I was very pleased last week to get a copy of Ralph Martin’s new book Will Many Be Saved? The subtitle of the book is What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization.
As the title suggests Ralph Martin explores the modern struggles related to evangelization, showing how many of these difficulties are related to the flawed interpretation of The Second Vatican Council. Critical to the question is the understanding of the Council document Lumen Gentium, in particular L.G. # 16 which deals with the possibility of those who have not explicitly accepted Christ, being saved.
We have discussed before on this blog that one of the chief problems of our modern age is that very few consider the teaching on a hell to be a practical reality. Most today simply presume that the vast majority of people on the planet will be saved, ultimately, no matter what. I have argued, that this position is not only only non-biblical, but it also offends against human freedom by rendering our decisions ultimately meaningless, in terms of our destiny.
The practical universal salvation of souls held by most today is ultimately rooted in the dismissal of the biblical teaching of judgment and Hell as simply untenable to modern thought. “How could an all-loving God send anyone to Hell?” goes the modern thinking. Never mind that no one spoke of hell more than Jesus Christ, and no one warned of judgement more vividly than He, who is love itself. The fact is, most Catholics feel very comfortable, and very confident, in simply dismissing Hell is a plausible reality for the vast majority of the human family.
This particular blog is not the place for me to once again defend the Biblical teaching. I have done that elsewhere here, for example here: Hell Has to Be.
In this post I simply want to acknowledge the publication of what I think is an important work, wherein Ralph Martin ponders the relationship between the almost dogmatic insistence that everyone is saved, and the falling off of missionary work and evangelical zeal among Christians.
Martin states the nature of the problem early in his book, where he says
One reason why evangelization may be stymied is that there seems to be in the minds of many Catholics, and other Christians as well, a lack of conviction that being a Christian is really necessary in order to be saved. If it is not really necessary to become a Christian in order to be saved, why bother to evangelize?… But, of course, this lack of conviction finds a certain basis in the Church’s own teaching. The Church definitively teaches that it is possible for non-Christians to be saved without hearing the gospel or coming to explicit faith in Christ. There is a certain tension between the call to evangelize and the acknowledgment that conversion to Christ and to the Church is not absolutely necessary in order to be saved. John Paul II acknowledges this tension in his encyclical on mission….[and] says “it is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind, and the necessity of the Church for salvation” (Page 5).
Martin goes on to say,
We must attempt to focus on one obstacle to a response to the call to evangelization, namely, a certain doctrinal ignorance or confusion about what exactly the Church is teaching about the possibility of salvation outside the visible bounds of the Church, or of Christianity. It is because evangelization is so essential to the fundamental identity of the church, particularly at this moment when the whole church is being called to a “new evangelization,” that establishing doctrinal clarity in this area is of great importance. (P. 6).
Martin then focuses on Lumen Gentium # 16 wherein the Council Fathers ponder how those who do not explicitly confess Christ, or have not fully heard the Gospel can still be saved. Of itself, the text of the Council strikes a delicate balance between the hope for their salvation, and the absolute necessity of the Church to announce the Gospel to everyone and summon them to faith. But as with most things, we have not only the text to consider, but also how the text was interpreted and applied. In the climate both preceding, and especially after the Council, the delicate balance struck by the text was not always maintained.
In a very helpful analysis Ralph Martin shows how the Council statement was rooted in Sacred Scripture and in the proper doctrinal development of the Church. But he also shows how the Council’s statement interacted with theological trends of the time. For example, Karl Rahner’s notion of “Anonymous Christians” and Balthasar’s influential treatise “Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?” Martin also includes reflections on the psychological and anthropological skepticism that arose in the 20th century that human beings were even capable of definitively saying no to God.
All of these trends and influences have contributed, fairly or unfairly to an interpretation of Church teaching that lost the delicate balance between a well-founded hope of God’s mercy in judgment, and of the urgency to proclaim the Gospel, since without this many may well be lost.
As a pastor, I am glad that Ralph Martin has written this book, and in the context of the thorough background he provides, is willing to call the question, and wonder aloud if perhaps we have lost proper balance and need to develop a new pastoral strategy. The strategy should include a healthy respect for the realities of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, the importance of faith, and human decisions, and a hopeful looking to God’s mercy, which also includes His respect for human choice and freedom.
Indeed, as Martin notes the Church must recover the boldness of apostolic preaching, and be less vague about the eternal consequences of a believing and obeying, or not believing and not obeying. He also argues that an unwise silence from the Church should end, and that the Church’s role of providing prophetic warning to individuals and to the culture. For both individuals and the wider culture do not appear to be seeking God, are not trying to do his will, live in rebellion and immorality, and seem to have lost any sense that there will be consequences for this.
Martin’s book is well attested by a large number of our current bishops to include Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Francis Cardinal George, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Peter Cardinal Turkson, Archbishop Augustine and Di Noia, and others.
On a personal note, I want to say that I am personally indebted to Ralph Martin for the important work he did back in the early 1980s in bringing to light the very serious departure from doctrinal truth that was taking place at that time in many Catholic universities and seminaries. He wrote a magnificent treatise describing the nature of the problem, its historical background, in its then current dimensions in a book entitled Crisis of Truth.
I must say that that book was a critical light for me in what I think were some very dark days for the Church. I have related before on this blog of the grave conditions that prevailed in seminary back in the early and mid-80s, and Martin’s book Crisis of Truth helped me understand where those problems came from, and where true Church teaching lay. Thank God, I think most of the problems in the seminaries have been cleaned up, but I have to give credit to brave souls like Ralph Martin were willing to speak the truth in love in those days.
In this current work, Will Many Be Saved?, as he was in Crisis of Truth, Martin is fair, never unduly critical, but very clear. It will be essential for us, going forward, to regain a healthy and balanced understanding of the solidly Biblical truths related to death, judgment, heaven, and hell. God is rich in mercy, but our decisions do build and point ultimately to our eternal destiny. In a time often in denial about consequences, Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? is a call to balance and sobriety.
Here’s a biblical story that reminds us that some sins are very serious matters: