Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus: A Reader’s Excellent Email Prompts a Question: Has the Church Erred in the Past or in the Present?

November 24, 2021
Crisis in the Church

Blog Master’s Note:  What follows is a wonderful email I got from a reader who is a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism.  Other than that little detail I will say nothing further as to the reader’s idenity since he/she wishes to remain anonymous.  But I have corresponded with this reader before and I always find his/her insights provocative.  And such was the case with this email as well which was sent to me as a reponse to my last blog post on Ralph Martin and Bishop Barron.  I will post the email and then offer some reflections of my own.  Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American readers!!

The Email:

Once again, fine essay. From beginning to end, we are surprisingly on the same page in both your praise and critique of Matt Fradd’s interview of Ralph Martin and their critiques of Bishop Barron.

I have no critiques of your article—all thumbs up! However, my only question would be concerning non-Catholic Christians. It always seems that when Catholic theologians, like Ralph and Bishop Barron, and dare I say yourself, discuss the issue of salvation outside the Church, the focus is always on non-Christians, and the issue of non-Catholic Christians is always sidestepped.

You mentioned that the early Christian writers favored the logo spermatikoi approach, but over time the more negative “scorched earth” view won over the Church, leading to a very narrow interpretation of extra ecclesiam. And I agree with you that this has had disastrous results for the Church—including the condemnation of millions of non-Catholic baptized Christians as heretics, schismatics, and too often deserving of persecution and death.

You state, “Therefore, Vatican II’s attempt to retrieve the logoi spermatikoi tradition in the interests of a more nuanced understanding of the movement of God’s grace and a more sophisticated understanding of the sociology and psychology of religious affiliation, represents a true development of doctrine. The new emphasis of Vatican II is no novelty or modernist invention.  It has deep roots in the Church’s Tradition. But those roots had been crowded out and lost sight of.  And that is why we hold ecumenical councils.”  

Again I agree with you, but this “scorched earth” view of non-Catholic Christians extended clearly from Cyprian through pope Pius XIth, not as merely the opinions of theologians but as the official teaching of the Church. Find any Catholic catechism or theological text written before the 1950’s and all teach this view as if it was the official, unchangeable teaching of the Church. And to a very real extent, what Father Feeney was teaching was what he and all other Catholics of his day had always been taught.

The Councils of Florence and Trent clearly espoused this narrow interpretation. And Newman, in his Essay on Development, affirmed the narrow view as one of the essential proofs of his theory (see particularly Ch. VI, Sec. II, 16-17.). Newman writes that “a religious communion is not unlike historical Christianity … if it is intolerant towards what it considers error … if it names them heretics, and warns them of coming woe, and calls on them one by one, to come over to itself, overlooking every other tie…”. From Newman’s perspective, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, and the trajectory of the Magisterium afterwards, would contradict his developmental theory.

I am in agreement with the teachings of Vatican II, but I do not see how it can be deemed a “true development of doctrine”; rather it is a clear admission that the Church has been wrong for many centuries in her narrow scorched view of non-Catholic Christians. Over the centuries, it gradually followed down the wrong “narrow, scorched earth” path, condemning all non-Catholic Christians, even forbidding Catholics from any kind of fellowship with them. But since the Church doesn’t want to admit she could ever possibly have been wrong, God forbid!, she merely states the more nuanced view of extra ecclesiam and expects Catholics to move on as if she never viewed otherwise. It kind of reminds me of what the main character in “1984” had to do whenever Big Brother decided to change history. When I hear Catholic apologists quote Hellaire Belloc (whom I like) as an authority for their apologetics against Protestants, I want to remind them that he was fully of the old school “narrow, scorched earth” view, much closer to Feeney than the teachings of Vatican II.

I can’t find a quote from any leader in the Church for the past 60+ years that says our separated brethren need to enter the Catholic Church for the sake of their salvation. Rather I’ve mostly heard nothing; only implications that our separated brethren can pretty much just stay where they are—and pope Francis has clearly said this. ( And the way most bishops treat clergy converts, it pretty much implies they think the clergy should have just stayed where they were.) The closest I’ve heard to a call to non-Catholic Christians was from Cardinal Dullas, who said that baptized non-Catholic Christians need to be fully evangelized so that their conversions can be completed in the Eucharist (and he wrote this in an article in one of Ralph Martin’s books).

I believe it was the ressourcement theologians, guided by the Holy Spirit, in their push to rediscover the teachings of the early Church, that forced the bishops to face up to the Church’s long-standing mistake. It also forced the bishops to reluctantly finally give in to what the Holy Spirit had been trying to get them to do in and since Trent—to return the mass to the language of the people! In Trent, the cowardly bishops concluded: “Although the Mass contains much instruction for the faithful, it has nevertheless not seemed expedient to the Fathers that it be celebrated everywhere in the vernacular” (Dens., 946). And we’re still suffering from this “decision”.

