Xavier and Salvation--History

I am a teaching assistant in a course about Asia and the following passage came up in our readings on Japan. It is an excert from the letters of Saint Francis Xavier. You can read the whole excert here: fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1552xavier4.html

It really troubles me because it seems to be saying that people who never heard the Gospel are damned. Could anyone help me with this one? Here it is:

One of the things that most of all pains and torments these Japanese is, that we teach them that the prison of hell is irrevocably shut, so that there is no egress therefrom. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives, and they often show their grief by their tears. So they ask us if there is any hope, any way to free them by prayer from that eternal misery, and I am obliged to answer that there is absolutely none. Their grief at this affects and torments them wonderfully; they almost pine away with sorrow. But there is this good thing about their trouble—it makes one hope that they will all be the more laborious for their own salvation, lest they like their forefathers, should be condemned to everlasting punishment. They often ask if God cannot take their fathers out of hell, and why their punishment must never have an end. We gave them a satisfactory answer, but they did not cease to grieve over the misfortune of their relatives; and I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing men so dear to my heart suffer such intense pain about a thing which is already done with and can never be undone.

Thanks for any help and God bless!

The saint answered your question earlier in that letter. Here it is:

Before their baptism the converts of Yamaguchi were greatly troubled and pained by a hateful and annoying scruple—that God did not appear to them merciful and good, because He had never made Himself known to the Japanese before our arrival, especially if it were true that those who had not worshipped God as we preached were doomed to suffer everlasting punishment in hell. It seemed to them that He had forgotten and as it were neglected the salvation of all their ancestors, in permitting them to be deprived of the knowledge of saving truths, and thus to rush headlong on eternal death. It was this painful thought which, more than anything else, kept them back from the religion of the true God. But by the divine mercy all their error and scruple was taken away. We began by proving to them that the divine law is the most ancient of all. Before receiving their institutions from the Chinese, the Japanese knew by the teaching of nature that it was wicked to kill, to steal, to swear falsely, and to commit the other sins enumerated in the Ten Commandments, a proof of this being the remorse of conscience to which any one guilty of one of these crimes was certain to be a prey.

We showed them that reason itself teaches us to avoid evil and to do good, and that this is so deeply implanted in the hearts of men, that all have the knowledge of the divine law from nature, and from God the Author of nature, before they receive any external instruction on the subject. If any doubts were entertained on the matter, an experiment might be made in the person of a man without any instruction, living in absolute solitude, and in entire ignorance of the laws of his country. Such a man, ignorant of and a stranger to all human teaching, if he were asked whether it were or were not criminal to kill, to steal, or to commit the other actions forbidden by the law of God, and whether it were right to abstain from such actions, then, I say, this man, so fundamentally without all human education, would most certainly reply in such a manner as to show that he was by no means without knowledge of the divine law. Whence then must he be supposed to have received this knowledge, but from God Himself, the Author of nature? And if this knowledge is seen among barbarians, what must be the case with civilized and polished nations? This being so, it necessarily follow that before any laws were made by men the divine law existed innate in the hearts of all men. The converts were so satisfied with this reasoning, as to see no further difficulty; so that this net having been broken, they received from us with a glad heart the sweet yoke of our Lord…

Many saints believed this to be true. But even if they sincerely believed this is true, that is no guarantee that they are infallibly teaching the truth.

Look to the teachings of the Magisterium about this issue. Read Lumen Gentium (16) and read the footnotes that LG 16 quotes. You will see that the Magisterium does not teach that those that die in invincible ignorance of the Gospel are necessarily damned to Hell.

Thanks for your replies!

Tantum ergo:
My difficulty is that in the passage you mention Saint Francis Xavier seems to be focusing on the ability to know and to some extent follow God’s divine law despite not having heard the Gospel. He still seems to hold that their ancestors were still damned. If he doesn’t, isn’t he contradicting himself?

