The teaching of Vatican II on the question of salvation entails surprises. While the Council holds that there is no salvation outside the Church, it exerts itself with solicitude for those who may qualify as being “outside.” For Vatican II, to be “outside” is to have a claim on the Church’s maternal love, which is fulfilled when her children respond to the missionary mandate. The Council teaches that Catholics must be prepared to confess their faith in Christ even to the point of death (Lumen Gentium 42)—including what this faith holds about the Church—and also affirms that those without this explicit faith, and thus who would never be required to die for it, may notwithstanding be saved.
The Council teaches that the Church can engage in missionary activity with confidence that she has two allies: human nature—and thus nature’s God—and this same God’s supernatural grace. The dynamisms of human nature impel all men to seek their own fulfillment in the truth and in the good. With the help of God’s grace working objectively through cultures and religions and secretly in hearts, fidelity to these dynamisms becomes fidelity to God himself, Creator and Redeemer. At the same time, human nature has been profoundly wounded by sin, and this gives rise to negative influences that are at work in the world and within each person’s soul. The signs of the times are always a blend of positive indications of man’s striving for a life worthy of his dignity as image of God, and negative signs about man’s weakness and ultimately of his inability to attain this fully human life for himself. As a result, missionaries will encounter people in various states ranging from being so fully disposed to receive with joy the Good News of Jesus Christ that it could be said of them that they are not far from the Kingdom (Mk 12:34), to being so thoroughly blinded and hardened of heart due to slavery to sin that they respond to the proclamation of God’s love with violent rejection and the slaying of the missionary. Yet, even this latter situation is not a final word. Through his martyrs’ configuration to Christ, graces of eventual conversion are won for those whose initial response is rejection.
It is impossible to know in advance the actual state of those who are evangelized. Yet, even if, by hypothesis, through a private revelation God should reassure a missionary that a person or group of persons or even the entire world were saved, the missionary mandate would remain. This is because the missionary task has a twofold end: “to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all such men…the Church painstakingly fosters her missionary work” (LG 16). As important as the question about salvation is, it is inseparable from God’s glory. Zeal for souls is not only inseparable from zeal for God’s holy Name; it is subordinate to it, and only when it is rightly subordinated to God’s glory can the zeal for souls unleash its full potential. The fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that all be one in the common celebration of the Eucharist is the greatest manifestation of the Church and thus the greatest evidence that his love is efficacious. And this is precisely his glory. For Vatican II, mission is ultimately realized when all are united in the praise of God in the common celebration of the Eucharist.
God is infinite Love, and he always has more to give. His giving and man’s resultant enrichment—his conversion into a fully human life—constitute God’s glory. Those who have been renewed by this love participate in it and, like God himself, they cannot rest with a reception of this love that is satisfied with a minimum condition for salvation, even if, by hypothesis, they had divine assurance that people were saved. The definitive explanation for indifference about mission is a defect in missionary charity and in zeal for God’s glory. A crisis of missionary activity manifests a crisis of missionary—that is, paschal—charity.
The missionary crisis, then, is rooted in the lack of conversion on the part of the Church’s members. This is why the Council’s fundamental strategy for the reinvigoration of a languishing of missionary activity is to call the entire Church to deeper conversion. Pope Paul VI outlined the program in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, and on several occasions Pope John Paul II pointed to this encyclical as the surest guide for implementing the Council. The Church must first renew and deepen her consciousness of her identity and mission, her vocation and place in God’s plan of love. This consciousness, combined with humility and love of God and neighbor, will unleash a profound conversion as the Church’s members strive to extricate themselves more thoroughly from any influences that mitigate complete conformity to Christ and the uninhibited flow of ardent charity. This in turn will produce the fruits of service, apostolate, and ministry, all the manifestations of continuing Christ’s mission of redemption. Pope Paul called this renewed mission dialogue, and Pope John Paul II popularized it as the New Evangelization.
In light of this program for the reinvigoration of mission as the fruit of conversion, one can grasp the significance of the fact that the Council’s severest words regarding the salvation question are directed to the Catholic faithful. “All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word, and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged.” Luke 12:48 is the biblical text enlisted to support this: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required.” The “much that is given” is the “exalted status” of being fully incorporated into Christ’s Church.
This full incorporation is a gift of God’s grace, received in an act of faith by which a person has come to see that to say “Yes!” to Christ is to say “Yes!” to his Church. Since Christ is God and God is love, this means that faith is essentially an open-ended, unconditional “Yes!”, an entrustment to divine love, a commitment to receive all that God desires to give. The Council framed this in terms of the salvation question: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”
As a free act, this “Yes!” of faith entails an act of graced illumination of conscience, a divinely orchestrated moment of truth, which gives form to freedom as a vase gives shape to water. At this moment, freedom’s vocation, and thus its fulfillment, is to conform to God’s will by seeking baptism or full communion with the Church. In this situation, a “No!” to the Church is a “No!” to Christ, and thus to the love and salvation he offers. In this light, the Council’s teaching that anyone who comes to this internal realization of the link between Christ and his Church cannot be saved means: whoever comes to a point of realizing, with the help of God’s grace, that the fulfillment of humanity (which is what the conscience is designed to impel towards by commanding to do good and avoid evil) requires assenting to and living what Christ reveals about the Church, cannot attain human fulfillment (the fundamental meaning of “salvation”) without doing so.
