Salvation and Christian Evangelization: Vatican II in Continuity with Tradition

In the second century, Christians were not much more than convenient culpabilities for the Roman government and disposable distractions for pagan entertainment. Despite the hostility between the Church and the rest of the world, however, the first Catholic philosopher, Justin, could write that “those who strive to live in accord with the Logos are already Christians” (1 Apology §46). This claim is perhaps even more amazing when we remember that he wrote this just years before his own violent beheading (thus attaining his ecclesial title only after his death—as one high school student once asked me, “Wasn’t Justin scared going through life known as ‘the Martyr’”?). Justin Martyr’s assertion is true testimony to the intellectual charity and openness the Church has always tried to show all of humanity.  

The one true Faith is not for any one particular people, not for any one unique race, but for every human person made in the rational soul’s imaging and likeness to God.  Therefore, reason is the first step of knowing God; and, at least as Justin expressed it, those who strive to live in accord with the good and the true and the beautiful are already Christ’s. But Justin also knew that those who knowingly and willingly, selfishly and pettily, dismiss the Catholic Church and her founder Jesus Christ as just one more way of life among many stand in dire need of God’s forgiveness.

The best of Christian evangelization is thus a story that refused to damn those practices which, although foreign and easily misunderstood, could nonetheless prove to be powerful channels of grace, while also not simply concluding that every practice and theistic expression was as good as any other. There is concrete content to the Christian worldview and the Church’s missionary activity has sought to bring the living Christ to a people in ways that would make him near and available in ways each culture could readily understand.

This was no different at Vatican II. The Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles argued that there were four models of evangelization leading up to the Council: (1) coercion, (2) convergence, (3) pluralism, and (4) tolerance. Coercion was an early misstep, when the Church forced belief on others; convergence sees in the human soul the same religious impulse and desire for wholeness which Christian missionaries could use to explain Christ; pluralism sees in the myriad of theisms a blessing not to be challenged; and tolerance simply accepts the differences without necessarily implying approval, and so the work of conversion is still an ongoing task. Dulles maintains that it is this fourth “model” which is at work in the documents of Vatican II: that while admitting how various cultures seek God, God himself has entered human history in Christ—“the center of the human race, the joy of every human heart, and the answer to all its longings” (Gaudium et Spes 45)—and thus all Christians must strive to make Christ known as the “model, master, liberator, savior, and giver of life” (Ad Gentes 8).

There is no doubt that the conciliar decree, Ad Gentes: On the Mission Activity of the Church, calls all the baptized to work to extend the Church through every human land and in every human heart. What is particularly “Vatican II” about this document is the profound respect it shows people of other faith traditions; even when there is obvious disagreement, the Church never disparages error but seeks to reconcile it back into the comprehensive and universal Truth who is Jesus Christ.

There are three other important loci in the Council’s theology of evangelization. The first comes from the very nature of the Church herself. Early on in Lumen Gentium, we learn that there is only one divine body on earth, “the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which our Savior, after his Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd….” This is certainly an ultramontanistic “high ecclesiology,” but it expresses a scriptural, creedal, and consistent aspect of the Christian Faith: there is one Savior, one Lord, one baptism, one altar, one faith. In other words, the Head has only one Body. To say this, however, is not to vilify everything outside of this visible body. We can therefore read in the next sentence that, although God’s people “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him…many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity” (Lumen Gentium 8). Like Justin almost two millennia prior, the Church continues to see beautiful refractions of Christ outside of his visible body and thus continues to call men and women to bring Christ there explicitly for the greater glory of God and the fulfillment of every human soul.

The Pastoral Constitution on the “Church in the Modern World” likewise stresses this universality of Christ and his people. The truths of our Faith have never been just “ours” but are meant for “all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes 22). In one way, Christianity began not just at the Incarnation but at creation, when God the Father configured every human heart to receive his enfleshed Son and all the beauty and goodness his life would come to embody.

Finally, the declaration on world religions, Nostra Aetate, takes up the delicate relationship between Catholicism and other faiths, including (in order) Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. At only five sections long, this decree is punchy and not very helpful practically but it does go to lengths to stress, again, how the Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all” (Nostra Aetate 2).

Given the Council’s optimistic and engaging view of other faiths, it is maybe easy to conclude that the need to evangelize our neighbors is no longer part of Catholicism. That would however be a perilous mistake, endangering our own salvation and the integrity of Christ’s Church. We must evangelize and we must make the Gospel known. To think otherwise is to miss completely what Vatican II was about. The Council set out to build bridges between cultures in order for missionaries to traverse them. Vatican II wanted to emphasize the commonality of the rational soul’s thirst for truth and the human heart’s desire for divinity not as an end in itself, but instead as the place where the love of Christ could take deep root. It is incumbent upon every follower of Jesus to proclaim his Lordship; what Vatican II wanted to do, I argue, is make that proclamation more relatable and more respectable.

Going back to St. Augustine’s watershed work, the City of God, the Church has never equated its membership with eternal salvation—the Church has people Heaven will never know and Heaven has saints who never stepped inside of the Church while on earth. The baptized are to continue to work out their faith in fear and trembling (cf. Phil 2:12), but a major part of that work continues to be evangelization, a New Evangelization which begins not with the threat of damnation but with humanity’s common search for eternal redemption.

Was the Council overly optimistic in this regard? Was the Council not explicit enough in its call to convert the nations? I do not think so. What I think happened is a narrative all too easily traceable and still being written: the 60s and 70s downplayed all differences and was certainly not comfortable with the possibility of condemnation. Why then should Christians seek to convert others? Might it not even be sinful and arrogant for a Catholic to think that he or she must bring God to others, as if they would otherwise be devoid of God’s presence?

But what Justin Martyr first expressed is still essentially the nature of Catholic evangelization and missiology: God is in fact laboring in every human person and, by extension, in all places and in all cultures. However, in his Son Jesus Christ, God is not content being only inchoately at work or unrecognizably present. He wants to bring all persons to an intimate recognition and personal relationship with himself and with his people. For this Christ founded his Church, and for this the Church must continue to struggle today.


• Return to Vatican II, Salvation, and the Unsaved: A CWR Symposium 

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About Father David Vincent Meconi, S.J 0 Articles
Father David Vincent Meconi, SJ is associate professor of historical theology at St. Louis University and editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.