“4 For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels, 5 And every height that exhalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ”. — 2 Corinthians 10
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“This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation[Unus enim Christus est Mediator ac via salutis / Solo il Cristo … è il mediatore e la via della salvezza]. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church…. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. … [The Church] knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.”
LUMEN GENTIUM ##14, 16 (21 November 1964)
“Given the premise, and this is fundamental, that the mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. … I would not speak about ‘absolute’ truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship [?]. Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. [?] Therefore, truth is a relationship. As such each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc. This does not mean that truth is variable and subjective, quite the contrary. [?] But it does signify that it comes to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life?’ In other words, truth, being completely one with love, demands humility and an openness to be sought, received and expressed. Therefore, we must have a correct understanding of the terms and, perhaps, in order to overcome being bogged down by conflicting absolute positions, we need to redefine the issues in depth. I believe this is absolutely necessary [Penso che questo sia oggi assolutamente necessario] in order to initiate that peaceful and constructive dialogue which I proposed at the beginning of my letter.”
Pope Francis, letter to Eugenio Scalfari (4 September 2013)
“[Christian communication] is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. … Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others ‘by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth….’ We need but recall the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus. We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death. … To dialogue means to believe that the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute [ma alla pretesa che siano uniche ed assolute].”
MESSAGE OF POPE FRANCIS FOR THE 48TH WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY (24 January 2014)
I would like to understand how the latter two messages do not render the former meaningless. The problem, by my lights, is twofold: one performative, the other conceptual.
I affirm that (C) “the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ” for salvation as such (LG #14), but non-Catholics reject this truth. Their religious views and traditions do not support the claim that (C) the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation. In this they are, absolutely speaking, wrong: C is the uniquely valid formulation of the truth as it concerns human destiny. The performative contradiction involved in uncritical interreligious dialogue–all the rage these days–is that I cannot affirm C without also considering it uniquely valid and absolute.
If I were to consider C merely one optional view among equally valid opposing views, I would cease to be a Catholic. Therefore, inasmuch as “dialogue”, according to Pope Francis, does not mean that I must surrender my own Catholic “views and traditions” (i.e., “if you want your faith, you can keep your faith”), dialogue requires that I, as a Catholic, insist on the absolute veracity of C. To “entertain” the idea that C is possibly invalid or not necessarily true (i.e., absolute), is simply to renounce my own “views and traditions” as a Catholic. Some concessions, however well intended, are suicidal. I can’t reclaim my belief in gravity once I leap off a building just to entertain the skeptic’s denial of that universal law.
Apropos, I find the pope’s rejection of “absolute truth” quite puzzling–not the least because by the end of the same paragraph he adverts to his own views on absolutely necessary principles. Far from being devoid of relationality, absolute truth is absolute precisely because it obtains in relation to every state of affairs. As we commonly hear, abortion is absolutely wrong because it is “always and everywhere” immoral deliberately to take the life of an innocent human being. As CCC 2270 says, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” So the entire opening caveat seems to muddy the waters, but, to hear some tell it (c/o Ethika Politika), the greatest chrism of this pope is his zealous obscurity, so what do I know? There are no knives out in this post. I’m genuinely flummoxed by the pope’s most recent statements on “interreligious dialogue”. I’ve seen some of his strongest defenders say that “he’s a careful thinker” and that “he lacks philosophical precision,” so I ask you to help me sort it.
Let me, therefore, move onto the conceptual error involved in the pope’s purported pontifications on pious pluralism. The fundamental problem is that, if the Catholic Church’s traditional view of itself (C) is just as valid as an opposing traditional view of it, then who arbitrates the dispute? Absolute claims can only result in uniquely correct judgments. If we grant a “polyhedronal” plurality of views on the matter, how do we maintain the claim that, in order to be saved, one must hold that the Church was established by Christ as necessary? The ontological efficacy of the Church as the universal means of salvation (S:C) may be necessary for humans to be saved, but, apparently, knowledge of and acceptance of S:C by humans is not necessary. If anything, as one friend put it, “evangelism spreads culpability,” so we might show more mercy my letting the Church save souls ignorant of Her claims in the silent breezes of the Spirit. After all, as the Ethika Politika article to which I linked quips, “it would seem God isn’t all that big on clarity”.
Imagine a religious pluralist, turning his attention firstly to the Catholic faithful, assessing the claim that (C) the Church is necessary for salvation. The pluralist can grant this necessity for those who choose to accept it–or, as Pope Francis might say, he can affirm the truth of it as Catholics receive and express it “from within, … according to [their] own circumstances, culture and situation in life”–while also denying its necessity for those who reject it. If we follow the Holy Father’s lead on this matter, we must admit that C can’t be an absolute truth; it is but “a way,” a means for those to whom it is a given, but a non-absolute viewpoint for those to whom it is not a given.
Seeing as the Church’s teaching is clear, this, then, is my dilemma as a faithful son of the Church. On the one hand I am obliged to believe that the Church is necessary for salvation, but on the other hand I am obliged not to dogmatize the claim that the Church is necessary for salvation. Is the Church necessary for salvation only for those already in it? Once a non-believer understands the logic of why Christ established the Church, is he not ipso facto obliged to enter the Church? After establishing good rapport and trust with my neighbor, and upon proclaiming the Gospel to my neighbor, he answers me, thus:
“The state of mankind is very dire, I agree, and I therefore understand why the Church is necessary for salvation: a good God would not abandon humanity to damnation without a sure path of restoration. Indeed, I believe that God is so good that He would not abandon humankind to a single path back to Him. Let’s just say, then, that I fully accept the saving necessity of the Catholic Church; I just also happen to believe that its divine goodness flows to humanity by numerous channels. Indeed, this plurality only serves to underscore the overflowing mercy of God. So, you must be a good Catholic and I shall remain a noble pagan. Do you need to convince me to become a Catholic? No! No! No! We must discuss and get to know each other as brothers in God. That is enough; Jesus will do the rest.”
Given (arguendo) the regnant missiological assumptions in our day, and under this papacy in particular, I honestly fail to see the problem. I may not always “feel” the salvific necessity of the Church, but, insofar as I comprehend the Catholic claims about sin, hell, and grace, I am not therefore excused from submitting to them. Indeed, if Pope Francis is right that “the ‘other’ has something worthwhile to say” about this question, are there not strong interreligious grounds for ameliorating “my own views” of the “absolute necessity” of the Church in light of contrary views of it? After all, those contrary views are valid in their own way and free from absolutizing my own traditions.
Even before I became Catholic I could intellectually grant that the ontological basis of the grace I knew in Protestantism derived from Christ’s founding of the Church, but I don’t see a cogent reason in the pope’s words that would have prompted my past self to enter the Catholic Church. After all, the whole point of acknowledging C is that I was experiencing true divine grace, none of which would have filled the earth unless Christ had established the Church–I was merely encountering Christ under a Protestant guise. According to C, any grace which my Protestant worship may have conveyed to me had its origin in the Catholic Church’s prior salvific necessity. Why, then, was I obliged to enter the Catholic Church? Given my gratitude for the necessary origin of grace via the Catholic Church, what if my experience of grace as I knew it according to my own Protestant views and traditions (P) was adequate for me? I would not have been denying C, yet I would not be absolutizing P. By promoting a polyhedron of diverse parts (C, P, etc.) in the larger mosaic of “shared truth”, as opposed to a sphere of stifling uniformity, I would be creating a culture of encounter (cf. EG ##234-241). Since proselytism is verboten in our day–“downright nonsense”–, I wonder how Pope Francis would have gone about convincing me to enter the Church.
I am left wondering: