Vatican II and Salvation “Outside” of the Church. Part One: Three Flawed Approaches.

October 16, 2021
Defense of Vatican II

What follows is the first of a multi-part series of posts on the question of Vatican II and salvation outside of the visible Church.  It is a long post so I apologized in advance.  Pour a good drink and have a cigar.  I would also like to apologize to those readers who have posted in my comment box and asked me questions that I did not answer.  My only defense is that I have been busy.  I am currently writing a book for Word on Fire on the universal call to holiness, as well as a book for Ignatius Press on the crisis we face in the Church today.  I also have a life that exists offline.  But I promise I will strive to do better in answering folks.  I do appreciate those who take my blog seriously enough to make comments. And I do read them all.

Part One: Three Flawed views

“Christianity stands at one and the same time in both a positive and a negative relation to the religions of the world:  it recognizes itself as being linked with them in the unity of the concept of a covenant relationship and lives out of the conviction that the cosmos and its myth … speak of God and can lead men to God; but it is equally aware of a decided No to other religions and sees in them a means by which man seeks to shield himself from God … Christianity does not simply take the side of the religious person, take the side of the conservative who keeps to the rules of play of his inherited institution; the Christian rejection of the gods signifies much rather a choice to be on the side of the rebel, who for the sake of his conscience dares to break free from what is accustomed: this revolutionary trait of Christianity has perhaps far too long been hidden …”
Joseph Ratzinger (Truth and Tolerance, Ignatius Press, 2004, pp. 21-22)

In my last blog post I offered a meditation on Gaudium et Spes.  In this post I continue my meditation on the ongoing significance of Vatican II by offering some thoughts on the conciliar approach to the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions.  I will follow the approach outlined above in the quote from Joseph Ratzinger. Namely, that the history of Christianity is marked by a twofold approach to the question of non-Christian religions and their role in God’s economy of salvation.  First, as we can see in some of the early Church Fathers, there is the view that there do exist “seeds of the Logos” (logoi spermatikoi) in other religions and religious philosophies and therefore they can act as preparations for the Gospel.  The Bible itself embraces aspects of this view as we can see in the story of the Magi who found their way to the baby King through the agency of their own religious constructions. We see it in Paul at the Areopagus and his appeal to the pagan worship of the “unknown god” as a veiled icon of Christ.  On the other hand, there is also in the Church’s history, as Ratzinger notes, a decided “No” to non-Christian religions owing to the multiplicity of falsehoods they contain that actually lead people away from the true God.  We see this in St. Boniface and in the destruction of so many pagan temples in the post-Constantinian frenzy to flush the empire of the remnants of the pagan ordo.  We see it in many of the pogroms against Jews and in the gradual narrowing of the meaning of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” to the point of a practical Catholic exclusivism and the rise of the “massa damnata” view that most people are destined for Hell.

The council addressed these issues primarily in Nostra Aetate and in Lumen Gentium 16.  It made no pretense to an exhaustive theological treatment or of having any claim on the “final word” on the topic.  But it definitely sought to crack open the hardened shell of a more exclusivist understanding of extra ecclesiam nulla salusand clearly was embracing some form of a more expansive understanding of the operations of God’s salvific grace outside of the visible confines of the Church.  This was, of course, deeply controversial and led to various schools of thought that were in disagreement with one another, kicking up a firestorm that is still raging today.

