In his encyclical on evangelization, Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II remarked that the number of those who do not belong to the Church had nearly doubled since the close of the Second Vatican Council. While this presents a tremendous opportunity for bringing souls to Christ, the Church has been somewhat hamstrung in making wide-scale evangelization a reality. This is because actions follow from beliefs. Since the close of the Council, many people in the Church have come to believe in Universalism; that is the belief that all men will be saved. A traditional motivation for preaching the Gospel has always been that there are men whose salvation is in jeopardy. Once this motivation is taking away the urgency of missionary activity dies with it.
In addressing the falsehood of Universalism, it is important to understand what the Church means (and also doesn’t) mean when she says that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” This affirmation comes from the fact that the Church is by its very nature as His Body linked with Christ Himself. The Council makes this link clear in the unequivocal words that there is “‘one mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim. 2:45), ‘neither is there salvation in any other’(Acts 4:12). Therefore, all must be converted to Him…”(Ad Gentes, 7).
In a world that is drinking from a relativistic fountain, this is often thought to be very intolerant so we need to be clear in what is being said. First, this is not saying that a person necessarily has to be a member of the Church to be saved, only that it is because of the merits of Christ that He deposited in the Church that they will be saved. Second, there is the level of personal knowledge and culpability. Certainly “they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” (CCC 846). This also means that “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. 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” (Lumen Gentium, 16).
It is a verbal sleight of hand associated with this paragraph that has allowed Universalism to creep in. Many have read into the possibility that one might achieve eternal salvation to mean that it is probable or even definite. But the true “spirit” of the Council seems to agree with St. Thomas’ assessment that the majority of non-Christians are lost when she proclaims that:
“…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.” (LG 16, emphasis added).
Returning back to the first part of Paragraph 16, we find that the Council gave four conditions for the non-Christian to possibly be saved. First, there must be no culpability for their ignorance. Second they should be seeking God with a sincere heart. Third, they must be “moved by grace” to live in accordance with God’s will as they know it. Finally, they must receive whatever “good or truth” that is contained in their religion.
When confronted with this, the usual response is a question—“what about the person on some deserted island who never even heard of Christ?” St. Thomas addressed this question of invincible ignorance (i.e. ignorance that could not be overcome) by an appeal to Divine Providence based on the revealed truth that “God wills all men to be saved” (1Tim 2:4). He says that,
“it pertains to divine providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the faith to him as he sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).”
As a necessary tangent, it seems we need to somehow reconcile the fact that St. Paul tells Timothy that “God wills all men to be saved” and yet Scripture also tells us of at least two people who are lost (while the Church has never engaged in negative canonizations declaring a particular person in hell, Scriptures tells us that the false prophet of Rev 20:10 ends up in hell and seems to suggest that Judas is reprobated. Matthew26:24 and John 6:70, 17:2 could hardly be true were he among the blessed.). St. Thomas makes the distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent will to make this understandable. Antecedent will is what He wills for a thing in isolation by considering only the individual parts of His plan (a single person) and not the entire plan (all people). In order to achieve the good, there must also be consideration of the circumstances. This is the consequent will. To make this clear, St. Thomas gives the example of a just judge who antecedently wills all men to live but consequently wills the murderer to be executed. The judge not only evaluates the murderer as an individual absolutely but looks to the good of the whole of which all share. So then, in His antecedent will, God wills to save all men, but in his consequent will He wills to save only some while permitting others to be damned.
The interlocutor seems to be asking about the deserted man’s salvation, but we should not despair of his salvation, but our own for not preaching the Gospel to him. This is because all too often we do not believe that the Gospel is really Good News. Those who hear it and conform their lives to it are better off not just in the next world, but even now. Eternal life doesn’t begin at death, but now. Christ is the answer to man’s deepest longings and aspirations and true disciples know that a life without Christ is a life that is incomplete. So it is a supreme act of charity and a sacred duty to go out and meet the desires of all men with the liberating truth of the Gospel in its fullness. By depriving others of the truth of Christ’s enduring presence in the Church, we are depriving them of the graces (through Baptism and Confession) that are necessary for salvation. Men are not damned for Original Sin, but for those sins by which they are culpable. There is only one place where those sins can infallibly forgiven and eternal life given and restored—the Church. To the extent that we believe this, we will be missionaries. In this way we can see that in the Church’s history missionary drive has always been a sign of the vitality of the faith of the members of the Church.