This is the first thread I’ve posted. It returns to an old thread I commented on while I was a Protestant; I converted to the Catholic faith in 2007. Here’s the original thread:
I asked Catholic Answers Forum staff if I could reply to an old thread and retract my original statements but that is not allowed, so they suggested I start a new thread. I thought it’s best to tie it to Pope Francis since there’s a lot of news published about him lately.
What I am finding (I don’t know about you) is that a lot of the traditionalist Catholics are forming a dismissive opinion of the Holy Father (“dismissive” at best). Even some (neo)conservatives are troubled by the pope’s remarks. Here’s a reputable news source indicating this:
One of the areas that comes up over and over again is the Church’s stance towards non-Catholics, which the thread above dealt with and which is constantly in the news. I’ll quickly share a few remarks as food for thought.
(1) I originally adopted the traditionalist line, ironically as a Protestant, when it comes to salvation for non-Christians. I held a strict interpretation of the dogma “outside the [true] Church there is no salvation” and therefore concluded adherents of other religions, even monotheistic ones (e.g., Muslims) could not be saved without becoming formal members of the true Church. The problem with the strict interpretation is that by traditionalist standards alone it never had the universal consent among theologians which is necessary to establish it as an obvious truth. For example, long before Pope Francis or Vatican II, there was a lot of debate on this subject. For example, in the early 20th century, the strict Thomistic scholar Garrigou-Lagrange expressed his opinion that the majority of Protestants would be saved. Even before this, Richard a Mediavilla, de Lugo and others thought implicit faith in the Incarnation and Trinity (like Muslims can have) would be sufficient for salvation. John of St. Thomas and Gonet thought that a non-Catholic monotheist could, by way of exception, be saved. It is no answer to these facts to say others held a stricter view (e.g., St. Alphonsus, Banez, Cano) for the very difference of opinion shows the issue was debated in the schools. And debated it was, into the 20th century. Pius XII (again, before Vatican II) addressed the Leonard Feeney controversy with his famous letter to Archbishop Cushing in which he clearly and authoritatively interpreted the dogma “outside the Church there is no salvation” in a manner certainly favorable to the less strict schools of thought.
(2) One must distinguish between the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics and the probability of it. Again, the theological schools differ. Catholics have long debated how many people in general would be saved, with answers ranging from “the vast majority” to “a small number.” If one takes the permitted view that most people will be saved, and a less strict interpretation of “outside the Church there is no salvation,” then one could defend the open manner in which Pope Francis dialogues with non-Catholics.
(3) Finally, one needs to distinguish between atheism and non-Catholics. Atheism is a special concern because the Council of Trent, echoing Hebrews 11.6, says that faith is necessary for salvation and faith cannot be present without belief in God’s existence. Accordingly, atheists and polytheists are a trickier animal. Nevertheless, some theologians (I believe Maritain and Journet) in the 20th century argued for a theory of non-conceptual faith according to which men with no conscious belief in God could still have faith at a pre-conceptual level. I have not read their books, but this is my understanding of the theory. My own opinion is that this view is incorrect; certainly it is very difficult to harmonize with the beliefs and practices of the Church for centuries. At any rate, Pope Francis is certainly open with atheists, but to my knowledge he has never said an atheist qua atheist can be saved; what he has rather said, it seems to me, is that if an atheist follows his reason and conscience faithfully, the world will be a better place, moral and intellectual formation will occur, and his life will begin to converge towards truth. These are obvious truths. If on the other hand the Holy Father has expressed his opinion that atheists, qua atheists, can be saved, then I would interpret that (hypothetical) state of affairs as indicating the pope adopts the less-probable-but-not-condemned theory of pre-conceptual faith. Certainly we shouldn’t judge the Holy Father for exercising his academic freedom in this manner. But, for what it is worth, Bl. John Paul II expressly adopts a theory of propositional revelation and conceptual faith in his doctoral dissertation.
What is the upshot of all of this? I’ve taken an old dogma which burned me in the past. It looks so deceptively simple, yet under the surface it is so complex. This is a good case to illustrate the principle that traditionalists shouldn’t be quick to judge Pope Francis. I think when it comes to Pope Francis in the news, we need to keep a few things in mind. First, the theological issues are always more complex than the media makes them out to be, as illustrated above. Second, the pope himself in his recent exhortation has said the media sometimes distorts the words of the Magisterium. Finally, Catholics should refrain from leaping to negative conclusions about the pope purely based on the news because such opinions are not only premature, but they are often ill-founded.