In the post-conciliar era three basic approaches emerged.  First, there is the inclusive Christology of those who affirmed the necessity of Christ and His Church for salvation, but emphasized as well that salvation can be found outside of water baptism in various forms of the “baptism of desire.”  This was the essential teaching of the council, very traditional in its own way, but which left the door open for debate over how prevalent the baptism of desire is among non-Christians.  Theologians in this school of thought differed sharply on whether or not non-Christian religions were an actual aid to that desire through their emphasis upon a life of charity as pleasing to God, or were a hindrance to charity and that God’s grace was found primarily in the moral conscience which operated primarily in the quotidian world of various moral commitments (e.g. family, friends, community, vocational obligations, etc.). Rahner’s inclusive “anonymous Christianity” was popular for a time but has since (happily) been roundly criticized for its essentially exemplarist Christology and lousy religious phenomenology. In other words, Rahner ignored the sharp uniqueness of the paschal mystery and never seemed to acknowledge that something constitutive and world-altering “happened” on the cross that fundamentally altered our metaphysical relation to God. Christ, for Rahner, was merely a “real symbol” of God’s always, already, reconciled love for the world.  This was largely a reaction against a soteriology of penal substitution which Rahner found lacking in many important ways. Nevertheless, it thus opened the door for him to locate salvation wherever Christ’s form of love was being lived, either consciously or unconsciously, and which, therefore, and contrary to Rahner’s actual intent, called into question why the sacraments are anything more than “optional aids to salvation.”  This is a bit of a caricature and is in some ways unfair to Rahner (he had a deep devotion to the Eucharist), but it is the direction his epigones took his thought, and not without some justification in Rahner’s Christology. Fortunately, there are other forms of inclusive Christology, wherein I locate my own theological allegiances, which we will look at in part two of this series.

Second, there emerged a faction that was highly critical of the conciliar outreach to non-Christian religions. Originally limited to a few disgruntled traditionalists, and eventually finding a home in the SSPX, it has recently enjoyed a resurgence in the newly minted radical traditionalists and their red-pilled overreaction to the papacy of Francis. This view holds that any attempt to develop an expansive, inclusive Christology marginalizes the centrality of Christ and the Church, and goes against centuries of Church teaching on the topic. They want to double down on the view that non-Christian religions are riddled with idolatrous falsehoods and are more of a hindrance to salvation than a help.  They will acknowledge that some religious constructions can act as a kind of preparation for the Gospel but that such constructions are both rare and ambiguous.  Water baptism in the Catholic Church is the ordinary means of salvation and anything outside of that, though possible through God’s abundant mercy, is opaque to us and is best left to God’s wisdom rather than to our own theological speculations.

There is some merit in all of this, but overall I find its substance lacking, and its thinking lazy.  It seems to me to be more of an ideological concern with the Church’s superfluity rather than a genuine attempt to understand the economy of salvation.  The Church had veered for centuries in the direction of an exaggerated exclusivism that had little to say about the seeds of the Word that truly do exist in the world, and had adopted a largely defensive posture with a hypertrophy of that “No” mentioned by Ratzinger at the expense of other genuine elements in the tradition.  The council’s attempt to go back to the Fathers and the Scriptures (ressourcement) in order to retrieve those eclipsed elements was, therefore, both salutary and necessary. Rather than a vain attempt at pointless theological speculation it was rather an attempt to think more deeply about how the Incarnation completes and fulfills all genuine worldly desire for the good.  Because the Incarnation not only bursts the old wineskins of human religious seeking, but also, in so doing, exposes the true purpose and goal of that seeking and the manner in which various religions have indeed inchoately stumbled upon some real truths.  If this were not so then the Gospel would appear as something foreign and alien to the world, an anti-human and destructive intrusion, and as a dangerous interloper.  What this view misses is that the “No” of the Gospel to religious falsehood is in reality in the service of a deeper “Yes” to all that the world had been groping after, however darkly.

Therefore, I find a dangerous and distorting Christology in the traditionalist approach which is, in its own way, just as dangerous, if not more so, than Rahner’s anonymous Christianity.  The traditionalist approach at the end of the day posits a heteronomous Christ as the destroyer of worlds, rather than the Christ who fulfills the world through a transposition of all of the good found in that world into its proper telos in the Triune God. Christ is thus reduced to a kind of bludgeon and more of a heavenly threat of violence than anything truly attractive and liberating: “believe this or go to Hell.” And in a Girardian register such an approach risks devolving into the very form of mimetic desire and its attendant scapegoating of “those others” that formed the Imperial and nationalistic mob that killed Christ in the first place. And if you think I am exaggerating look no further than the Church’s complicity down through the ages with forms of coercive religious violence, all under the sway of a narrow reading of extra ecclesiam, thus legitimating such violence as a necessary palliative for errant views.

