Jews, and finally its completion in Christ. The non-Christian religions therefore represent the first step in a three-fold "mission of the Word". God could not call Abraham until the efforts of the non-Christian religions had raised mankind's "religious consciousness" to a sufficiently high level to receive it. 2

Stage Three

The non-Christian religions and their cultures contain hidden spiritual riches which are necessary to the future development and completion of Christianity. "There may well be aspects of Christianity that we have not yet discovered and that we will not discover until Christianity has been refracted through every facet of the prism of human civilisation". So far "it has been refracted only through the Greek and Roman worlds, but it will have to be refracted through the Chinese facet and the Indian facet in order to attain its fulfilment" (op cit., p. 36). Rather, therefore, than seeking to convert individuals, the missionary should concentrate on bringing about "an evolution within the culture itself" (ibid., p. 46). This, it seems, would be achieved through high-level discussions between experts in which the Catholics try to persuade the other side that their religion, good as it is, is now ripe for an evolutionary mutation. Without ceasing to be a distinct "religious experience", it must now open itself to receive a fully Christian content.

Stage Four

Non-Christian religions are valid paths to salvation in and by themselves. Trying to persuade non-Christians to change their religions is therefore wrong. The different "traditions" should live and let live, concentrating on joint efforts to make the world a better place.

The conclusion of stage two and stages three and four have not, needless to say, been endorsed by the Church, nor, as far as I am aware, were they by Fr. Daniélou, however much they have been touted as legitimate interpretations of the Council's teaching or in keeping with its spirit.

The Council confined itself to mentioning St. Justin's "seeds of the Word", echoing Eusebius of Caesarea, who described the "seeds of the Word" as a "preparation for the Gospel" (Lumen Gentium 16), and recommending  that the faithful be taught to view the non-Christian religions with more sympathy and understanding.

Although the Church's first task  says Nostra Aetate, the Council's document on non-Christian religions  is to preach the Gospel, it also has "a duty to foster unity and charity among individuals and even among nations". "Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture." (Nostra Aetate 2). To which Pope Paul would add that the Church "esteems these non-Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people" 3

The more sympathetic approach to non-Christian religions has been the justification for extensive liturgical "inculturation". The main problem here is that a religion is more than a collection of unrelated teachings and practices. It is an organised whole with an ethos that permeates the parts. Therefore an individual idea or practice, however seemingly true or innocent, when carried over into Christianity, can bring with it more than its own self, as, for instance, many Catholics fear has been happening with some of the Indian hierarchy's attempts to "Hinduise" the liturgy of the Mass.

The Church and the non-Christian's Salvation

Allied to the status of the non-Christian religions was the question of the non-Christian's salvation. About this there were four subjects of debate in theologically "advanced" circles before the Council:

(a)    the non-Christian's salvation;

(b)   the non-believer's salvation;

(c)    universal salvation    everyone is saved;

(d)   integral salvation    everyone and everything is saved, souls, bodies, animals, plants, stars, in other words the final transfiguration of the whole cosmos.

In this chapter I will consider points (a), (b), and (c). "Integral salvation" belongs to the next chapter.

(a) The non-Christian's salvation was not a subject on which much speculation was expended, as far as one can see, for the first 1500 years of the Church's existence. To the extent it was thought about, the consensus seems to have been that the chances were pretty slim. It was the missionary expansion accompanying the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the Americas and the Far East which forced the subject on the Church's attention. Knowledge of these new realms impressed more deeply on men's minds the vast numbers of people who never had been and were never likely to become Christians. There was no debate about whether all men can be saved. The New Testament makes that clear. Only the 17th- and 18th-century Jansenists doubted it. God wills everyone's salvation. Christ died for all, even if all do not take advantage of his sacrifice. He is "the true Light" who "enlightens every soul born into the world". The subject of debate was how non-Christians are saved, given the Scriptural definition of the Church as the "one ark of salvation", the biblical and patristic insistence on the need for faith and baptism, and the age-old teaching, first explicitly formulated in the third century by Origen and St. Cyprian, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church).

