Sed Contra: What’s All the Fuss?

Deal W. Hudson
November 1, 2000

On the heels of Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter to bishops, Dominus Iesus (Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), comes the predictable chorus of boos. Once again, the papacy of John Paul II is accused of destroying post-Vatican II progress toward genuine interreligious dialogue by affirming the one way to salvation through Jesus Christ. Those who are booing the loudest don’t even believe in salvation.

The basic misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on this issue arises from a preoccupation with self-identification and obliviousness to mystical reality. In other words, nothing is real unless it conforms to our self-appraisal. Thus, when Ratzinger reaffirms the traditional doctrine of salvation through Christ, he is heard as saying, “Only those people who call themselves Catholics will be saved, so if you don’t call yourself Catholic, you can’t be saved.”

For Ratzinger, the issue is not how people describe themselves—a person’s objective relationship to God, and whether the quality of that relationship is “saving.” The Church does not require a person to call himself “Catholic” to be saved. After all, Scripture is clear that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will be saved. But in an age of self-definition, many hold on to their labels as their saving reality. They can’t imagine something miraculous superadded to their view of themselves that attaches them to a spiritual communion beyond their self-consciously held set of beliefs.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that those who do not label themselves as Catholics may, in fact, receive salvation. “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification are found outside the visible confines of the Church…. Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation.” (819) The point is that regardless of what religious denomination you profess if you are saved, you are saved through Christ and His Church. One can understand why this belief might be a source of irritation to non-Catholics, but that does not absolve Catholics from believing it.

Most people don’t admit the possibility of a truth that encompasses them whether or not they recognize it. The Church is a mystical body first and an institution, “the visible confines,” second. But as an institution, the Church offers communion with the mystical body in a definitive way—definitive but not monopolistic, as the critics have charged. Members of other religious institutions, or no religious institution, may enter into that body unawares and become part of the saving mystery of Christ.

The Catholic faith begins with the belief that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection forever changed the very nature of human existence: He made it possible, once again, for a man to enjoy a graced and eternal life with his Creator. Ratzinger merely reminds us that the incarnation of the Son is the “saving event for all humanity.”

What prompts the letter is the long-term effect of ecumenical dialogue based on “relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de jure (in principle).” Ratzinger’s target, however, is not primarily the well-intentioned parish coordinator who lacks the theological tools to explain the Catholic view of salvation.

The key to Ratzinger’s underlying concern is found in his recent warning against the United Nations Millennium Summit and the “new anthropology…at the base of the New World Order.” “It is precisely here that people are deceived…. They are not advised to love, they are advised, in the final analysis, not to be human.” Here, he strongly implies that the problem is no longer secularism but syncretism, not the loss of faith lamented in the 60s but the political counterfeiting of faith traditions into pseudo-universal moral values.

Needless to say, the universal moral values envisioned by the globalizers won’t include respect for life or the traditional family. But they won’t achieve this left-wing synthesis by attacking the Church directly but rather by finding dissident representatives of Catholicism to carve out of Church teaching whatever will fit into their mold. Sorry to say, many of the talking points for dissident teaching come from the relativistic template of ecumenical dialogue.

The real discomfort caused by Dominus Iesus was not to our brother and sister evangelicals but to the old radical left of our own Church, whose serial marriages with socialism, Marxism, feminism, and postmodernism have left them widowed and lonely in their old age.

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