Vatican II and the “Bad News” of the Gospel

Ruefully observing statistics showing that only 6 percent of American Catholic parishes considered evangelism a priority, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles once lamented, “The Council has often been interpreted as if it had discouraged evangelization.”  Ralph Martin’s book Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, aims to explain why this interpretation has taken root despite the fact that the Council documents, particularly the keystone document Lumen Gentium (LG), are brimming with talk about evangelization as the Church’s main job.   In fact, Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi stated that the objectives of the Council were summed up in one statement: “to make the Church of the 20th century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel.”  Yet the opposite happened. 

Martin thinks, and with reason, that the loss of impetus to evangelize is based upon the widespread notion after the Council that almost everybody will be saved—except maybe really evil people like Hitler and Judas.  Having the sacraments or an explicit faith in Christ is seen as a nice add-on.  But essentially the theology of salvation could be summed up by the 1989 cartoon movie All Dogs Go to Heaven.  

Of course this theology had backing from big names.  Karl Rahner declared that the Council had a “theological optimism…concerning salvation.”  Richard McBrien’s commentary on Lumen Gentium claimed that the Church now considered the human race as “an essentially saved community from whom a few may, by the exercise of their own free will, be lost.”  Even the Jesuit scholar Francis Sullivan, author of a very careful study of the teaching on salvation outside the Church, tended in his more popular writings to throw caution to the wind and claim a “general presumption of innocence which is now the official attitude of the Catholic Church.”  These claims were never undergirded by any actual citations or close readings from the Council, which marked a doctrinal development indeed, but not one of automatic salvation or “presumed innocence.”

While the question of the salvation of peoples who have never heard the Gospel has been bubbling up in a new way since the 16th-century discovery of peoples in the New World, it had been coming to a steady boil more than a hundred years before Vatican II.  The categories of invincible ignorance (whereby one could not be held accountable for not knowing about Christ and the Christian message) and implicit faith (whereby the invincibly ignorant might embrace as much truth as God has allowed one to receive and thus embrace Christ implicitly) have been around for a while.  That arch-traditional pope Pius IX had already given assent to the possibility of salvation outside the visible boundaries of the Church in encyclicals in 1854 and 1863.  This view was even included in a draft document of the First Vatican Council (which was never finished because of the Franco-Prussian war’s interruption).  The Second Vatican Council’s teaching of this possibility of salvation outside the sacraments and explicit faith, then, was the culmination of a long doctrinal development that had already been given expression by the papal magisterium a century before Vatican II.

Martin affirms this development, noting that LG 16 very clearly indicates the possibility of salvation outside of the visible Church and explicit faith. That key passages states:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.  Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.  Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life. (LG 16)

Notice, however, that simple ignorance, even ignorance that could not be helped, is not a sufficient condition for salvation—sincere seeking of God, a real attempt to follow the dictates of conscience, and an embrace of whatever truth is given are all necessary.  To such people “divine assistance” will be given.  But notice also that the Council Fathers said that such people “may” achieve eternal salvation.  But what is so striking is that even when this passage is quoted, the final lines which warn of the dangers to those outside of the faith are rarely quoted and even more rarely commented on at length:

But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all of these, the Church, mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG 16)

Far from a human race that is presumed innocent or essentially saved, the Council Fathers see a world in which salvation is neither assured nor easy.  It is a world in which, “very often,” rejection of Christ has been a reality, is still possible, and is a main reason for Christian missions.  Indeed, the Council also warned about the severe judgment falling on Catholics who do not persist in charity and faithfulness.

