Tonight is the last of a series of talks on what we believe as Catholics at Saint Rose. Join us, if you can, in the undercroft, at 7 pm; we finish at 8:15 pm. We'll be discussing death, judgment, resurrection, hell and heaven.
Last month, we talked about the Catholic Church--and one of the points made by Peter Kreeft, the author of the series of booklets published by the Knights of Columbus was that the Catholic Church is "necessary for salvation." When that came up last month in our discussion, one of our fine parishioners was put off by it. It's "arrogant," he said.
Well, we talked about it a bit, but because we had a lot of material to cover, and since he felt so strongly, I didn't want to press the point. But I did want to come back to that and write a post about it.
So here we go!
What does it mean to say the Catholic Church is "necessary" for salvation?
The short answer is, it means that the Catholic Church is being described as an extension of Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Trinity. Only in that sense can it be true that the Catholic Church is "necessary" for salvation.
But what do we mean by "necessary"? Do we mean that God couldn't have done it another way?
Not in that sense. God is free to do as he wishes, consistent with his own being. He doesn't do anything contrary to what is true and good. But saving humanity without the use of a "church"? Sure, that is entirely reasonable.
So if there is a "necessity" to the Church, it is in the sense that God chose to save humanity through a particular plan, and the necessity is his creation. In the same way we speak of the necessity of our Lord's death on the cross. Nothing external to God imposes this necessity on God; the necessity of the Cross, the necessity of the fulfillment of Scriptures in the way they were fulfilled, came about because God chose to plan for human salvation in that way.
Similarly, we believe that God did indeed plan not only for the incarnation (God becoming man), the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of God, but also the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those brought into relationship with God through baptism and confirmation. In short, the Church!
God's Plan provided for there to be a Church, the Body of Christ. He didn't have to do it that way, but he did. And that makes the Church a "necessary" part of salvation.
In the same sense, baptism is necessary for salvation. God himself is bound by no necessity--and we can suppose that God provides for those who never get baptized, but inculpably. Even so, when you look at what our incarnate Lord said, he made it clear that the Church was bound to bring baptism to people, and people were bound to respond by being baptized.
Well, baptism makes one a member of the Church.
"Wait, are you saying everyone who is baptized, in whatever denomination, is a member of the Roman Catholic Church?"
Well, not the "Roman" part, but yes. When Catholics speak of "the Church," we mean that Church which Christ founded, and which is his mystical Body. "Catholic" is the proper name for this Church, when understood as all those who share the Church's teachings, discipline, sacraments and governance. "Catholic" most properly means "pertaining to the whole"--and the term came to be used, early on, to distinguish between the true Church, which embraces the whole, as opposed to "sects" which turn inward or pull apart.
Of course, we know that human sinfulness leads to division--and the Church has suffered from divisions from the beginning. Some have been healed, but not all. Hence the division "Catholic" and "Orthodox"--even though both "lungs" of the Church have the fullness of the Faith and sacraments. (Some will quibble with me about whether they both have the fullness of the Faith--but that seems to be the judgment of the Catholic Church, insofar as Canon Law is concerned.)
Later, of course, were other divisions, the most famous of which is the Protestant-Catholic split, which in turn has led to an amazing multiplicity of flavors and sects of Christianity, and then some not-very-Christian but Christian-sounding sects.
But, in any case, anyone who is truly baptized (with water, at least poured, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Yet other differences in teaching or discipline result in that union being imperfect; wounded. That's the state of things today.
So does this mean God cannot--or will not--save anyone but through the Church?
Yes, in this sense: that everyone who is saved, will be saved, first, through the work of Jesus Christ. He is the source of all grace to the world. He is the second Person of the Trinity--of course salvation must come from and through him!
And because the Church extends his presence on earth, then the Church--understood precisely as the Body of the Lord--is as necessary as he is.
Remember, this is why the Church exists: to save humanity. Why do priests offer the Mass daily? For the salvation of the world. Everything the Church does, to have any value, must be about salvation.
Yes, I know what you may be thinking: I'm saying that only practicing Catholics can be saved.
I'm saying that everyone who will be saved, will--upon looking back--be able to see how Christ--united with this Church--did something essential for that person's salvation.
No one--not a single soul--who will be in heaven, will be able to look back and say, "wait: I got here without Christ."
There probably will be many people who, upon being admitted to heaven, will be surprised that it is Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis said it best when he imagined people saying, as they meet the Lord on the day of their particular judgment, "So it was You all along!"
Nevertheless, anyone who makes it to heaven, will, at some point--even in the last infinitesimal microsecond--have to put faith in God, and at least implicitly, in the Son of God. There is simply no way for anyone to be in heaven and say, "I don't believe in Jesus Christ" or more broadly, "I don't believe in God."
They may be atheists now, but they won't be atheists then.
Recognizing the necessity of the Catholic Church also means waking up to the responsibility every Catholic has.
When we think of our particular judgment--and what deeds of omission or commission we will answer for--what about being asked about how much we did to save others? Or what we failed to do?