Salvation and Missionary Work after Ad Gentes

In God is Near Us, Joseph Ratzinger remarked that “in the New Testament as a whole, and in the whole of the tradition of the Church, it has always been clear that God desires everyone to be saved.”  He went on to say that God does not make any distinction between people he dislikes, people he does not want to have saved, and others whom he prefers.  He loves everyone because he created everyone.  The good news to be taken from this is that salvation is not like winning the lottery.  It has nothing to do with being born with the right numbers.

The themes of salvation and the missionary work of the Church were treated in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially in Ad Gentes, Lumen Gentium 14 and 16, Gaudium et Spes 22.5, and Unitatis Redintegratio 3. 

UR 3 stated that it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.  In LG 14 there is the further statement to the effect that those who understand that the Catholic Church is the universal help toward salvation and refuse to enter it, or decide to leave it, cannot be saved.

LG 16 then addressed the issue of the prospects of those 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” and those who “without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”  This paragraph of Lumen Gentium concluded with the statement that the Church fosters the missions in order to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of those in such a condition.  This is in accord with Christ’s command to preach the Gospel to every creature.

However, a quarter of a century after the Council, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio (1990), Blessed John Paul II observed that missionary activity specifically directed “to the nations” (ad gentes) appeared to be waning, and that such a tendency was not in line with the directives of the Second Vatican Council and of subsequent statements of the Magisterium.  He further noted that difficulties both internal and external have weakened the Church’s missionary thrust toward non-Christians. 

In paragraph 10 of Redemptoris Missio John Paul II acknowledged that the social and cultural conditions in which some people live do not permit them to be members of the Catholic Church.   For such people, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation.” Moreover, “this grace comes from Christ; it is the result of His Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit.  It enables each person of good will in whose heart grace is secretly at work to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.”

In popular theological parlance the idea that while membership of the Catholic Church is the ordinary path to salvation (“via ordinaria”), there is also a “via extraordinaria,” has been connected to the concept of “anonymous Christians,” which can mean different things to different authors and has often been interpreted at a popular level to mean that missionary work is no longer necessary.  The concept was made famous by Karl Rahner, though a version of it was anticipated by Henri de Lubac in his 1947 book Catholicism.  In this publication de Lubac distinguished between anonymous Christians and anonymous Christianity.  While de Lubac accepted the legitimacy of the first (which can be construed in a way that is consistent with Redemptoris Missio and other magisterial documents) he objected to the notion of anonymous Christianity.  He had no time for the idea that all religions have equal value and are equally effective ways to salvation. 

The fact that many people made a leap from the principle that salvation is possible according to the conditions of RM 10 and LG 16 to the idea that all religions are equally valid ways to salvation necessitated a further magisterial intervention in 2000, when Joseph Ratzinger as prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued Dominus Iesus, reiterating the principle that there exists a single Church of Christ which subsists only in the Catholic Church.

The pastoral difficulty appears to be that of encouraging vocations to missionary work in circumstances where it is the Church’s teaching that non-Catholics can obtain salvation.  The practical question becomes: why bother living in poor, mosquito-ridden countries with little sanitation and medical equipment, prone to civil war and outbreaks of hostility against Christians and other foreigners, in order to preach the Gospel to people who are not enthusiastic to hear it and who can be saved without it?

A similar point was made in a faith formation lecture I attended in the early 1980s.  There was a young girl in the lecture whose father was a heroic Catholic politician. The lecture included a presentation of the conciliar teaching on the possibility of salvation of those outside the Church.  The girl asked why people like her father should bother spending so much energy trying to convert others at great social cost to themselves when people who are ignorant of the faith can still be saved.  She also observed that it seemed as though the more a person was properly catechised, the harder their own personal judgment day would be.  If ignorance of the law can be an excuse and if obedience to the law can sometimes require heroic sanctity, then perhaps it is better to remain ignorant?

This mentality, or something like it, would seem to be related to the decline in the Church’s missionary activity after the Council.  The attitude of many is simply “leave it to the Holy Spirit.”

Connected to this is a failure to see the difference being inside the Church makes to one’s prospects of salvation.  Msgr. Ronald Knox used the metaphor of an ocean liner to describe the life of Catholics on board the barque of Peter.  Those on board the liner get ferried into harbor.  If they are sea-sick or fall overboard, the crew is there to help them to get back on deck.  They also have the possibility of making friendships along the way.  It is so much better than the option of bobbing along on one’s own in the hope that one will eventually be washed ashore.  In this era of sex abuse scandals and Catholic institutions with “identity problems,” it is not so obvious to many Catholics that it is actually less dangerous to be on the liner.  This must surely be a major “internal difficulty.”

A second “internal difficulty” is the perennial problem of Pelagianism.  Cardinal Ratzinger coined the expressions “pious Pelagian” and “bourgeois Pelagian” to refer to two particular wrong attitudes to salvation.  The pious Pelagians think of the Christian life as something like taking out an insurance policy against spending eternity in Hell.  Of these types Ratzinger wrote:

By means of a tough and rigorous system of religious practices, by means of prayers and actions, they want to create for themselves a right to blessedness.  What they lack is the humility essential to any love—the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved. 

Those infected with Jansenism often fell into the pious Pelagian trap.  In contrast, the bourgeois Pelagians want to believe that there are no eternal consequences of our life choices here and now. As Ratzinger described them, “they want to believe that everyone is automatically guaranteed an entry ticket to an egalitarian heaven where it does not matter what one has made of the gift of life on earth.” Against this mentality, in Spe Salvi as Pope Benedict, he offered the following words of caution:

Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened.

One possible antidote to the bourgeois Pelagian disposition is to spend more time in our schools and homilies reflecting on the lives of the martyrs.  Almost every month it seems as though Christians are being killed on account of their faith.  It would be good if parish newsletters contained short paragraphs on those recently martyred so that Catholics in relatively safer countries would have cause to reflect upon the cost of discipleship.

Another antidote would be to pay more attention to theological anthropology and sacramental theology in our school curricula.  Catholics are frequently ignorant of the fundamentals of how God relates to human person through the sacraments.  The basic principles of “No Church, No Sacraments” and “No Sacraments, Access to the Trinity Limited” need to be amplified, but in such a way that it does not encourage the alternative pathology of pious Pelagianism. 

Ultimately the missionary life of the Church depends on there being persons who love Christ and his Church so much that they are prepared to lay down their lives so that others may enjoy the same gifts they have been privileged to receive.  Confusion over the dogmatic teaching is certainly a barrier to this, but the deeper problem is the lack of persons who have sufficient love.  Like most things it gets down to more prayer and fasting.


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

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About Tracey Rowland 17 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).