Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thoughts On Ecumenism

...but what about non-Catholics?!
What does the Church teach with regard to the spiritual state of Protestants and the possibility that, although they subscribe to heretical notions, they might go to heaven? 

This is a question that has been posed to the folks at ChurchMilitant.TV on more than one occasion. In a couple of recent Vortex episodes (both embedded below), Michael Voris indirectly tackles this question, pointing to a weakness in the way Church leaders currently present the Catholic faith. In “Yes or No”, Voris says

There is a great reluctance on the part of many Church leaders to proclaim the superiority of the Catholic faith, and this reluctance is a nothing less than astonishing…

Any strategy on the part of some in the hierarchy for proclaiming the faith simply cannot position Catholicism as one faith among many. Nor can the teachings of the Church be proclaimed in the greater marketplace of ideas as just ONE set of beliefs among various equally valid ones. Yet that is precisely the default position of too many clerics these days in the west.

In the episode entitled “The Mission”, Voris makes the point that

For decades now, the average Catholic has been told by local Catholic leaders, directly or indirectly, that the Catholic faith is nice and all that, but nothing special; that all that matters is that a man is nice and pleasant and cares about poverty and the environment.

So…back to the question: What does the Church actually teach with regard to the spiritual state of Protestants and the possibility that they might go to heaven? Did Vatican II change the position of the Church change on this question, as many seem to think?

What follows is an answer provided primarily by ChurchMilitant.TV Executive Producer Terry Carroll, with a few very minor editorial changes and additions from Yours Truly.

The language of the documents of Vatican II has allowed for interpretations that suggest faithful Protestants (or even those claiming no religious affiliation) are on a deficient but nonetheless potentially effective path to eternal salvation without any real necessity of converting to the Catholic Faith. I wish I could say that this is a wholly unfair interpretation of the Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism), but it is not. It is difficult to spin that document as other than a grand invitation to all our “separated brethren” to enter into dialog with Catholic Church so that we can learn from and appreciate each other, all the while acknowledging that it is a scandal that Christians are not one as the Father and Jesus are one.

For instance, while it is the goal of ecumenism to overcome obstacles to unity, Unitatis Redintegratio nevertheless acknowledges that “many of the significant elements and endowments, which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church” and, therefore, these separated communities “most certainly can truly engender a life of grace” and “must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation” (UR, 3). If anyone at the Council of Trent wrote words such as these they would have been taken outside the Council chambers and immediately burned at the stake.

The theological language of today is considerably “softer” and “less dogmatic” than language during the time of the Protestant Revolt. The question you ask is whether the language of today constitutes a rupture from the teaching of the Council of Trent. Because dogmatic teaching cannot change, the only possible answer for a Catholic is “No, Unitatis Redintegratio of Vatican II does not change Church teaching.” Let's see if this last statement is supported by the evidence.

The entire purpose of the Council of Trent was to define Catholic Truth in opposition to Protestants errors. The Council of Trent was a dogmatic council, speaking clearly, “This is true. That is false.” Whatever truth may be contained within Protestant settings, it is Catholic Truth. Protestantism adds absolutely nothing to the Deposit of Faith, it is a multi-headed hydra of heresies that if not abandoned sets one on a path to Hell, and Catholicism is and will always be the “normative” path to salvation established by Our Lord. The “ecumenical strategy” of the Council of Trent is fairly described as “the ecumenism of return”, i.e., the only purpose of ecumenical dialog can be conversion of the dialog partners to the Catholic Church. Anathemas were defined in response to error, not the process whereby one arrived at error. For example, anathemas were not issued as “He who formerly believed Truth but now embraces error, anathema sit.” Anathemas were of the form “He who believes error, anathema sit.” These anathemas, therefore, still apply today.

Vatican II claimed, from the very beginning, that its purpose was pastoral, not dogmatic. While seeking to express the timeless truths of the Catholic Faith in terms more accessible to the contemporary world, it employed language that was less confrontational, but did not, for all that, reject or deny any dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church. Recognizing that the Western world had become more secular in its culture and philosophies, and that the moral authority of the Church was in serious decline, all the documents of Vatican II represent attempts to be heard by a modern world on an accelerating path away from Catholic faith and values. Every document of Vatican II can be received and understood as the reiteration of dogma in modern rather than scholastic philosophical terms, massive amounts of theological reflection, and an attempt to define pastoral strategies in response to contemporary problems. The Fathers of Vatican II seem to have valued quantity over quality of words, eschewing precise and clear language in favor of communication by collage and ambiguity.

So it is not true that Vatican II changed Church teaching on the spiritual state of our separated brethren. For one, no one but God can truly know the spiritual state of anyone, including our separated brethren. But the Church can speak, and has spoken, on what is true and what is not, and Protestantism is just as false a path to salvation today as it was during the Council of Trent. All that has changed is pastoral strategy: the Church now approaches our separated brethren with the respect due all human beings and affirms in their theologies whatever can be affirmed as true. At the time of Trent, Protestantism was largely a freely chosen heresy. Today it is a heresy that is passed on from generation to generation. Protestants today are, in a sense, “born this way”.