I’m certainly far from a Feeneyite!!! Rather, I’m continually trying to understand the Church’s nuanced views of our separated brethren, and what God is truly calling them to do.

My (Larry Chapp speaking now) response:

I cannot emphasize enough how important I think the issues raised in this email are for the current debates in the Church, which is why I am posting it.  A lot of people like to speak of the hermeneutic of continuity  with regard to the changes made in Catholic teaching over the past 70 years or so, but they often do so while glossing over these very real, and very nettlesome, questions.  Indeed, no less a light than Pope Benedict XVI has stated that he prefers to speak of the “hermeneutic of reform” rather than the hermeneutic of continuity because the Council was in many ways an attempt at reform rather than a mere reiteration of past formulations.  And, as Pope Benedict points out, true reform always involves both continuity and rupture. True reform seeks to redress imbalances that have crept into the Church’s teachings which, while remaining true in themselves, might also be an expression of the faith that involves a hypertrophy of one element of doctrine at the expense of others which have suffered an eclipse and stand in need of retrieval.  Indeed, the hypertrophy can become so extreme that it borders on a distortion of some deeper elements of the Tradition – – a distortion which has brought negative consequences that may require conciliar or papal correction.  Therefore, Benedict points out that in order to remain in continuity with the totality of Tradition a Council or a Pope sometimes need to make a rupture with the recent past in order to retrieve an ancient element that has been lost.

All that being said, the main point in the email above is that the broadening of the Church’s views on extra ecclesiam nulla salus which began in the fifties and which culminated in Vatican II and the teaching magisterium of the post-conciliar papacies, seems to be more than a “corrective rupture with some distortions.” It seems rather to be a flat contradiction to what had been the definitive teaching of the Church for many centuries. And this has not gone unnoticed by astute observers which has led liberal Catholic theologians to conclude that the Church can, and has, definitively taught doctrinal errors which the Church herself is now tacitly admitting, even as it continues on with the pretense of the “infallible Church.”  This has then led them to conclude that the Church has also been wrong on many other issues. Issues which are, therefore, far from closed questions.  And their list of alleged errors is a long one: women’s ordination, contraception, divorce and remarriage, almost the entirety of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, and intercommunion with Protestants, to name just a few.

Likewise, many of the so-called “radical traditionalists” have noticed the same contradiction, which is what has led many of them, in various levels of stridency, to accuse the modern Church of teaching heresy. To use a modern cliché much in vogue today, the radical traditionalists have been red-pilled by the papacy of Pope Francis and view his alleged heresy as the fruit of the poisoned tree of the modern Church, especially Vatican II. They do not view his problematic papacy as a one-off anomaly that we can set aside once we get a new Pope, but rather as the natural culmination of a Church that has been in contradiction to itself for several decades now. Therefore, their solution to this problem is perfectly logical. What needs to be done is to admit that the modern Church has erred and needs to be repudiated. We need to return to the theological, liturgical, and doctrinal traditions that existed before the conciliar corruptions.  It also explains why many of them, though often genuinely appreciative of the theological achievements of the ressourcement school, cast a jaundiced eye on its constructions since it was the ressourcement school that was  the main source of the “reform” that followed.

The problem with the traditionalist’s approach, however, is that it falls on its own sword.  Because if the modern magisterium can err so deeply on matters of central importance, then there is no theological justification for maintaining that the pre-Vatican II magisterium could not err as well.  Their arguments in other words cut off the very branch of authority on which they wish to perch.  But once again, many of them see this which has led to a further radicalization. Namely, that the modern magisterium, in so falling into error, has ceased to be the magisterium and that God has allowed this to happen as a kind of judgment upon the Church. God is withholding his grace in order to expose the deep rot in the Church and to call it to conversion. They then appeal to the writings of many saints, and to the Catechism itself, and point out that a “great Apostasy” has been predicted for the Church and that we are now in this era of apostasy.  Hence we get the ever-increasing apocalypticism of Archbishop Vigano who, though insane, is not being illogical.

The liberal approach to the alleged contradiction in Church teaching is also problematic, though less so.  And it is less problematic since they are up-front in their assertions that the entire problem resides in the very notion of an infallible Church. They have no problem with the alleged contradictions in Church teaching because they have never signed-on to the notion of an infallible Church authority in the first place.  However, the problem with the liberal approach is that they provide us with no coherent principle for adjudicating Church errors beyond the canons of rationality provided by modern secular culture.  Scripture itself is also deconstructed as an infallible authority and the Tradition is treated as a mere historical curiosity at best, and a distorting power game at worst. If the liberal project were simply embraced by the Church it would quickly descend into the same death-rattle of liberal Protestantism. There are darn good theological reasons why we need doctrines and the authority to teach those doctrines in the Church, and the liberal prescription for a Church of two billion popes is tantamount to ecclesial suicide as well as an admission that Christ is the spiritual equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot test.