Since the first demand of conscience is that a person sincerely seek the truth, and only under this condition does it oblige, the interior illumination of faith about the Church is God’s merciful response to this seeking. By the working of the grace of the light of faith, God makes known the truth that is the answer to this search. This is an important point for two reasons. First, our age suffers from a lamentable misunderstanding of conscience. The view is that the default setting for conscience is one of peace, and that God’s grace is like an unwelcome ambush, an alien invasion against which one must be on guard. In reality, the intervention of enlightening grace is an act of liberation perfectly corresponding to the innate dynamism of the conscience. God’s truth sets conscience free to fulfill its mission of directing human freedom.
The second reason why a proper understanding of conscience is important for our subject is that Vatican II includes the act of conscience in its description of what salvation would look like for those who have not arrived at an explicit knowledge of Christ and who therefore cannot know what he has revealed about the necessity of the Church for salvation: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium 16). This description in terms of “conscience” and “grace” links such people to those who by a more perfect grace receive the gift of an enlightened conscience and by faith assent to what Christ has revealed about the Church.
This general affinity is anything but a reason to become complacent about mission to such people, first because there is no possible way to know who these people might be, and second because the thrust of a conscience enlightened by grace is to lead to that culminating grace of discovering the full identity of God the Creator and of God the Redeemer, and the place of the Church in his plan of redemptive love.
Two virtues relating to the mission to those “outside” the Church accompany the awareness of the grace of faith acquiescing to a graced conscience: humility and boldness (parrhesia) in missionary charity. Knowing what he would be without grace humbles the graced person. For the fully incorporated Catholic, this entails awareness of how he is enriched by this full incorporation and, corresponding to this, the impoverishment of life without it. This twofold awareness is the foundation for fulfilling the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Matt 12:31) and to love his neighbor as Christ has loved him (Jn 13:34). This means that the missionary mandate is not imposed from without but is written on our hearts. To desire for others this fullness of Christ’s love regarding the Church becomes essential to the content of one’s participation in his paschal charity, which is the soul of all apostolic action (Lumen Gentium 33; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 3). Their very being, their new being in Christ, impels his disciples to mission: “The love of Christ impels us” (1 Cor 5:14).
Certainly, any theological confusion about the nature of freedom, conscience, faith, conversion, grace, mercy, and participation in Christ’s mission of mercy will skew this understanding and have the effect of diminishing the sense of urgency of mission. There are other theological misconceptions that diminish missionary zeal and boldness.
For a first example, a misunderstanding that holds that “dialogue” precludes the intention of the dialoguing partner’s conversion results in an unacceptable satisfaction with the simple exchange of information. While deepening knowledge of one another is no doubt the immediate goal of dialogue, Vatican II calls for a disposition of openness to conversion on the part of both dialoguing partners, and both Paul VI and John Paul II held that conversion is dialogue’s ultimate goal.
As a second example, an impoverished sense of sin and a failure to see it as rejection of God’s love—and thus as forfeiture of the fulfillment and happiness that God intends for all—undermine the sense of grace and mercy, the very foundations of the missionary dynamism. As a third example, fear that truth divides and by its nature creates inequalities in relationships produces a timidity opposed to the parrhesia of faith and makes impossible the judgment that is necessary for missionary initiative. In the words of Paul VI: “With frank confidence the Church stands upon the path of history and says to all: ‘Here in my possession is what you are looking for, what you need’” (Ecclesiam Suam 95). John Paul II put it this way:
In proclaiming Christ to non-Christians, the missionary is convinced that, through the working of the Spirit, there already exists in individuals and peoples an expectation, even if an unconscious one, of knowing the truth about God, about man, and about how we are to be set free from sin and death. The missionary’s enthusiasm in proclaiming Christ comes from the conviction that he is responding to that expectation (Redemptoris Missio 45).
This awareness comes from knowing oneself as having had one’s own expectations, one’s own desire for a fully meaningful life, fulfilled in Christ by God’s grace. The humble and bold missionary is one who knows from experience the liberating power of God’s truth and the transforming power of His grace, whose own spirit bears witness with the Holy Spirit regarding this grace (Rom 8:16). The Lord’s words about the greater demand being made of those who receive more applies especially to such as these. The missionary mandate is addressed to all, but only those who have ears to hear it are able to respond, and these ears become attuned to the Lord’s voice through the purifications that come with a generous cooperation with the baptismal graces of death to self and sin for the sake of new life in Christ. The hope of those “outside” the Church lies in the depth of the conversion of those on the inside.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!