The culpability of those who embrace Protestant heresies today is less than the culpability of their forefathers who consciously rejected truth in favor of error. Reduced culpability, however, doesn't convert error into an instrument of salvation.   

Unfortunately, most ecumenical efforts today are exercises in practical indifferentism, the belief that we can all grow by understanding each other but agreement on Truth isn't really essential. Today's ecumenical strategy strives for peace and harmony between Christians, as if how one believes and lives one's faith is on a par with choosing where to live and with whom to socialize. “As long as we all get along, God understands.” This strategy flies in the face of truth expressed at both Trent and Vatican II.

Consider, for example, that Protestants do not have any other sacrament than Baptism. It is true that Baptism is necessary for salvation because it frees us from original sin and bestows sanctifying grace without which we cannot be friends with God. If Baptism is necessary for salvation, does it follow that Baptism is all that is necessary for salvation? What about the other sacraments? Did Our Lord not say in John 6 that we must eat and drink His Body and Blood or we have no life in us? Did Our Lord provide any other mechanism for forgiveness of sins other than what was given to the Apostles? These are the kinds of things that would have been said to Protestants after Trent. Today we delay presenting these truths to them in hopes that a gentler form of evangelization might open hearts to the Truth. We still believe what Trent defined, but we lead with dinner and drinks rather than the prospect of Hell. Results from this new ecumenical strategy have not been promising. It appears that if it isn't really necessary to be Catholic to be saved (as many in the modern ecumenical movement seem to believe), then why should anyone bother? And, not surprisingly, most don't. The retention rate of non-Catholics who enter the Church through RCIA is less than 50%.

What the Church says today that it didn't say at Trent is that Protestants can be saved without formally entering the Church. By virtue of Baptism, Protestants are members of the Catholic Church (although most would be offended to hear that). Since they have been baptized, salvation is at least possible for them. However, unless the other sacraments of the Church are truly unnecessary, the Protestant road to salvation is a dangerous one, because they explicitly reject the normative means of salvation provided by Our Lord through His Church. It is still true today that a mortal sin cannot be forgiven except through the sacrament of Penance or an act of perfect contrition. Protestants can be saved if they never commit a mortal sin after their baptism or, if they do fall, make an act of perfect contrition and stay in the state of grace until they die. These are long odds, don't you think? Protestants may be on a path to Heaven, but the vehicle in which they are riding has flat tires, a broken steering wheel, and a very confusing set of directions. They lack access to the sacraments and the guidance of the Magisterium of Our Lord's Church. They share a limited version of the Bible and no authoritative interpreter beyond their individual selves. But they can be saved.

Finally, in a review of the first chapter of Unitatis Redintegratio, Dr. Jeff Mirus of CatholicCulture.Org – whose view is probably more “mainstream” than the perspective taken in this post – notes that the document

…makes again the important point which provides the motive for ecumenism in the first place: While the unity of the Church “subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose”, it is also true that “the divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her” (4). Thus the Council expresses the hope that the unity proper to the Church “will continue to increase until the end of time” (4).

In other words, even a conservative assessment of Unitatis Redintergratio shows that Church teaching has not changed: there is one true Faith, and all souls should belong to it. Sadly, though, Catholics just don’t seem to have quite the enthusiasm for that idea that we once did.

Here are the Vortex episodes:


  1. Interesting! If I am not mistaken, Bishop Sheen once said that there will be 3 surprises in Heaven: 1) You will surprised who made it to Heaven, 2) The people, you think who would make it to Heaven did not, and 3) You will be surprised you, yourself, made it to Heaven.

  2. Just think of the unspeakable Surprise of those who didn't.

  3. Recently, I have been listening to the Lenton Mission given by Fr. Isaac Mary Relyea. In it he discusses the role of the RC Church as the sole means to Heaven; the vital importance of the sacrament of confession (note: his meditation of examination of conscience is challenging and worthwhile); and mortal sin.

    I shared this recording with a colleague at work who is a devoted practicing RC (born after V2). To my somewhat surprise, he heartily rejected this message of this Mission. He was quite turned off by the notion of how much of what is being done today can be considered "mortal sin."

    Overall, the purpose of my comment today is to point towards the preaching of the remnant of those like Fr. Relyea and its significance. I think the readers of this blog will appreciate it; so I encourage you to make copies of it and pass it along to others.

  4. Thanks, fRED. Is the recording available online?

  5. I found Fr. Relyea's Lenton Mission sermons at:

    There is no direct URL to the sermons.
    1. To access, at the lower right hand corner of the home page is a "Most Popular Sermons."
    2. Select "Preachers"
    3. Select "Fr Isaac Mary Relyea"

    That takes you to a page that starts a list of 35 audio files. I downloaded all 35 files (right click and save MP3 file to your computer) and listened when convenient. You can also listen right at the page but unfortunately the files are not listed in chronological order. But like many good things, you have to work for it. It is worth the effort.

    Finally, I want to note that I found this site via the clip of Fr. Michael Rodriguez sermon on Passion Sunday posted on your blog, Jay {}. There are 2 URLs mentioned at the end of the clip and the sanjuan one works. Thanks!

  6. @fRED: Yes! I listen to that Lenten Mission of his at least once a year. Father is wonderful, isn't he?


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