VanDrunen on Catholic Inclusivity and ChangeOct 20th, 2011 | By Tom Brown | Category: Blog Posts
Has the Catholic Church changed her doctrine concerning “no salvation outside the Church?” Dr. David VanDrunen recently penned a brief historical survey of what he sees as Catholicism’s “change” from soteriological exclusivisity to inclusivity. VanDrunen is a Westminster Seminary California professor and minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC). His article appeared in the OPC’s periodical New Horizons (October 2011), and is entitled “Inclusive Salvation in Contemporary Catholicism.”
Central to the issues debated between Rome and the Reformation, VanDrunen claims, “is the question of who may be saved.” In exploring the issue, he makes the following claim about the Catholic teaching:
For many years, the Roman Catholic Church taught that people could enjoy eternal life and escape everlasting damnation only by being received into its membership. In recent generations, that teaching has changed. Rome now embraces a very inclusive view that extends the hope of salvation to people of many different religions or even no religion at all, provided they sincerely follow the truth and goodness that they know in their own experience.
That is, in VanDrunen’s understanding, while the Catholic Church historically taught Church “membership” to be a sine qua non for receiving eternal life, she now “embraces” an inclusive soteriology that leaves open the door of Heaven for people of all religious or irreligious stripes, so long as they are sincere seekers of truth and goodness. From the claim that Catholicism has changed from exclusivity to inclusivity, VanDrunen concludes that the Catholic Church’s alluring claim of never having changed its doctrine is false. But as I will show below, VanDrunen’s argument misses whole swaths of purported “inclusivity” in the “older” Catholic teaching, and plays on an ambiguity in the word ‘change.’
What does VanDrunen think the Catholic Church has taught on the necessity of being within the Church in order to saved? According to him, Catholicism traditionally taught that even prior to the fall grace was necessary in order for man to perform “works meritorious of eternal life.” He explains that under the ‘older’ Catholic teaching, “all people are doomed to condemnation.” But by growing in virtues and adhering to the Church’s sacramental system, a Catholic could hope to receive “final justification and attain eternal life.”
Having explained the “older” Catholic teaching of how one can be saved, VanDrunen next explores who can be saved under this system. He tells his readers that this salvific sacramental system “was available only to those who actually participate in her sacramental rites, and this was consistent with [the Catholic] view of salvation as described above.”
VanDrunen then explores a doctrinal term common to Reformed and Catholic Christians: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus [“there is no salvation outside the Church”].1 Citing an “older” ecumenical council to teach about extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, VanDrunen quotes from this pericope of the Council of Florence:
It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.2
VanDrunen interprets this Council as holding that even martyrdom will fail to bring eternal life to any person not in unity with the Catholic Church. He sees this teaching of the Council of Florence in the teaching of later Catholics as well, including Pope Pius IX, the censor of “latitudinarianism” and supposed rejector of hope of salvation for those outside the true Church of Christ. VanDrunen ends this section by citing Fr. Leonard Feeney, a Catholic priest known for insisting that “only members of the Roman Catholic Church could be saved.”
So is this an accurate articulation of the Catholic Church’s doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus? Before answering that question, a brief explanation may be in order about the authority of individual Catholic theologians to define Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church does not maintain that the Holy Spirit preserves all Catholics from error whenever they opine about faith or morals. Rather, the Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit specially preserves from error the successors of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, when they speak ex cathedra, as well as General Councils when representing the whole episcopate.3 That is, there is a critical distinction between Church doctrine on the one hand, and common teaching or theological opinion on the other. So to the extent that VanDrunen relies on Fr. Feeney or other individual Catholic theologians to determine what is the traditional Catholic doctrine regarding this question, his methodology is flawed.4
That said, VanDrunen has given a generally accurate articulation of the traditional Catholic doctrine of extra Ecclesiam, especially with his quotation from the Council of Florence given above. That text is not only from an authoritative ecumenical council, but is also consistent with the testimony of much earlier texts from the Church Fathers. In fact, it is itself largely a quotation of St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (c. AD 500). The early Church Fathers, the teachings of the Magisterium over the centuries, and conciliar texts reflect the consistent Catholic teaching that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.