[Side note:  Yes, yes, it is our sins that killed Christ. We are all complicit. I am not talking here of the charge of deicide against our Jewish brothers and sisters which I resoundingly reject with great prejudice. What I am discussing are the proximate psychological and socio/political causes that led to Christ’s death, and nothing more.]

Allow me to engage in a bit of an autobiographical digression in order to illustrate this point.  In 1993, while I was working on my doctoral dissertation, I was teaching religion at an all girl’s Catholic prep school in Princeton, New Jersey (Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart.)  I saw an advertisement at my local parish for a lecture on “Catholic Teaching on Salvation” that was going to be held in a lecture hall at Princeton University.  Sadly, I do not remember the name of the featured speaker, but I do remember that he was a layman armed with a Master’s degree in theology from some “off Broadway” college. I was teaching a course on Christology at the time so I thought this would be a perfect lecture for my students and asked them all to attend if they were so inclined.  I quickly regretted that decision about five minutes into the lecture when the speaker declared that salvation outside of the Catholic Church was possible, but also exceptionally difficult, and most likely very, very rare.  He went on for an hour discussing the glories of Catholicism, using very flat-footed forms of scriptural exegesis involving numerous dubious “proof texts,” and spent a good fifteen minutes highlighting how all of the other “false religions” of the world were forms of idolatry that were leading many millions of people to Hell. And just when I thought it could not get any worse, he concluded his lecture with a horrid peroration wherein he declared: “Now that you have all heard the true Gospel preached you no longer have ‘invincible ignorance’ and must make a decision for Christ’s Church or risk your eternal soul.” Apparently, the speaker had a high opinion of his rhetorical power as well as a naïve understanding of how religious psychology works.

What made the entire affair particularly galling was that most of the students from my class who chose to attend – – about 15 of them – – were either Hindu or Muslim girls whose parents sent them to our school because they valued single sex education for their daughters.  And they all chose to attend the event (it was a voluntary thing) because they were genuinely inquisitive students who were deeply attuned to spiritual matters and who took religion seriously.  Indeed, and not to put too fine a point on it, my best students were the non-Christian girls since they were open to the reality of God, whereas my Christian students, and especially my Catholic students, did not give a rat’s petard for any of it.  None of the Hindu or Muslim girls converted to Catholicism in the aftermath of the lecture (surprise!) and most were visibly angry and upset on the van ride back to school.  I remember being despondent and wondering if several years’ worth of pedagogical work aimed at presenting to them the beauty of Christ as a truly living, existential proposition, was now out the window.  Years of building trust, authenticity, and credibility – – always softly, softly, and with a fatherly concern for the healthy maturation of their souls – – gone in a single night of hortatory stupidity from a rad trad nincompoop.

I had to do a lot of damage control in the following days, trying to convince the girls that this was NOT the teaching of the Catholic Church.  But they were fine and, as it turns out, they were not angry because the speaker emphasized that Christ was the sole means to salvation, or that Catholicism was His chosen means for communicating that salvation. They had already heard me speak of Catholic teaching in that regard and had read Lumen Gentium 16’s section on salvation outside of the Church. They were cool with all of it since they too thought their own religions were “true” and the best pathway to God and therefore had no issue with a Catholic thinking the same. I repeat: these were not intellectually or spiritually superficial young women.  What angered them was the speaker’s presumption that by merely uttering out loud certain privileged words that the Gospel had indeed been “preached” and that he actually believed with great hubris that he had actually done so with such effectiveness that they no longer had an excuse for staying outside of Christ’s fold.  He might just as well have tossed a hundred catechisms into the audience and said, “here, read this. And if you don’t accept what it says you are going to Hell.” My students were also upset that the speaker had forcefully driven home his view that the religions that they and their families practiced were little more than Satanic deceptions and mostly devoid of the movement of God’s grace.  As one Hindu student said to me later:  “I have been listening to your lectures Mr. Chapp and I find them compelling. They make me want to examine Catholicism further.  But if what I heard tonight is what a lot of Catholics think, then no thank you. My family does not worship Satan, and Hinduism is not dismissible as a demonic idolatry.”