St.Peter speaks in a similar vein. "There is no other name (apart from that of Jesus) by which men can be saved". So does St. Paul: "neither is there salvation in any other". Texts could be multiplied to the point of weariness culminating in Christ's clear command "Preach the Gospel to all nations. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who refuses to believe will be condemned". To hear the Gospel preached, the Church has always insisted and continues to insist, is the greatest of opportunities, and the way men respond to it is of the utmost consequence. The Council reaffirmed the traditional teaching. "Basing itself on Scripture and tradition, it (the Church) teaches that the Church is necessary for salvation" (Lumen Gentium 14).

How then are the two sets of texts to be reconciled?

The Council, after saying that "the Church knows she is joined in many ways to the baptised who . . . do not profess the Catholic faith", speaks tentatively of "those who have not yet received the Gospel" being "related to the people of God in various ways" (Lumen Gentium 15). That it has their salvation in mind is clear from the context. The implication seems to be that if they are in the right dispositions they will receive the grace to persevere in them through the Church and will eventually enter heaven as members of the Church through having received what is called "baptism of desire". It is assumed that if they had truly heard and understood the Gospel message, they would have accepted it and asked to be baptised.

The right disposition presupposes, as a minimum, faith in a God who rewards and punishes, sorrow for sin and the desire to please Him. In every nation, says St. Peter, anyone who fears God "and does what is right is acceptable to Him". And St. Paul, at the outset of his apostolate to the Corinthians, is told by God that, contrary to appearances, there are in Corinth already "many people on my side". Corinth was, on a small scale, a mixture of Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

But when exactly it is that the non-Christian who is sincerely seeking to serve God, however confusedly, receives this kind of baptism, no one knows. One thing, however, is certain. He will not owe his salvation to Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Vishnu, or anyone else real or imaginary. Only Christ was able to make satisfaction for the sins of the human race and win men eternal life. Only as members of his Mystical Body can men enjoy the vision of God.

It was to do justice to this wider vision that the new theologians started looking for an alternative to the definition of the Church as the "one ark of salvation", a definition that would still present her as the unique instrument of salvation, without seeming to imply that salvation was impossible without visible membership of the Church. The formula the Council adopted was "universal sign and sacrament of salvation". 4

(b) The unbeliever's salvation: The main subject of concern here was the "good atheist", anxious to improve the living and working conditions of his fellow men. In the France of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, this mostly meant dedicated socialists and communists. Since they showed no signs of fulfilling any of the conditions necessary for baptism of desire, it was much harder to explain theologically how they could get into the kingdom of heaven short of a death-bed enlightenment.

The simplest of the proposed solutions was that service of our fellow men is equivalent to belief in God. "In so much as you did it unto one of these, you did it unto me". Others built their theories on Fr. Rahner's or Fr. de Lubac's theologies of nature and grace. All that needs to be said at this point is that they seem to imply that every man has a germ of or disposition towards the supernatural in him by nature. He has an innate desire for the supernatural even when denying its existence, which led Fr. Rahner to postulate the existence of millions of "anonymous Christians".

Neither the Council nor the magisterium since has accepted either of these solutions. The Council merely says that divine providence will not "deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of  theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life." (Lumen Gentium 16)

(c) Universal salvation: By the 1940s there was a growing body of "advanced" theologians anxious for the Church to abandon, or at least take the sting out of the doctrine of eternal punishment. Some, like de Lubac and von Balthasar, favoured the idea that although hell exists, and is a real possibility for every individual, we cannot be certain that any particular person is in hell, and we must "dare to hope" that all men be saved. Others were for reviving in a modified form the ancient theory, repudiated by the Church but held by Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Jerome for a time, known as apokatastasis. Although some people go to hell, even a lot, in the end everyone or nearly everyone is let out, devils included. Hell is simply a more painful kind of purgatory. These ideas did not get through the mesh of the conciliar sieve either.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the shift of emphasis from the defects to the virtues of the non-Christian religions and to the greater possibilities of salvation outside the visible boundaries of the Church, has been, of all the new orientations, the most difficult to control.