Then VanDrunen turns to the claim that the Second Vatican Council was a “watershed” on the “inclusivity of salvation.” However, he admits that there were “signs of revised doctrine” in the centuries leading up to this watershed. VanDrunen invokes Pope Pius IX as a harbinger of change, the very same Pope whom he uses as a connecting dot to show the continuity of the ‘older’ Catholic position. VanDrunen says, “Even while he was condemning ‘latitudinarian’ claims in the 1860s, Pius IX also taught that people who are ‘invincibly ignorant’ (i.e., through no fault of their own) about Christianity and follow the natural law may attain eternal life.” That is, VanDrunen sees in the teachings of Blessed Pope Pius IX both the condemnation of those who dismiss ecclesial significance (i.e., latitudinarians) and the approval of the belief that the invincibly ignorant possibly attain salvation. It is ironic that VanDrunen recognizes both of these teachings coming from Blessed Pope Pius IX, but does not see the possibility that the teachings are consistent with each other. Instead, as his article shows, VanDrunen believes that the teachings are in disharmony, a ‘change’ from exclusivity to inclusivity.
The Second Vatican Council was not a “watershed” of inclusive salvation which was merely foreshadowed by earlier texts. Rather, it was firmly in line with a steady development of doctrine on the possibility of salvation for those not materially united to the Catholic Church, that is, the universal Church governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.5
The key Vatican II text on extra Ecclesiam is the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which states:
For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation.6
This authoritative teaching is consistent with and a further refinement of what Blessed Pope Pius IX wrote a full century before Vatican II:
There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.
Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church.7
Here Blessed Pope Pius IX simply and skillfully articulates these two Catholic beliefs: God will not eternally punish those who are without deliberate sin, and God will also not save those outside the Catholic Church. VanDrunen thinks that these two beliefs are not compatible with each other. Apparently he agrees with the controversial Fr. Schillebeeckx, whom he quotes as describing these two teachings as “diametrically opposed.” But the teachings are compatible with each other. What VanDrunen dismisses is the possibility that the invincibly ignorant can in some circumstances, and only by God’s grace, be extraordinarily incorporated into the Catholic Church.
In Church history we find earlier examples than Pope Pius IX of Catholics believing in the salvation of those not materially united to the Church. The doctrine of “baptism of blood” is ancient within the Catholic Church, going back perhaps to the Apostle James’s co-martyr.8 It appears also in the teachings of St. Augustine, from the early 5th century:
For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of Baptism. For He who said, “Unless a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” [John 3:5] made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where he no less absolutely said, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven;” (Matt. 10:43) and in another place, “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it” (Matt. 16:25). And this explains the verse, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”9
As explained by St. Augustine and maintained through to the present by the Catholic Church, unbaptized martyrs who shed their blood for the sake of Christ are saved nonetheless, receiving the fruits of Baptism. Baptism of blood is an extraordinary method of fulfilling the soteriological prerequisite of being ‘inside the Church’ when Baptism is impossible.10
There is another longstanding teaching within the Catholic Church that maintains the possibility of salvation for those not materially united with her. The “baptism of desire,” like baptism of blood, extraordinarily brings about the fruits of Baptism for an unbaptized individual even though it itself is not a sacrament.11 “For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.”12
The Council of Trent (1547) declared this doctrine over 400 years before Vatican II:
This translation [from the state of birth to the state of Grace] however cannot, since promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the washing of regeneration or its desire, as it is written: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. [John 3:5.]13
We see from Trent and St. Augustine a clear belief that the washing of regeneration is necessary for salvation, and a belief that extraordinary non-sacramental means of obtaining the fruits of Baptism are possible. To the teachings of Trent and St. Augustine, many more examples could be added.14 These teachings mean that very early on, Catholic doctrine qualified extra Ecclesiam in a way that left open the possibility of salvation for those not materially united to the Church. This proves false VanDrunen’s claim that the Catholic Church has recently “changed” its “older” teaching that “people could enjoy eternal life and escape everlasting damnation only by being received into its membership.”