I used to think that the kind of rad trad nitwittery we witnessed that night was just a fringe phenomenon not to be taken seriously. And back then it kind of was on the fringes, limited to SSPX malcontents and the die-hard readers of various print outlets that were the Catholic equivalent of the John Birch Society, complete with the latter’s antisemitism and robust paranoia. But today we see a resurgence of the rad trad movement, apparently “built back better” through a slick use of the internet, and with the antisemitism closeted but not eradicated. Like the crazy uncle sequestered in the attic, every once in a while the antisemitism manages to leak out on social media, proving once again that Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate was not only true, but necessary.  From Taylor Marshall to Michael Voris to Fr. Altman, we see the rise of internet clickbait provocateurs whose vodcasts are little more than a kind of “Maury Povich Show” form of voyeuristic entertainment, as they toss the red meat of scandal – – real or contrived it matters not – –  into the mosh pit of ravenous red-pillers:  “Pope Francis you ARE NOT the father!”

Central to this resurgence of rad tradism is that the ideological package has to be complete.  There has to be a unified narrative that is powerful enough to act as a true “mythos” for the movement.   There also have to be clear villains and heroes, a clean and sharp demarcation between “true Catholicism” and “false Catholicism” with themselves established as a kind of internet based Holy Office of the Inquisition, freely excommunicating everyone from the Pope to their favorite bete noire, Bishop Barron.  Fr. Altman, for example, in an interview with Taylor Marshall, said that Bishop Barron is a heretic who should be excommunicated, all because Barron didn’t immediately warn Ben Shapiro, an observant Jew, of the dangers of Hellfire that awaited him owing to his stubborn refusal to accept Christ. Theological nuance is foreign to that kind of an agenda and anyone who engages in the proper theological parsing of nettlesome issues is accused of engaging in a “word salad” of obfuscations.  And were these examples all anomalous outliers they could just be dismissed.  But the entire rad trad social media presence has become a tiresome exercise in ideological posturing in the run of celebrity stupidity.

Also part of this ideological package is the retrieval of a crypto-Feeneyism with a very narrow and exclusionary reading of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.  The section of Lumen Gentium that deals with salvation outside of the Church (section 16) is given the narrowest interpretation possible lest we be led to believe that Vatican II was actually changing anything on the topic. The level of vincible ignorance among the heathens is played up and the amount of invincible ignorance is played down.  A clear, bright red line must be drawn between Catholics and “everyone else” lest the Church be viewed as a dispensable, vestigial appendage.  This alone can explain their overheated response to the Pachamama silliness (and it was high Germanic silliness. A liberal Teutonic campyness designed for the cameras).  So dim a view do the trads hold of non-Christian religions that for them Pachamama could only represent an outrageous act of papal idolatry, right up there with that golden calf of ancient fame. But Pachamama was not idolatrous. It was just stupid.  It was a contrived attempt at “enculturation” and nothing more. But the whole affair is instructive as to how “scorched-earth” trads really are with regard to the relationship between Catholicism and non-Christian religious symbols. Maybe if Pachamama was somehow more Latinate she would have been more acceptable to them. Maybe the Synod organizers should have presented her as “Pachamamicus,” wearing an old IHM full habit and carrying a ruler.  

