Just two little words in a carefully written text of the Second Vatican Council carry tremendous significance in terms of the emphasis that text was meant to convey. Two little words, so easily overlooked, add urgency to the task for evangelization, and usher in a reminder of why the task of the Church in announcing Jesus Christ is so critical.
What are these words? Simply these:
Perhaps you are less than amazed and wonder what they could have to do with evangelization, let alone urgency. These words occur in a critical text of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium # 16, which is often misunderstood to teach that just about everyone will be saved, baptized or not. Yet these two little words (“But often”) and the three sentences that follow set forth a critical interpretive key that is often wholly ignored by many who hold an expansive and universalist notion of salvation.
Let’s see the whole of Lumen Gentium 16 and see why these two words (which I bold in the text below) are so important:
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 Mohammedans, 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. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She 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. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (LG # 16)
Clearly, the text expansively sets forth a case for God’s goodness and His desire to save all people. He will regard the good will of those who, through invincible ignorance, do not come to explicit confession of Jesus. And, presuming they are sincerely seeking God and striving to live according to the dictates of conscience, God can indeed save them.
But while such a scenario is certainly possible, we ought not presume it is widespread, or even necessarily common. And, the Lumen Gentium text does NOT in fact presume that.
And this is where our two little words are critical. For having set forth the possibility of salvation apart from explicit confession of Jesus and baptism, the text then states with proper and biblical sobriety:
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.
The majority of this sentence is a direct quote from St. Paul to the Romans who speaks more fully of the problem of human sinfulness and rebellion and how it leads many to reject God. Paul speaks of:
…the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18-23)
“Often” lacking! With this Romans text in mind, Lumen Gentium, while acknowledging Gods goodness and desire to save all, states that, “often” the necessary ingredients for this anonymous Christianity, or implicit baptism of desire, are lacking. Thus the Council goes on to urge and exhort: Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
Sadly these two little words “but often” are brushed aside by many, if not most today who hold an opinion that almost everyone will be saved and go to heaven. Never mind that this view is almost wholly opposed to massive Biblical evidence, most of it right from the mouth of Jesus Christ, who rather consistently and vividly teaches that salvation is more difficult that most of us moderns assume, going so far as to say that “many” are lost and “few” are saved (e.g. Matt 7:14).
Of course all of this non-biblical thinking and misunderstanding of Lumen Gentium has devastated evangelization, both at the worldwide level, and even more so in the home and family. Most are very blase’ about urging the faith on children, siblings and friends. Most are lukewarm in their own reception of the sacraments and the living of the faith.
I want to hand the conversation over to Ralph Martin at this point. For I am here summarizing a central point he makes in his important book: Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches. I have reviewed the book more thoroughly HERE.
Please read this book, it is absolutely essential reading for every Catholic, especially clergy and parents.
In this brief video interview Ralph Martin sets forth the basic points of his book, and among the points he mentions are those two critical words “But often.”