The collapse of missionary effort accompanied by priests and nuns preaching various forms of religious syncretism (Christianity being just one among many religions, all destined one day to be absorbed into a higher "world faith") have been only among the more sensational consequences. 5

In theory, there was no reason why it should have had this result. When faith is strong, the Christian wants to obey Christ's command and to share what he regards as a priceless treasure with as many people as possible. How God deals with those the message fails to reach, he leaves to God. But when faith is not so strong, preaching the Gospel inevitably comes to seem a matter of less urgency.

Already before the Council, it was being suggested by certain French missionaries, discouraged by their failure to convert the north African Muslims, that rather than preaching the faith, they should be a "silent presence", preaching only by good example and good works. 6

This inspired Frs. de Lubac and Danélou to propose an alternative motive for missionary zeal Even if salvation is possible outside the visible boundaries of the Church, Christians, they argued, should be anxious for the final coming of God's kingdom as soon as possible. But that will not happen until the Gospel has been preached to every nation.

Their alternative, however, was not able to counteract the weakening sense  of Christianity's uniqueness and importance generated by the theories we have been examining. These were to have far more weight than any conciliar texts. 7

Notes to Chapter Thirteen

1. For Daniélou's views about the religious status of non-Christians, see also his Holy Pagans of the Old Testament (French original 1956, Eng. trans., Longman, 1957). Daniélou, later made a cardinal by Paul VI, was a close associate of Fr. de Lubac. Soon after the war they started the publication of early Church writings under the tide Sources chrétiennes, which now runs to over 320 volumes.

2. The idea of an evolving "religious consciousness", compatible though it may be with Fr.Teillurd de Chardin's evolutionism, is hard to reconcile with the historical and anthropological facts. Are we to suppose that we today have a more developed religious consciousness than Abraham? And how do we explain the fact that South American Indians and Africans have accepted the faith without much difficulty, while the "superior" religious cultures of India and China have been more resistant? The work of Buddha and Confucius may, in God's providence, have been intended as some kind of preparation for the Gospel. But that is not how things have worked out. In practice they seem to have been an obstacle to Asia's reception of the Gospel. The subject is clearly not susceptible to easy solutions.

3.  The Apostolic Constitution Evangelii Nuntiandi 53, summarising the work of the 1974 Synod on Evangelisation. Elsewhere in the document the Pope found it necessary to say that appreciating the good points in other religions does not absolve missionaries from the obligation to preach the Gospel.

4. The Council documents in fact express the idea in several forms. That revelation contains apparently conflicting affirmations should no more surprise us than the fact that in modern physics matter presents itself under conflicting aspects sometimes appearing as particles, sometimes as energy waves. Our inability to reconcile them demonstrates nothing but the fact that we are not omniscient.

5. See the English catechetical programme "Weaving the Web", which introduces young Catholics to the rites and beliefs of Hinduism and Islam along with those of the Church, as though the former were viable variants.

6. The idea of being "present" to other people without trying to have them share your beliefs seems to have its origin in the "personalism" of the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. The holy French priest Charles de Foucauld seems to have been touched by this idea prior to the First World War.

7. By 2000, the situation had deteriorated sufficiently far for the Holy See to issue a document Dominus Jesus. insisting that Christ is the one and only Saviour, and the Catholic Church the one and only Church founded by him. In response, modernism stirred up an international clamour charging Rome, as usual, with being uncharitable a charge which, according to its view of things, could just as easily be brought against Christ.

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Copyright © Phillip Trower 2003, 2011, 2017

Version: 26th November 2017

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