Conversely,  I have also experienced the opposite extreme. And that extreme represents the third position that emerged after the Council, a position that is probably, and sadly, the default view of most modern Western Catholics.  Namely, Catholics, both untutored and highly tutored, who are thoroughgoing religious relativists who think Christ is just one pathway among many to God.  For many of them, following a degraded form of Rahnerianism, Christ is simply a kind of spiritually “maxed out” human being and that there are definitely many other such persons who have existed.  Christ is not the eschatologically unique and Absolute inbreaking into time and space of the One, Infinite, God.  Christ is just a fully engraced man, a kind of “religious genius” type, and is a mere exemplar of what all humans can potentially “achieve” so long as they have the proper progressive political views and drive a Prius. Christ. Buddha. Krishna. Deepak Chopra. Poperah Winfrey. Bisexual Superman.  It is all the same.  The Church’s preaching of the Gospel is thus reduced to the rhetorical equivalent of a Ron Popeil infomercial hawking Jesus as one spiritual consumer choice among many, all of which are jostling with each other for a greater market share in our new and inclusive global village of atomized “choosers.”  “Better living through sacraments” could be the Church’s ad campaign motto were it not for the fact that the sacraments are now nothing more than the epiphenomenal exudations of the deep, Gnostic self. No wonder then that the psychotherapist’s couch has replaced the confessional, and all manner of Sunday entertainments the Eucharist.  You can only preach so long about the superfluity of the Church and that Jesus is merely one option among many before people start to actually take you up on that proposition.

It goes without saying, therefore, that the relativists are also almost always universalists.  And therefore they obviously have no problem with the idea that there is salvation outside of the Church. Indeed, to listen to many of them, your soul is more in jeopardy by being inside the Church than outside of it.  But that is just their own self-loathing and cultural virtue signaling at work.  This then is the origin of the post-conciliar theological flatulence that would have us stop evangelizing altogether viewing it as a triumphalistic christomonism and a subspecies of Western colonial aggression.  Better to make a Hindu a better Hindu and a Buddhist a better Buddhist and a Satanist a better … oops… well, not that.  There are limits after all and some litmus test of legitimacy still needed to be applied. However, now that litmus test is the form of reason established in the Enlightenment’s naïve sense of “bird’s eye view” objectivity rather than that of Christ and his Gospel.  It never seems to cross their minds that the very construction of a “theology of world religions” in a relativist modality is itself a violent overthrowing of what those religions actually think about themselves. It never crosses their minds that this ersatz theology is itself a highly particular and culturally contextualized religious point of view all its own.  And a view that has no roots in any kind of a tradition or an established liturgical and moral praxis. It is the “religion” of Catholic academic elites who fancy themselves to be champions of diversity and tolerance. They say, in so many words, that all major religions are “equal,” but different, pathways to God.  But what they really mean is that all religions are equally trivial in their positive constructions and that only the trained eye of the academic illuminati can see through it all to the docetic core that lurks beneath all religious constructions.

The more theologically astute of the progressive relativists do reject syncretism as spiritually shallow (and lately view it too as a problematic cultural appropriation, like an Irish woman with flaming red hair weaving herself some dreadlocks) and will emphasize instead the need for each religion to stay true to its own Gestalt and internal “grammar.” But in order for that view to work as a hedge against syncretism the analog in use – – language – – has to be essentialized and a bit idealized.  Because in truth there isn’t a major language on the planet that isn’t linguistically syncretistic.  And all cultures are also constantly in flux as one cultural horizon collides with a multiplicity of others.  Not without reason do we see Judaism develop a full blown demonology and angelology only after the Babylonian exile.  And we would not have the Wisdom literature of late second temple Judaism without Israel’s Hellenistic envy.  Furthermore, there can be no doubt that both Buddhism and Hinduism changed in positive ways after their encounter with the Christian West, proving that Christian evangelization of the East is no more hegemonic, triumphalist, or destructive than the fact that the Japanese now drink Scotch and Americans eat sushi.  In other words, all religions have a syncretistic element and the only thing that saves them from a shallow cafeteria-line smorgasbord approach is if their dominant motif can assimilate the new elements into a higher synthesis.  

