Because of variations in summer scheduling, I have not had an opportunity before now of commenting on the recent document issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI.
The document regarding salvation outside the church is entitled “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”
What is required first of all, however, is a clear statement of what the latest CDF document is not.
1. The document does not contain a wholly new set of teachings.
2. The document does not represent a reversion to the position once espoused by the late Father Leonard Feeney, SJ, that only Catholics can be saved.
3. The document is not a repudiation of the ecumenical advances made by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council.
First, the CDF document is not a new doctrinal initiative. It is essentially a restatement of the much-criticized document, Dominus Iesus issued by the CDF in September 2000, when the present pope (then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) was in charge of the congregation.
The document merits the same criticism that greeted Dominus Iesus seven years ago, with some objecting to its tone as well as its failure to acknowledge and incorporate the extraordinary ecumenical advances of the previous three-and-a-half decades following Vatican II.
As in the present case, some of the initial reactions to Dominus Iesus were based on a misunderstanding of its central teaching. For example, one otherwise insightful Catholic writer, in an op-ed column in a major newspaper on the East Coast, charged that the document “bars (all non-Catholics) from the gates of heaven, despite their most sincere intentions and good lives.”
Dominus Iesus did not say, nor even imply, that, and neither does this latest document from the CDF.
Second, the Catholic Church explicitly repudiated the position adopted by Father Feeney in the 1940s, namely that the medieval axiom, “Outside the Cchurch, no salvation” means literally what it says.
The Holy Office (the forerunner of the CDF) insisted that the medieval axiom has to be understood as the church understands it. It made a crucial distinction between belonging to the church “in reality” and belonging to the church “by desire.” Catholics belong to the church by faith, baptism and full communion with the pope. Non-Catholics of good will belong to the church “by desire,” which may be explicit, as in the case of catechumens preparing for formal membership in the church, or implicit, as in the case of the great majority of humankind.
Since 1949, however, Vatican II introduced an even stronger theological concept, namely “degrees of communion.” As in a family (whether nuclear or extended), individuals relate to one another in various ways and in varying degrees. Cousins are not so close to the core family as daughters and sons, but they belong to the family nonetheless.
Third, and finally, this latest CDF document is not a repudiation of the ecumenical teachings of Vatican II. On the contrary, it upholds the council’s clear teaching that non-Catholic Christians also are in the Body of Christ and in communion with the Catholic Church, although in “varying degrees,” and as such “have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted (by the Catholic Church) as sisters and brothers in the Lord” (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 3).
That teaching remains in force today.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.