The Council’s “optimism,” Martin rightly notes, is about the possibility of salvation outside of the Church, not the probability that everybody inside or outside it will be saved.  The Council doesn’t give odds on this question or tell us whether Hell is densely populated or not, nor does Martin attempt to do so.  But he notes that the “very often” is attached to the negative possibility. In a chapter examining the scriptural references in LG 16 he demonstrates that this bad news is indeed biblical.  Where, then, did the All Dogs view of the Council come from?  Mostly from two sources: Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

While Martin is clear that he respects both theologians and acknowledges their own pastoral desires, what is demonstrated in the two chapters covering their thoughts is how little backing they had in their own theories.  Rahner, while occasionally acknowledging that the Council did not actually say anything new doctrinally on this topic, used the tactic that would later characterize the Bologna school: in Ratzinger’s words, the Council’s texts were interpreted as “a mere prelude to a still unattained conciliar spirit.”  Thus, Rahner’s foundations for hope in universal or near-universal salvation were founded upon his own particular theological vision—a vision that gave little attention to the whole witness of either Scripture or Tradition on this point and (as he later acknowledged) underestimated the reality of sin.

While Rahner may have ignored Tradition and Scripture, Balthasar professed to be a man who paid attention to it all.  Martin’s brief against him shows, however, that on his professed “theological hope” for universal salvation (best glimpsed in his book Dare We Hope That All Be Saved?), Balthasar has a tendency to ignore and occasionally mischaracterize his sources.  Martin offers devastating critiques of his use of Scripture, the Fathers, and indeed logic.  Balthasar quotes scriptural passages without even their immediate context, adduces witnesses who do not say what they purportedly say (e.g. Maximus the Confessor’s supposed embrace of universalism), and claims that one cannot love people sincerely if one believes that anyone could possibly reject God—the last a strange claim indeed given his view that the saints stand high as theological authorities.  Finally, he seems to back up his positions with rather extravagant extra-biblical speculations about conversions in Hell. 

Martin argues that the universalist-tending arguments of Rahner and Balthasar were a significant factor in the post-conciliar belief that preaching the bad news was a hindrance rather than a help in evangelization.  Whether or not they actually agreed with the speculative views of the theologians, many bishops and pastors embraced the idea that the Church would be better off if it stopped talking about sin and hell and accentuated the positive. As one theologian in 1973 wrote, with this strategy, “men will storm her doors seeking admission.”  The result has been less than spectacular.  Rare are the people who will spread the faith merely because the Church says so if there is no point to it other than drawing new members into “our community.”  To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if the Church isn’t a place of salvation, it is simply an Elks Club.  And the Elks aren’t doing that well these days either.  It was Rahner, after all, whose talk about the “optimism of the Council” yielded at the end of his life to essays on the “winter of the Church.”

Martin does not spare bishops or popes in his criticism of this strategy of talking only about the positives.  Paul VI’s and John Paul II’s encyclicals on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi and Redemptoris Missio, are scored for omitting “the traditional focus on the eternal consequences that rest on accepting or rejecting the gospel that motivated almost two thousand years of mission.”  Martin calls for an end to this “unwise silence” about a significant part of the Christian message.  It is a particularly heartening sign that his book is blurbed by seven U.S. bishops.  Perhaps these endorsements are a sign that what Russell Shaw once called the U.S. bishops’ “Potemkin Village” is now being torn down.  

Martin’s one misstep is that he too quickly passes by the question of the danger to non-Catholic Christians.  While Vatican II’s recognition of the power of salvation at work among other Christians separated from the Catholic Church is accurate, it is perhaps a little too pat.  Martin does not mention the dangers to Christians whose baptisms are valid but who do not have the fullness of the sacraments or the guidance of the magisterium to help them in a world in which, as he notes, the culture’s morality moves further from Christian teaching every day.  The bad news is for all of us—Catholics, other Christians, and non-believers.  We all need to hear it if the good news is to make sense.  And we all need to hear it because it’s true.


Will Many Be Saved?  What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implication for the New Evangelization

By Ralph Martin

Eerdmans, 2012

316 pages, $24


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

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About David Paul Deavel 27 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and visiting assistant professor of Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. His book Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, co-edited and introduced with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available from Notre Dame Press.