Sunday, June 1, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Salvation outside the Church?

It has often been said (by detractors of various stripes) that Vatican II deviated from the historic Catholic Faith by saying that it is possible for a man to be saved who is not a Catholic - nor even baptized.
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (LG 16).
This, it is supposed, is a theological novelty. Well, no. In the first place Romans 2 suggests it. In the second place, there is at least a hint of it in St. Justin Martyr's First Apology (chapter 46; cf. some discussion of it in the Catholic Encyclopedia article here, in the section on his Doctrine). And in the third place, there is an acknowledgment of the possibility in St. Thomas.

Let it be said first off that it's not my purpose to present a defense of what the Church teaches on this subject. I'll leave that for folks who are better equipped for it. It is sufficient in my book that the Church does teach it, and that it is by no means either contrary to the Bible (cf. Romans 2), nor contrary to the teaching of the Church through the ages. My purpose in this post is to highlight something said by St. Thomas.

First of all, we have to be clear that for St. Thomas (and for all Catholics) the rule is this: "The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude" (CCC 1257). But this cannot be understood in such a way as to admit of no exceptions: the Church has always affirmed the baptisms of desire and blood. But there may be other exceptions as well, as St. Thomas acknowledges:
If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him, and according to the revelation of the Spirit to those who knew the truth, as stated in Job 35:11: "Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth" (ST II-II Q2 A7 ad 3).
Yes, it's possible for a man to be saved apart from Baptism. "[I]n ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him" (CCC 847, quoting AG 7: "God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him"). It seems to me to be quite unfair to turn this acknowledgment into some sort of so-called move towards universalism. It's not. It is simpy a recognition that God is not bound by the sacraments: he may save some in ways that he alone knows. We do know, however, that even such folks as these are saved by Christ, and by the application of his atonement to them in ways that we do not know. The fact that there may be exceptions does not invalidate the rule.

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