It’s become a common false assumption, witnessed most recently in preparations for the upcoming Amazon Synod, that most, if not all, people are saved, even if they might not be Catholic.

But such a “universalist” view is not what the Church has ever taught, so how did we reach this point, and what does the Church really teach about the salvation of souls?

To find out, the Register asked professor Ralph Martin, director of graduate theology programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. Author of the widely read book on spirituality The Fulfillment of All Desire, he has also written Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization.

In this email interview, Martin explains how some documents of the Second Vatican Council had a destabilizing effect on the Church, exacerbated by a failure to read them carefully, combined with various concepts of universalism put forward by theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Martin, who also serves as president of the evangelization organization Renewal Ministries, says he believes these theologians and other factors have “contributed to a weakening of zeal for holiness and for evangelization.”

 

There seems to be a growing acceptance of “universalism,” the belief that everybody or almost everybody will be saved. This, of course, undermines the claims of Jesus and the Church to be the uniquely appointed means by which people can be saved. What do you think has caused this?

Part of the causes of this is the initial enthusiasm that followed Vatican II that exalted what was called the “spirit of Vatican II,” with little close attention paid to what it actually said. There were some significant pastoral and strategic changes made by Vatican II as well as a doctrinal clarification of questions concerned with the salvation of those outside the Catholic Church that I believe was an authentic development of doctrine.

The Decree on Christian Unity, while affirming the uniqueness of the Catholic Church as the Church founded by Christ, was destabilizing to generations of Catholics who had grown up with a very negative attitude towards Protestants and Orthodox. And now the Church was saying that, even though there were serious defects in their understanding of Christian Revelation concerning the Church and other important doctrines, there were areas of great commonality, and many gifts and graces were present in the non-Catholic churches and ecclesial bodies.

Most significantly, the Church recognized that we shared a common baptism and so we were genuinely brothers and sisters in Christ, a very important common bond. Not being clear on Lumen Gentium, 14 — “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it” — an attitude began to spread that since Orthodox and Protestants were now brothers and sisters in Christ, perhaps there was no need for people to become Catholics.

 

What was the effect of the decree on non-Christian religions?

The Decree on Non-Christian Religions, while not denying the need to evangelize and call members of these religions to Christ, was also destabilizing. Up until the very eve of Vatican II, the papal encyclicals on mission emphasized the defects in the world religions, including idolatry and Satanic elements, and issued strong calls to mission for the sake of their salvation. The Decree on Non-Christian Religions now emphasized certain commonalities and recognized rays of truth and seeds of the Gospel present in these non-Christian religions. This again led to many people surmising that, since this is the case, perhaps there is no need for evangelization, since people can be saved without hearing the Gospel. This was explicitly taught in Lumen Gentium, 16, but the grave difficulties in this being the case were almost never averted to.

 

How were these effects further heightened after the Council?

The unfortunate response to these documents — not warranted by a careful reading of them in the whole context of all the Council documents — was further fostered by comments by famous theologians, such as Karl Rahner, that a major accomplishment of Vatican II was a “salvation optimism.” Statements … talked about how Vatican II was a good start but we needed to go further, more needed to change.

 

Besides a faulty reading of the actual texts of the Council, how much do you think the actual theological theories of very influential theologians like Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar contributed to the present situation?

A great deal. Karl Rahner’s theory of the “Anonymous Christian” was widely accepted as a way of understanding how many, perhaps most or even all, of the vast multitudes outside the Catholic Church, could actually be saved. While the theory is interesting and is an honest attempt to explain how it might be possible for God’s grace to work outside the Church, unfortunately, Rahner made statements that indicated he believed it would be almost impossible for people to resist God’s grace.

“It is furthermore impossible to think that this offer of supernatural, divinizing grace made to all men on account of the universal salvific purpose of God, should in general (prescinding from the relatively few exceptions) remain ineffective in most cases on account of the personal guilt of the individual. ... [W]e do have every reason for thinking optimistically of God and his salvific will, which is more powerful than the extremely limited stupidity and evil-mindedness of men. ... [T]hese influences of grace can be presumed to be accepted in spite of the sinful state of men and in spite of their apparent estrangement from God.”

And his definition of what it takes to assent to this grace is extremely vague.

“But he also already accepts this revelation whenever he really accepts himself completely, for it already speaks in him. ... In the acceptance of himself man is accepting Christ.”

 

How influential has Balthasar been in this regard?

While Rahner’s theory of the “Anonymous Christian” has been very influential, Balthasar’s “hope that all may be saved” is even more influential at the present time.

Balthasar claims that there are two contradictory streams of Scripture that can’t be reconciled. One stream, he claims, are the frequent teachings of Jesus and the apostles about hell and the final judgment, which indicate that it is difficult to be saved and easy to be lost and that at the final judgment some will go to their final condemnation, hell, and others will enter the Father’s house. The other stream talks about the will of God to save all people and the death of Christ for the redemption of the whole world.

Balthasar claims that the texts about the final division of the human race based on whether people repent and believe or not are just warnings and shouldn’t be interpreted as actually describing future outcomes.

As a result, he claims that it is reasonable to hope that no one will be lost.

 

Is this scriptural?

This is a very unusual approach to the Bible. The Catholic Church clearly teaches that there is a unity to Scripture, and any apparent contradictions can and should be reconciled.

Over the course of its entire history, the Church has not evidenced any difficulty in harmonizing these different streams. Without getting into technical theology, the Church teaches that while it is God’s will to save all men, it is also God’s will that people need to repent and believe and accept his mercy and the forgiveness of sins — or not.

While Balthasar and his followers are not teaching that all men will be saved, they lean so heavily in this direction that many come to this conclusion. For example, when Balthasar tries to sum up what he actually means by his speculations, he quotes an unpublished text of Edith Stein:

“And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, it can become infinitely improbable …”

In Balthasar’s book, [he] focused on this question, [and] there is no exhortation to evangelization, as hell is presented only as a theoretical possibility that we should meditate on for ourselves and not worry about our neighbors.

Unfortunately, many have drifted into a presumption about virtually universal salvation as a result of the popularization of Balthasar’s speculations, and I believe they have contributed to a weakening of zeal for holiness and for evangelization. If almost everyone is saved, why bother?

 

Is there anything in the Council documents that brings clarity to this issue? What exactly does the Church teach about the possibility of members of non-Christian religions and no religion being saved?

The Council has a very clear teaching that is virtually unknown and would really bring a solution to this confusion and ill-founded presumption. It is contained in the Constitution on the Church, Section 16.

What the Council here teaches is that, under certain conditions, it is possible for people who have never heard the Gospel to be saved. The conditions are:

1) That they are inculpably ignorant.

2) That they are sincerely seeking to know God, who reveals himself in some measure through the creation and through the light of conscience.

3) That they are trying to live in accordance with the light of conscience, assisted by God’s grace.

People hear this teaching and, very strangely, often jump to the conclusion that these conditions are probably generally fulfilled and so most people are saved; indeed, without hearing the Gospel. But this is a false conclusion and is contradicted by the last three sentences of Lumen Gentium, 16. Karl Rahner in his work on this issue ignores the last three sentences. Balthasar ignores them, as well. Here they are:

“But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:16) takes zealous care to foster the missions.”

The Council is here reminding us that no one lives in a neutral environment and that the world, the flesh and the devil are powerful forces leading people away from saying “Yes” to the grace of God. The Council here is reminding us that even though it is theoretically possible for people who have not heard the Gospel to be saved, it is very difficult, and, very often, it does not happen; and so we need to urgently carry out the work of evangelization. May we all do so!

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.