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Vatican II and the universality of Christ’s saving mission

If a human being is lost, it is not because God chose not to offer him the gift of salvation, but because he cuts himself off from the one Body, outside of which man misses the very truth of his being because he refuses the Divine Life of Trinitarian communion.

Detail from 'Crucifixion' (c.1315) by Giotto di Bondone []

The distinguishing feature of the doctrine and the pastoral program of the Second Vatican Council is Trinitarian Christocentrism. The Council’s teaching on the nature of Sacred Liturgy, on the mystery of the Church, on the meaning of Revelation, and, above all, on the Church’s missionary dialogue with the modern world, presents the figure of Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father, as the alpha and the omega—“the key, the focal point, and the goal of all human history.” The Incarnate Son is “the mediator and the fullness of all Revelation” and the one in whom “it pleased the Father to reestablish all things (cf. Eph 1:4-5,10).”

In his “Opening Address” at the start of the second session on September 29, 1963, Pope Paul VI confirmed the basic orientation of the Council:

From what point, dear brethren, do we set out? … What is the road we intend to follow? What is the goal we propose to ourselves? These three very simple and at the same time very important questions have, as we well know, only one answer, namely that here at this very hour we should proclaim Christ to ourselves and to the world around us; Christ our beginning, Christ our life and guide, Christ our hope and our end. … Let no other light be shed on this Council, but Christ the light of the world! Let no other truth be of interest to our minds, but the words of the Lord, our only Master! Let no other aspiration guide us but to be absolutely faithful to him!

For Paul VI and the Council fathers, fidelity to Christ requires a grateful reception of the saving mystery of his life, death, and Resurrection, which is summed up in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and an obedience to his mandate to preach the Gospel to every creature (cf. Mk 16:15). The pastoral concern and the missionary dynamism of Vatican II have their deepest roots in a renewed understanding of the catholicity or universality of Christ’s saving mission. Following Christ, participating in his life and love, the Church is missionary in her innermost nature. Having received the life-giving Spirit from Christ, the Church is “the universal sacrament of salvation,” the sign and instrument of union with God and the unity of the whole human race. As John Paul II emphasized in Dominum et Vivificantem, the Church’s universal mission is grounded in and expresses the absolute universality of Jesus Christ:

The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is “flesh”: the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The “first-born of all creation,” (Col 1:15) becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is also “flesh”—and in this reality with all “flesh,” with the whole of creation. (par 51)

In order to grasp the significance of Vatican II’s teaching on the salvific universality of Christ and the Church, it is necessary to forestall a potential misunderstanding and to situate this teaching in the context of the Church’s tradition. Accordingly, my plan in what follows is to reflect briefly on 1) the universality of salvation and the reality of hell; 2) Vatican II’s teaching on the possibility of salvation for those who do not know the Gospel of Christ; and 3) the Church’s hope for the salvation of the world.

The universality of salvation and the reality of Hell

The Catholic Church has always believed and taught that God desires the salvation of the entire human race—each and every human being without exception. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). (par 1058)

And the Church has always believed and taught that God’s offer of salvation is a gift of love that requires a free acceptance on the part of the creature. The consequence of refusing or rejecting to the end God’s offer of salvation is “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed [that] is called ‘hell.’” The same love that mercifully bends down and draws near to the creature with a gratuitous offer of redemption shows an unconditioned respect for the freedom of the creature. In his book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Joseph Ratzinger considers the real possibility of Hell as a sign and safeguard of Christianity’s understanding of the dignity and greatness of human life and human freedom.

It is necessary, then, to hold these two truths together; the truth that God desires the salvation of the entire human race and the truth that God does not save human beings without regard to their freedom. It is possible that some portion of humanity whom God seeks to save will persist in a willful turning away from God and thus suffer eternal damnation.

The possibility of salvation for those who do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church

One of the implications of the Church’s doctrine concerning God’s universal salvific will is that each and every human being, without exception, is offered the grace of salvation. “The universality of salvation,” argues John Paul II, “means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” In terms of answering the question how salvation is offered to those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, there are three passages from the Second Vatican Council that should be read together:

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)

Though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him (Heb. 11:6), yet a necessity lies upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:16), and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel. (Ad Gentes, 7)

For, since Christ died for all men (cf. Rm 8:32), 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 es Spes, 22)

It is important to note the limits of our knowledge regarding the question how or the manner in which the salvific grace that comes from Christ’s sacrifice is communicated by the Holy Spirit to individuals who have not heard the Gospel. This communication of grace, “while having a mysterious relationship to the Church,” is accomplished “in a manner known only to God.”

A similar limitation characterizes the Church’s knowledge of the outcome of God’s offer of salvation. In fidelity to Christ, the Church proclaims the universality of God’s saving love and she teaches that human beings who die in a state of mortal sin separate themselves from God for all eternity. In bearing witness to the universality of God’s love in Christ the Church encounters human beings who have forgotten God—“who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom 1:21, 25).” The Church’s proclamation of the Gospel is a call to conversion, but the Church does not judge the state of any individual’s soul at the moment of death. And, in fidelity to Christ, she continues to pray and hope for the salvation of all—each and every human being without exception.

The Church’s hope for the salvation of the world

The Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the possibility of salvation for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church is part of a development of doctrine that has unfolded for several centuries. Already in 1658, Pope Innocent X condemned five theses drawn from the writings of Cornelius Jansen. The fifth thesis was the following: “It is semi-pelagian to stay that Christ died or shed his blood for all men without exception.” Responding to heretical attempts to limit the salvific universality of Christ’s mission, the Church faithfully hands on the truth that Christ died for all.

The Church’s teaching on the universality of Christ’s mission is also an invitation to Catholic theologians to think more deeply about the social dimension of salvation. In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI argued against an individualistic conception of salvation, pointing out that the Church has always considered salvation a “social” reality. His words are worth citing at length:

we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do, and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well. (Spe Salvi, 48)

Benedict’s retrieval of the social dimension of salvation is firmly rooted in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which in turn faithfully recovered an aspect of the teaching of the Greek Fathers. The Council Fathers, in fact, clearly rejected the doctrine of selective predestination. A full technical exposition of how this teaching relates to medieval and post-medieval debates concerning predestination would require a lengthy study of its own.

Suffice it to say that the Council changed the very terms of the debate itself by affirming that all men are created for supernatural union with God in Christ, the new Adam who fully reveals man to himself. Henri de Lubac, writing in 1938 (in Catholicism: Christ and Common Destiny of Man), had already anticipated one of the main implications of this doctrine: God creates mankind as a single, concrete whole, and the Church is nothing more than the sacramental instrument, and the first fruits, of the restoration of this wholeness after the disaster of sin. If a human being is lost, then, it is not because God chose not to offer him the gift of salvation, but because he cuts himself off from the one Body, outside of which man misses the very truth of his being because he refuses the Divine Life of Trinitarian communion.

The Church’s hope for the salvation of all is an invitation to follow Christ, to be drawn into the form of existence of the Son who receives his being as a gift from the Father and who offers his flesh and blood for the salvation of the world.

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally at CWR on November 21, 2013, in slightly different form.)

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About Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. 2 Articles
Nicholas J. Healy, Jr. is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Washingon, D.C. Since 2002 he has served as an editor of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review. He is a founding member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.

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