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No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Grave concern for our souls?" Not really

Occasionally I hear comments from conservative evangelicals along the lines of "I am anxious about the salvation of my Catholic friends, just as they are anxious about my salvation." More recently, and less polemically, Al Mohler wrote (in a much-linked-blog entry) that "The artificial and deadly dangerous game of ecumenical confusion has obscured issues of grave concern for our souls." In contrast, the recent CDF statement on what does and does not constitute a particular church appears to Mohler to be evidence that Benedict XVI "believes that Protestant churches are gravely defective and that our souls are in danger."

Mohler's response to the CDF document was charitable and rational (unlike some other responses), and I don't want to pick on it too much, all mistakes aside. I do, however, want to distinguish between the two claims above:

1) the Catholic Church believes that Protestant churches are gravely defective

2) the Catholic Church believes that Protestants' souls are in danger

It's important to realize that these ARE two separate claims. The first claim is true, though it might demand some qualification about the relationship of "ecclesial communities" to the universal church. The second claim, however, seems to me to be inaccurate, or at least deceptive. Do Catholics believe that the health of the soul is better sustained where all seven sacraments may be found in valid form? Yes. Do Catholics fear for the salvation of individual evangelicals, because of their lack of access to all the sacraments? No, not usually. Not unless you're talking to the RadTrad wing.

Don't believe me? Well, let's look at the work of John Henry Cardinal Newman, perhaps the most important Catholic theologian of the nineteenth century. Long before Vatican II (decades, in fact, before Vatican I), Newman denied the charge that believing the Catholic Church's claim to be the one true church meant believing that the majority of other Christians were lost. On the contrary, he wrote:

. . . the remarks I have been making suggest much of comfort, when we look out into what is called the religious world in all its varieties, whether it be the High Church section, or the Evangelical, whether it be in the Establishment, or in Methodism, or in Dissent, so far as there seems to be real earnestness and invincible prejudice. One cannot but hope that that written Word of God, for which they desire to be jealous . . . is of incalculable blessing to their souls, and may be, through God's grace, the divine instrument of bringing many to contrition and to a happy death who have received no sacrament since they were baptized in their infancy. One cannot hope but that the Anglican Prayer Book, with its Psalter and Catholic prayers, even though these, in the translation, have passed through heretical intellects, may retain so much of its old virtue as to cooperate with divine grace in the instruction and salvation of a large remnant.

[. . . .]

There is but one set of persons, indeed, who inspire the Catholic with special anxiety, as much so as the open sinner, who is not peculiar to any Communion, Catholic or schismatic, and who does not come into the present question. There is one set of persons in whom every Catholic must feel intense interest, about whom he must feel the gravest apprehensions; viz., those who have some rays of light vouchsafed to them as to their heresy or as to their schism, and who seem to be closing their eyes upon it; or those who have actually gained a clear view of the nothingness of their own Communion, and the reality and divinity of the Catholic Church, yet delay to act upon their knowledge. (Anglican Difficulties, Lecture 11)

Notice that this passage does not come from a work with an ecumenical orientation. On the contrary, it's from a polemical work intended to convince Anglican members of the Tractarian Movement that they should become Roman Catholics.
This is pro-Catholic propaganda, not some game of ecumenical confusion. Newman's language isn't really conciliatory, either: he uses words like "heretic" and "schismatic" with a freedom that would make most of us whince. Nevertheless, he looked with "interest and pleasure" at the faith of most of his compatriots, even the most anti-Catholic among them, and he hoped to meet them in Heaven.

Newman, as a theologian, did not speak for his church in an authoritative way, of course. Nevertheless, current Catholic teaching on this matter is far more generous than many outsiders -including many of the journalists who reputed on the recent document- seem to realize.


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