Pope Benedict XVI and "gravely deficient religions"


I wanted to share some things with you about the whole business of Ratzinger and his statement about how non-Catholic religions are “gravely deficient.” I know that the issue of salvation outside the Church is one which is very important to you (it’s important to me, too); I’ll underline the important parts of quotes and try to keep things simple.

There are two important Church documents about this issue, and each of these has a few important points.

The one that people are talking about is called “Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universlity of Jesus Christ and the Church.” It was written by Ratzinger and promulgated in 2000. In it, he wrote,

" 22. With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity (cf. Acts 17:30-31).90 This truth of faith does not lessen the sincere respect which the Church has for the religions of the world, but at the same time, it rules out, in a radical way, that mentality of indifferentism “characterized by a religious relativism which leads to the belief that ‘one religion is as good as another’”.91 If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.92"

There’s a few footnotes in there. Footnote #92 refers to “Mystici Corporis Christi: Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on the Mystical Body of Christ.” It was promulgated in 1943.

Ratzinger is drawing upon the teaching of Pius XII. Pius wrote,

" We desire nothing more ardently than that they [non-Catholics and non-Christians] may have life and have it more abundantly.[194] Imploring the prayers of the whole Church We wish to repeat this solemn declaration in this Encyclical Letter in which We have proclaimed the praises of the “great and glorious Body of Christ”[195] and from a heart overflowing with love We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation.[196] For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with Us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the Society of glorious love.[197] Persevering in prayer to the Spirit of love and truth, We wait for them with open and outstretched arms to come not to a stranger’s house, but to their own, their father’s home."

Now, these documents are very different from one another. They were written in very different times, by different offices, to different audiences, for different reasons.

The main problem for Pius XII was the idea of the “invisible Church.” The idea was originally thought up by Protestants who wanted to figure out what was going on between the 4th century (when the Church ‘corrupted’ and became the ‘whore of Babylon’) and the Protestant Reformation (when ‘everything was fixed’ and ‘true Christianity’ came back). You see, Protestants can’t say that the Church was dead for 13 centuries, because that contradicts the Bible (“upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” [Matt 16:18]). So, instead of saying that the Church was dead for 13 centuries, Protestant theologians started saying that the Church was “invisible.”


Later, in the 1800’s, many Catholic and Christian thinkers jumped on the idea of the “invisible Church” for a different reason. They wanted to say that the “visible” Church (baptized Catholics) and the “invisible” Church (all people implicitly believing in Jesus) are radically different. This makes the “visible” Church less important–almost like an illusion.

Pius XII condemned this idea. “22. Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. “For in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.”[17] As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith.[18]”

I know it looks ugly, but the above paragraph is just a dogmatic pronouncement. The paragraphs that come before it (14-21) have a very beautiful and complex description of the Church as being like a physical body.

A secondary problem for Pius XII was the issue of “religious indifferentism.” People were beginning to stop caring about religion in the 1800s, and were often in favor of de-emphasizing all of the “details” (i.e., the Virgin Mary, real presence in the Eucharist, Divinity of Jesus), to say that all religions basically do the same thing and are basically equally good. Catholic theologians were using the idea of the “invisible Church” to say that, actually, Hindus were Christians, and Jews were Christians, and Buddhists were Christians–but “invisibly.”

The biggest problem with this idea is that it makes the Sacraments worthless. So Pius had to write that non-Catholics are “deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps” of the sacraments.

Ratzinger’s “Dominus Iesus,” written 57 years later, is not an encyclical, and was not intended for a universal audience. It was meant specifically for theologians, for one purpose only:

“to set forth again the doctrine of the Catholic faith in these areas, pointing out some fundamental questions that remain open to further development, and refuting specific positions that are erroneous or ambiguous. For this reason, the Declaration takes up what has been taught in previous Magisterial documents, in order to reiterate certain truths that are part of the Church’s faith.” (D.I. 2)


Ratzinger also lists up his “targets” very specifically: “the conviction of the elusiveness and inexpressibility of divine truth, even by Christian revelation; relativistic attitudes toward truth itself, according to which what is true for some would not be true for others; the radical opposition posited between the logical mentality of the West and the symbolic mentality of the East; the subjectivism which, by regarding reason as the only source of knowledge, becomes incapable of raising its “gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being”;8 the difficulty in understanding and accepting the presence of definitive and eschatological events in history; the metaphysical emptying of the historical incarnation of the Eternal Logos, reduced to a mere appearing of God in history; the eclecticism of those who, in theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth; finally, the tendency to read and to interpret Sacred Scripture outside the Tradition and Magisterium of the Church.” (D.I. 4)

The parts I underlined are the most important ones. For us Catholics, the seven Sacraments are all about Jesus’s radical and life-changing presence, here, now, with us, today, not in the past, but in this very moment. The Sacraments are not “empty”, but are part of the incarnation of Jesus. They are not mere “appearances”–they’re even more real than the things we can see with our eyes and hear with our ears.

Thus, Ratzinger’s statement: “that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.” is first-and-foremost about the Sacraments. It isn’t meant to slam other religions, or other people in those religions.

In the same document, Ratzinger says that non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved:

“For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, “salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit;” (D.I. 20)

Moreover, there is another document, called “Dialogue and Proclamation,” which states,

“Concretely, it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious traditions and by following the dictates of their conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their saviour” (D&P, 29).

So, there are two teachings which the Church holds together, but which balance each other out: (1) The necessity of the Church, and the real saving power of the Sacraments, and (2) the possibility for the salvation of non-Catholics and non-Christians, which comes from Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Hence, John Paul II wrote in “Redemptoris Missio,” “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. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God’s mercy and our own responsibility.” (R.M. 9)


Simply that Benedict teaches a hierarchy of fellowship and truth. Those who adhere most closely to Jesus and his teachings. Thus the Church of Rome and those in union with her. Then those Orthodox Churches who are separate but close, then the other Christian bodies, Then the Jews, but in a way, just as close as our fellow Christians. etc.


Good info, I just wish you had stated earlier in it that you were Catholic also, I was trying to figure out which way it was going since you were mentioning protestants near the beginning.

Thanks, it should help for the Pope Benedict slammers out there.


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