Still other theologians rejected the “grammatical” approach and opted instead for a theology of the pluralism of religions.  I had a professor at Fordham during my doctoral studies who argued that the tower of Babel story instructs us that God has willed the pluralism of religions as a fixed feature of the human condition.  Following theologians such as Paul Knitter he argued further that the New Testament’s language concerning the exclusivity of Christ as the means of salvation was not meant to be taken as a hard doctrine but was instead to be viewed as doxological and liturgical language that engaged in the kind of hyperbolic exaggeration that is proper to this genre.  Non-Christian religions are not “anonymously” seeking Christ. And the Western, Christian, theology of salvation is not something shared by most other religions.  The divine purpose, therefore, behind this pluralism is rooted in the concept of God’s inexhaustible infinity which requires a multiplicity of approaches to tease out differing aspects of the divine nature, which each religion acting like a blindfolded person touching different parts of an elephant which results in true, but partial and differing, descriptions. Or, at the very least, the pluralism is rooted in an apophatic awareness that the realm of the “divine” is ineffable. In this latter scenario, all “thematized” religious doctrines and practices are merely differing human attempts to articulate some aspect of the unthematized realm of spiritual realities.

However, the premises in this latter view cannot be squared with the Catholic faith and, therefore, they must be rejected.  At the heart of this approach there is a decidedly anthropocentric turn wherein all religions are viewed as mere human constructs and are the symbolic creations of the mythopoetic imagination.  A Catholic theologian who espouses such views may perhaps at least acknowledge that there is something “privileged” about the Christian mythos and that the movement of God’s grace is operative in all mythopoetic constructions.  But underneath it all there is a not so subtle rejection of the very concept of a definitive divine Revelation.  It is true that God is infinite and ineffable. But if God is a “God who speaks,” a personal God who loves and desires to communicate with creatures he created precisely for this communion of communication, then we simply cannot rule out in advance that God really has disclosed Himself to us in definitive and adequate ways.  Nor should we allow the egalitarian ethos of modernity to disparage the idea that God could choose to reveal Himself in a privileged way in a singular historical action to a particular community of believers. The New Testament makes this clear and affirms that to “see Jesus” is to “see the Father” and that Christ really is “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” apart from whom there is no salvation. The attempt to view such language as merely hyperbolic doxology is simply ad hoc exegetical legerdemain, and is thoroughly at odds with the faith of the apostolic Church.  Finally, we see once again that there is a hidden religious particularism embedded in this approach since the view that God is largely uncommunicative, unknowable, and unthematizable in an Absolute Revelation, is a form of apophaticism that is incompatible with the Catholic affirmation that God has indeed vouchsafed to us a definitive and privileged self-disclosure.  Apophaticism is legitimate and necessary since in all analogical predications there is always a “greater dissimilarity.”  But for the Catholic this apophaticism must be a moment within a larger “Kataphatic” Revelation, the ongoing mystery of which is the result, not of darkness, but of an excess of light.  

Therefore, the task of properly understanding the conciliar opening to the movement of God’s grace outside of the visible Church must look elsewhere than the views I have outlined here.  Rahner’s anonymous Christianity, the rad trad ecclesial exclusivism, and the religious relativism/pluralism approaches all fail.  In my view, some version of an inclusive Christology gives us the most fruitful path forward.  But in order to avoid Rahner’s metaphysical flat-lining of grace wherein the transcendental, anthropological tail is wagging the Christological dog, we must deepen our understanding of several related issues.  Namely, what does “salvation” mean? What, exactly, are we saved from? How does Christ “achieve” this salvation? What is the Church’s vocation in light of this concept of salvation? How is the grace of this salvation communicated to the broader, non-Christian world? And if it is so communicated, why do we “need” the Church and her sacraments?  These are the themes I will be taking up in the next several posts.  

Thanks for your patience.  This was a long one.

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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