Doug Wilson Weighs in on the Eternal Fate of Faithful CatholicsMay 12th, 2011 | By Matt Yonke | Category: Blog Posts
In an article titled “Doug Wilson says faithful Catholics will go to hell,” David Meyer recently posted a video in which Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho responded to the question, “Will faithful Roman Catholics be in Heaven?”
His simple answer is, “Of course, and of course not.” He explains, “If someone is a faithful Roman Catholic in the sense that they have memorized the Council of Trent and they do everything, they follow, they understand the teaching of the Roman Church, and they follow it, and they trust in that teaching—I don’t believe that such a person can be saved.”
On the other hand he also believes that there are many Roman Catholics who are “saved people” who nonetheless have inconsistencies in their belief. He explains this by saying that such Catholics rationalize or don’t really hold deep down to the Catholic teachings which Pastor Wilson believes would send them to Hell if they truly believed them the way the Catholic Church teaches them, such as the Church’s teaching on the veneration of Holy Images, which he holds to be idolatry.
I asked Pastor Wilson about such inconsistencies and what he would think about a specific intelligent faithful Catholic he knows who certainly believes and understands the teachings of the Catholic Church. As an example I used the influential orthodox Catholic thinker Robert George, who spoke at New St. Andrews’ College in Moscow’s commencement last year. He said he respected and enjoyed meeting Robert George, but gave this example to explain where he sees a person in George’s position:
For example, a man is told that it is okay to approach God through images, and he does so. Through various internal workarounds and rationalizations and inconsistencies (that I don’t understand), he manages to maintain a true faith in Jesus despite this. But without those rationalizations he would fall into idolatry simpliciter, be more consistent, and would be lost.
But this leaves us with an apparent contradiction. In the video, Wilson says the faithful Catholic who believes the Church’s teaching cannot be saved. Now he says that a faithful Catholic like Robert George can be saved as long as he has these internal workarounds.
Presumably the iconodule and the Catholic who believes the Council of Trent and the rest of Catholic dogmatic teaching both have “simple faith in Christ,” since having such a simple faith in Christ is a fundamental part of Catholic teaching, that is, if he doesn’t have simple faith in Christ, he doesn’t believe Trent. The only discernible difference seems to lie with the Council of Trent itself, notable for its formulation of justification which does not exclude works from the process of salvation in the same way the Reformation solas do.
The Protestant Must Protest
The Protestant, to remain Protestant, must hold that the issues that still divide Rome and Geneva are issues where salvation is at stake. If they are not, they are issues that do not justify continued schism within the body of Christ and they can and should have been worked out in the first place at the Reformation within the context and authority of the Catholic Church.
But Wilson knows there are Catholics who believe every last jot and tittle of Catholic teaching, but clearly have faith in Christ. If salvation is by faith alone, as the Reformed hold, workarounds must be provided for those Catholics who clearly have faith in Christ, but only so big as to allow for the admission of the iconodule, not the one who holds to the Tridentine formula on justification. Otherwise the Protestant protest necessarily dissolves.
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus
The issue really boils down to what is meant by the ancient teaching that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Recognizing its importance, the Reformed try to hold to this teaching as well, as the Westminster Confession says:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.—Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV, II
But this gets tricky when you don’t believe that Jesus founded a visible, institutional Church. The lines get more and more blurry, since you dare not exclude your fellow Protestants from the fold despite the fact that, from the Reformed view, they have their own confusions on justification just as serious as the Catholic’s. But keeping the lines clear and distinct is all the more crucial for the Reformed Christian since he believes that his confessions are, in fact, the purest expression of the Christian faith.
Catholicism—More to Lose, More to Give
The irony is that the Catholic Church has much more on the line and yet considers outsiders in a much more gracious way than the Reformed. This is in part because of the great confidence the Catholic Church has in who and what she is. Since the fullness of the Church subsists in the Church in union with the Bishop of Rome, she has nothing to fear from other claimants to the title of “Truest Expression of the Christian Faith.”
And, given that the Catholic Church puts no boundaries on the reach of the grace of God, it is no stretch and no threat for the Church to proclaim that there are those outside the Catholic Church who could be saved, but any and all that are saved will be saved through the Catholic Church.
For the Church to proclaim that some outside her visible bounds may be saved, but that they will be saved by some form of communion with her doesn’t bring up the same inconsistencies that Pastor Wilson faces in holding that salvation is by faith in Christ alone but that there are those who have faith in Christ who cannot be saved.
The Catholic understanding of salvation is, in the end, a relational understanding, not a forensic one. So it does not trouble the Catholic Church to say that the Reformed person who holds to the Westminster Confession with all his heart but knows, loves and serves Jesus Christ will be accepted into eternal life. He is certainly at a serious disadvantage in the pursuit of holiness without all seven sacraments Christ gave the Church for that purpose, but the fundamental question is that of man’s will in relation to His God.
Certainly, invincible ignorance is a precondition for one who holds to heretical doctrines to be saved, but that ignorance is not contingent on the beliefs one holds. Invincible ignorance is ignorance of true doctrine that cannot be dispelled by moral diligence, which is intimately tied to the will. Simply believing and trusting the Westminster confession is not, on its own, a damnable offense, unlike Wilson’s example of the Catholic who holds to Trent and the rest of the Church’s teaching who cannot, in his estimation, be saved.
So, while maintaining absolute rigidity on the truths handed down from Christ to the Apostles, the Catholic Church is simultaneously untroubled by letting the streams of grace run where they will. There is no one who, in Pastor Wilson’s language, “could not be saved” on the basis of doctrinal opinion. And thanks be to God for that.