Matt 16_18
Thanks for the reference. I had a look at it and I agree with the statements. The problem I have is that it seems like the church teaching has changed. If Saint Francis Xavier is wrong that means that a very educated and saintly man could miss a very important doctrine (in which case, what hopes do those of us who aren’t so saintly or educated have?). If Xavier is correct than that means that the Church has change its teachings. If the church couldn’t make itself understood to someone like Xavier, what are we to do? Is there any kind of authoritative document from the time of Xavier (16th century) showing him to be wrong?

Thanks and God bless!

Francis Xavier believed a commonly held theological opinion, not church doctrine. St. Francis Xavier, unlike us, never had a chance to read Lumen Gentium (16) which states:Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience–those too many achieve eternal salvation. footnote19]…

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Nor did Xavier have the chance to read the reference in footnote [19] to LG (Cfr. Epist. S.S.C.S. Officii ad Archiep. Boston.: Denz. 3 86972), the **LETTER OF THE SACRED CONGREGATION OF THE HOLY OFFICE ** which teaches: In His infinite mercy God has willed that the effects, necessary for one to be saved, of those helps to salvation which are directed toward man’s final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing. This we see clearly stated in the Sacred Council of Trent, both in reference to the sacrament of regeneration and in reference to the sacrament of penance [1].

The same in its own degree must be asserted of the Church, in as far as she is the general help to salvation. Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.

However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.

These things are clearly taught in that dogmatic letter which was issued by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on June 29, 1943, On the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ [2]. For in this letter the Sovereign Pontiff clearly distinguishes between those who are actually incorporated into the Church as members, and those who are united to the Church only by desire.

Discussing the members of which the Mystical Body is composed here on earth, the same august Pontiff says: "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."
Toward the end of this same encyclical letter, when most affectionately inviting to unity those who do not belong to the body of the Catholic Church, he mentions those who “are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire,” and these he by no means excludes from eternal salvation, but on the other hand states that they are in a condition “in which they cannot be sure of their salvation” since “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church” [3]. With these wise words he reproves both those who exclude from eternal salvation all united to the Church only by implicit desire, and those who falsely assert that men can be saved equally well in every religion [4]; also Pope Pius IX in the encyclical letter, Quanto conficiamur moerore [5].

But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Council of Trent declares [6]: “Faith is the beginning of man’s salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and attain to the fellowship of His children” [7].

[1] Denzinger, nn. 797, 807.

[2] AAS, Vol. 35, an. 1943, p. 193 ff.

[3] AAS, 1. c., p. 243

[4] cf. Pope Pius IX, Allocution, Singulari quadam, in Denzinger, n. 1641 ff.

[5] Denzinger, n. 1677

[6] Council of Trent, Session VI, chap. 8

[7] (Denzinger, n. 801I believe that if Francis Xavier had known these teachings of the Magisterium, he would have accepted to these teachings with joy.

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If the church couldn’t make itself understood to someone like Xavier, what are we to do?

Church doctrine is developed over time. The Magisterium often only clarifies the teachings of the deposit of faith when error begins to spread among the faithful. The LETTER OF THE SACRED CONGREGATION OF THE HOLY OFFICE is a perfect example of this. Fr. Feeney, a misguided priest, began to spread error about how the Catholic Church understands “* Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus*”. The pope had the CDF write a letter to Fr. Feeney’s bishop that clarified the actual teaching of the Church, and ordered it published. Unfortunately, Fr. Feeney refused to submit to this teaching, and his spirit of disobedience and refusal to humbly submit to the teaching authority of the Magisterium is still alive and well among those so-called “traditionalist” Catholics that endlessly try undermine the Church’s correct understanding of “No Salvation Outside the Church”.

The faithful Catholic will always humbly accept the teaching of the Magisteium when she clarifies the teachings of the Church. I rather doubt that St. Francis of Xavier would ever have followed the path of Fr. Feeney when Fr. Feeney obstinately refused obey the call of the pope to come to Rome to defend his views!

Thanks for the posts Matt 16_18, they were very helpful, God bless!

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