The Pope, Universalism, and World Missions

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Second Vatican CouncilA number of years ago, I was at an evangelical, Protestant, interdenominational missions conference where our particular working group was discussing how to get more people involved in issues of contextualization of the Gospel in Thailand.  One couple suggested, “Why not invite the Catholics to join in as well?”  It only took me a split-second to answer, “The Reformation.”  I was completely serious, but several people broke out in laughter, and I almost felt a bit bad because I hadn’t intended to make the couple who asked the question look silly.  Apparently my two word answer was sufficient to answer the question though, as the group moved on to more legitimate ideas for greater involvement.

This incident made me wonder how many Protestants have forgotten that there are significant differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  In the day and age of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and books such as “Is the Reformation Over?”, many Protestants and Catholics would like to just say “We all love Jesus, so let’s work together.”  Is that possible?  Are the differences that Protestants and Catholics died for in the 16th century just a matter of over-heated pre-modern stubbornness and intolerance?

If there is any question about where the Catholic Church stands in relation to traditional Protestant views on salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone... that question certainly wasn’t cleared up by the Pope’s recent remarks.  In a May 2013 address to a Catholic audience, Pope Francis I stirred up controversy with the assertion that everyone is saved through the blood of Christ, even atheists.  From all appearances, the Pope was asserting universalism - the belief that everyone is saved regardless of their belief or non-belief in Christ.  Many people were startled by this statement and asked, “Is the Pope really advocating universalism?  How can that be?”  I myself, however, was not surprised by the Pope’s remarks because such a statement is completely in line with the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, held from 1962-1965.  This council made many changes to bring the Roman Catholic Church into the modern world, such as allowing the mass to be celebrated in the vernacular instead of Latin, and softening of their traditional stance that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. In the primary document of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, it states the following regarding those who are not faithful Catholics:

Regarding Salvation for Jews, Muslims, and those who haven’t heard Gospel

“Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.; But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved. 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.”

Regarding Christians Who Don’t Acknowledge Pope

“The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Savior. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities.”

Regarding non-practicing or nominal Catholics

“The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the
sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged”

From the above statements, we can summarize that salvation is possible for other peoples of the book (i.e. Muslims & Jews), and for those who never hear the Gospel but sincerely do good.  Also, non-Catholic Christians (called “separated brethren” in Lumen Gentium) also seem to be within the fold of salvation.  However, nominal Catholics who only go through the outward motions of being Catholic, and do not “respond to grace”, will be judged more severely than those who never heard the Gospel but did good deeds.  In light of the positions expressed in Lumen Gentium, Pope Francis I’s recent comments don’t seem to be breaking any new ground.  We can safely conclude the anathemas of the Council of Trent damning Protestants can be forgotten, and that the spirit of tolerance initiated fifty years ago at the Second Vatican Council continues today in the words of Pope Francis.

But wait!  Stop the presses!

Shortly after the Pope’s remarks about atheists being saved stirred the controversy pot, a spokesman for the Vatican wrote a blog post to clarify the Catholic Church’s official position that there is no salvation outside the Catholic church.  Say what? Isn’t that the opposite of what Pope Francis and Lumen Gentium have said?  But then again, if you read Lumen Gentium, the same document that indicates salvation is possible for non-Catholics, we also find statements that agree with the Vatican spokesman:

“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.”

So which is it? Can non-Catholics attain salvation or can’t they?  Is it necessary to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church in order to be saved or isn’t it?  Lumen Gentium seems to say both things, even though they are contradictory.  Which may be why the statements of the Pope and the Vatican spokesman are also contradictory.  From where I sit, the Catholic Church wants to have its cake and eat it too.  The Catholic hierarchy wants to maintain and promote ecumenical relations and a spirit of tolerance towards other religions but still maintain the doctrine that you must be Catholic to be saved.  That is a tough fence to straddle, but the Catholic church seems to be doing it.  

I should probably note here that we are talking here only about official Catholic doctrine.  The Roman Catholic Church may have organizational unity but there is a wide diversity of belief and practice within the Roman Catholic Church.  I have known (and still know) many Catholics who would expresses an understanding of salvation and justification that sounds very similar to Protestants.  They are trusting Christ alone for salvation - not Mary, not their good works - just Christ alone.  This past semester, one of my church history students asked (in the context of studying the Protestant Reformation) whether the Pope (and by extension all Catholics) were saved?  I couldn’t answer yes or no.  I said, “Anyone who trusts completely and wholly in Christ alone for their salvation will be saved.  Whether that be Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or whatever church they are in.  There are certainly many Catholics who are saved, but they are saved in spite of the official doctrine of their church, not because of it.”

So can Catholics and Protestants work together in ministry?  Can they (and should they) work together on the mission field?  At the end of the day, there are too many differences on essential matters for Protestants and Catholics to work together in ministry.  The Catholic Church can’t even decide what it really believes about a crucial matter such as the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone.  If you don’t have unity on that, what kind of unity can you have in deciding what types of ministry are needed? important? essential?

That’s not to say that Protestants and Catholics have nothing to learn from each other.  But there are too many fundamental differences for Protestants to join together with a priest in Rome who arrogantly claims authority over all churches in the world, and an organization that speaks out of both sides of its mouth concerning the exclusivity of salvation in Christ.

On a related note, for those of you who appreciate religious satire, there is a very informative and entertaining video called “Two Faces of Rome.”  I have embedded it below and you can watch it on YouTube by clicking here.



For Further Reading:

"Lumen Gentium" - official statement of Second Vatican Council

"Misunderstanding Vatican II" by R.C. Sproul

Book Review: "Is the Reformation Over?" Part 1 - by Tim Challies


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