Perhaps therefore the Orthodox are correct when they point out that the Roman Church has fallen into this conundrum precisely because it has arrogated to itself too much unilateral and monarchical authority.  Their approach to authority is far more limited and yet, in its own way, even more absolute. They privilege the Tradition of the first millennium of the Church as the main barometer for authoritative and irreformable doctrine, with some leeway granted to later theological developments so long as they are clearly organic developments of that early Tradition.  The diffusion of episcopal authority to several noteworthy Sees also acts as a hedge against the Church falling into error since no single authority speaks for the whole.  And so if one See falls into error, it can be corrected by the others, and the Church stays on message. The problem with Catholicism in this view is that it has granted to one See almost unlimited authoritative powers which eventuated in Rome creating new doctrines not found in that early Tradition.  But in so making this claim the Orthodox grant to that early Tradition an almost unlimited and absolute authority all its own, and ignores the ongoing movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church to guide it as it traverses history.  Orthodoxy thus has a tendency to ignore the fact that true doctrine is not “completed” until it is lived doctrine and that this lived doctrine can and does lead to new insights as new situations and historical circumstances provoke a deeper reflection upon the full meaning of the faith. Thus can Orthodoxy become its own theological “novelty” as it negates the very dynamic view of Tradition, rooted in the action of the Holy Spirit, that the first millennium Church affirmed as its animating principle.  In other words, there is nothing “traditional” about freezing the Tradition in place and this approach instead bears all the marks of a modern Enlightenment mentality that seeks an Archimedean fixed point of doctrinal objectivity that the Tradition itself does not affirm for itself. For Christ and the Scriptures? Yes. But for the Church herself the charism of infallibility does not confer inerrancy of expression, and thus even infallibly proposed doctrines are open to organic development.

Perhaps the solution to the questions posed by the email resides in questioning the premise that the modern Church has in point of fact contradicted previous infallible teaching. There are differing levels to the authoritative teaching of the Church which leads to the question of just how authoritative the previous teaching on extra ecclesiam really is. To be honest with you, I do not know the answer to that question.  And I suspect that to examine it in theological depth would require fifty blog posts. However, based on what theological study I have made on the topic leads me to believe that the teaching of extra ecclesiam in a very narrow way, was indeed authoritative, but not irreformably so and that there have always existed within the broader Church theological voices that were far more nuanced.

And I will also point out something that is so obvious on this matter that it is easy to overlook. Namely, the mere fact that the modern magisterium has indeed corrected the previous teaching is an indication that the Church herself has rendered a judgment on the previous teaching’s level of authority. And that judgment is that the previous teaching was not of an infallible nature, or even that it possessed a very high theological note, or that it was monolithically understood and accepted everywhere without qualification, and thus it is open to being corrected.  To take the contrary view is to assume that some extremely gifted and thoroughly orthodox modern theologians and popes – – including Saint John Paul II and Benedict XVI – – and an entire ecumenical council, were either ignorant of the true authority of the previous teaching and/or that they did not care what level of authority the previous teaching possessed and were simply “caving in” to the winds of modernity.  I firmly reject such assumptions and therefore conclude that the newer development of the doctrine of extra ecclesiam represents a true movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church – – a movement that has prompted the Church to retrieve elements of the Tradition that truly exist, and deeply so, and to thus expand her understanding of her own doctrinal resources accordingly.  Finally, this new development is not therefore a “caving in” to the winds of modernity but is rather a proper ecclesial response to new insights gained through our encounter with the world.  In fact, it was an ecclesial act as such and in its purest form, since it as an act of existential response rooted in Christ under the promptings of the Spirit.

Nor is this “blind faith” in the modern magisterium. It is rather, faith in THE magisterium and I refuse to play the traditionalist’s game of pitting one era of the magisterium against another (which is silly) or the liberal game of denying any real magisterium at all (which is suicide). Nor is this me playing “word games” in an inauthentic attempt to gloss over a clear ecclesial contradiction in the interests of saving some kind of an ecclesial ideology I have in my head. I honestly believe that a thorough and fair study of the matter will show that the previous narrow interpretation of extra ecclesiam was not an irreformable infallible teaching of the Church.

I am definitely not saying however that the magisterium can just spin straw into gold whenever it darn well pleases. That would make the magisterium beholden only to itself and not to Revelation. What I am attempting to say is that in disputed questions the reason why you have a magisterium in the first place is precisely to make definitive adjudications and to bring some closure to the issue at hand. And when the issue at hand is the level of authority that is to be attached to a particular doctrine then the magisterium’s voice on the matter has to be front and center. That is not to say that there are not other voices in the conversation, but as Catholics we do look to the magisterium to help us interpret the magisterium. And in this case what you have is a definitive magisterial statement that a previous magisterial statement, though true in its essence, is not irreformable and is open to development. And when it is the magisterium itself saying this then we have to take notice. My target are those rad trads who want to freeze frame the past and to then use it as a bludgeon agains the present. But, as I said, I find it to be a self contradiction to use an earlier era of the magisterium to discredit the current one, only to then say that they respect the magisterium. And so when the magisterium says “we are going to develop this doctrine in this direction” it must be listened to as the determiner of the hermeneutical tradition surrounding that doctrine.

The fact is this: even in documents that articulated a very narrow understanding of Extra ecclesiam the Church almost always also held that those who were inculpably ignorant of the Gospel could be saved. But they had a very shallow view of human subjectivity and thus greatly restricted what counted as inculpable ignorance. And their anathemas directed at Protestants, Jews, and apostate/heretical Catholics were all predicated on the view that these folks were culpably ignorant of the Gospel and thus damned. That was the main target. But the modern Church, armed with a much more sophisticated understanding of human psychology and the sociology of culture/religion, has greatly expanded its understanding of inculpable ignorance and has broadened its interpretation accordingly. And so I do think this is a legitimate development of doctrine and where the Church erred in the past was not in its fundamental theological ecclesiology but in its application of that theology to the categories of conscience in a shallow and almost naive way.

It indeed true that we must judge the modern magisterium in the light of the older one and there are some elements of the tradition that are truly dogmatic and cannot be changed and therefore if the modern magisterium contradicts those dogmas it is to be judged deficient. However, there are very, very few dogmas and lower doctrines that are not open to a deepening of understanding and further development. And it is the role of the magisterium to determine which aspects of the doctrine are changeable and which are not. In that sense the magisterium truly is a key voice in determining a doctrine’s level of authority in all of its particulars. And that includes the christological dogmas which, after all, are not merely little factoid nuggets of propositional truths on the level of a geometry theorem, but are signposts and markers of a deep theological mystery in the proper sense: the Incarnation can never be fully plumbed as to its full significance and we can always understand it more profoundly. And if that is true of Christ then I think we need to give greater attention to how the Church’s doctrines about herself are also open to deepening. Thus, the ancient magisterium can also be interpreted in the light of the modern magisterium keeping in mind that the ancient magisterium was once itself the modern magisterium. A term like “homousios” for example was a novelty at the time of Nicaea and the Council was moving the needle of understanding forward, beyond the mere repetition of scriptural quotes and into the realm of theological/metaphysics.

Therefore, the correcting of the previous teaching not only does not bother me, but it actually affirms my deep faith in the magisterium of the Church as a truly ecclesial reality and not merely an administrative “power.” And as for the very legitimate question raised in the email about what the Church now teaches about Protestants converting to Catholicism I can only say that the practice of many liberal theologians and pastors in the Church of downplaying conversion to Catholicism should not be our starting point for theological reflection.  Nor even some of the “off the cuff” comments by Pope Francis on the topic or his seeming insouciance toward such conversions.  Because none of that constitutes authoritative Church teaching either.  If the pastoral practice of the Church has recently downplayed calling Protestants to the Catholic Church, then so much the worse for that pastoral practice.  Because there is nothing in the modern magisterial development of extra ecclesiam that would in any way imply that the Church has now given up her self-definition as the fullness of Christian ecclesial existence. Pope Benedict certainly had such a view in mind when he established the Anglican Ordinariate in order to make it easier for Anglicans to come into the Church. And the same could be said of the previous “pastoral provision” promulgated by John Paul to make it easier for married Protestant ministers to convert.

Finally, any such “correcting” of certain blindspots in previous doctrinal statements cannot deny the fundamental essence of the doctrine, if that doctrine is universally accepted and authoritartively taught. And in the case of Extra ecclesiam the funamental truth of that doctrine is still affirmed. Namely, that all salvation does come in and through the Church.  This is what makes this case of doctrinal development different from the idea put forward by some that the Church can take such universally accepted doctrines on such hot button issues like homosexual relations and women’s ordination and just flat-out contradict them, changing the doctrine completely and opening the door to all such definitive statements of the faith being annulled.  We are not, after all, Episcopalians.  

Obviously, this is a huge topic and this short blog is a mere scratching of the surface of all of the issues so wonderfully raised in the email.  I want to thank the reader who sent it to me since it is a natural follow up to some of my recent posts on the topic.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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