In fact, over the centuries the Church carefully has developed a nuanced doctrine of salvation for those not materially united to her. This process has been so cautious because of the weighty concern of calling all sinners to the ordinary means of grace through formal union with the Church, on the one hand, and the similarly weighty concern of avoiding the appearance of delimiting God’s ability to extend grace and salvation through extraordinary means, on the other. It is this process which has led the Church to its reflection on salvation for those who are invincibly ignorant, the subject of VanDrunen’s article. As the Catholic Catechism teaches, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”15
Following his analysis of the “old” and “new” Catholic teachings on extra Ecclesiam, VanDrunen offers a critique of one of the Catholic apologist’s tools:
Catholic apologists in our own day appeal to the certainty and unchanging character of their own church’s teaching, and their arguments often seem compelling to Protestants who are weary of ecclesiastical divisions. But this area of theology provides one example (among others) of how Roman doctrine has indeed changed over the years. Rome used to have a very exclusive doctrine of salvation, but it has become quite inclusive in recent generations.
For VanDrunen, Catholic doctrine “has indeed changed,” and he believes this change refutes modern Catholic appeals to the “unchanging character” of the Catholic Church. The fallacy of his logic is in his amphibolous use of the term ‘change.’ By using the term ‘change’ ambiguously, VanDrunen leads the reader to the false conclusion that the Catholic Church has contradicted herself. However, by distinguishing between change as organic development and change as contradicting what was previously held, the conclusion that the Catholic Church has contradicted herself no longer follows. In other words, if Catholic doctrine has changed by developing, this change does not lead to the conclusion that the Vatican II teaching (regarding the possibility of salvation for those not in full communion with the Church) contradicts what was previously held.
This notion that Christian doctrines have developed should be no surprise. Major theological and religious doctrines have developed, such as the Trinity, the nature and canon of Sacred Scripture, or the two natures of Christ. While Reformed believers implicitly accept the notion of doctrinal development in those instances, they reject modern developments out of hand. But this acceptance of primitive developments while rejecting modern developments is ad hoc. There is no principled reason to accept development of Trinitarian doctrine while simultaneously denying the possibility of development on extra Ecclesiam after centuries of careful study and reflection.
VanDrunen’s article leads the reader to reach a false conclusion about whether the Catholic Church has ever contradicted herself. It does this by its amphibolous use of the term “change” and by its presumption that doctrinal development has not occurred in the instance of extra Ecclesiam and invincible ignorance. The authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church are not contradictory on this matter, but carefully elucidate Sacred Scripture and our understanding of God’s mercy and justice.
- VanDrunen explains that the Westminster Confession of Faith has embraced the term in a way that seeks to clarify vagueness. He cites WCF, ch. XXV, sec. 2, which states, “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.” With the qualification that salvation is not ‘ordinarily’ possible outside the visible church, the WCF leaves a vagueness, at least inasmuch as the Catholic position leave a vagueness. That is because in either position extraordinary possibilities of salvation for those ‘outside’ of visible unity with the Church are not excluded. [↩]
- Ecumenical Council of Florence, sess. 11 (1442). [↩]
- See Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Intro., sec. 8, available here. [↩]
- See Fr. William Most, Tragic Errors of Leonard Feeney, available here. [↩]
- Lumen Gentium, 8. [↩]
- Ch. II, para. 16, available here. [↩]
- Quanto conficiamur moerore, paras. 7-8 (Aug. 10, 1863), available here. [↩]
- See Taylor Marshall, Canterbury Tales, Baptism by Blood and the Apostle James, Jul. 27, 2011. [↩]
- St. Augustine, City of God, bk. 13, ch. 7. [↩]
- Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1257-1260. [↩]
- Id., para. 1258. [↩]
- Id., para. 1259. [↩]
- Council of Trent, sess. 6, ch. 4. [↩]
- See, for example, the list of quotations from the Church Fathers regarding the baptism of desire and baptism of blood, available here. [↩]
- CCC, para. 1260. [↩]