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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Are All Who Know About Jesus Saved?

QUESTION:

Today I was in a discussion with a Polish Catholic. She told me that the Catholic Church teaches that someone who is not Catholic (or from any other branch of Christianity) but has heard about Jesus, can go to heaven just because of their good works. As a Protestant, it was a really interesting point. I have talked about the difference with Catholics— about being saved by faith or saved by faith plus works. I am aware of the origin of the Catholic idea and to some extent I would support it, based on the epistle of James. However, what this person said was really weird to me. As a Protestant, we may leave the door open for people who have never heard about Jesus and have the law in their hearts. Those may be saved by living in accordance to the law (i.e. deeds). But we would never apply this to people who have heard about Jesus. Can someone explain this idea and tell me if this is in the Catholic catechism?  Thanks a lot!

RESPONSE:

First, while there is a universal call to salvation we would reject any kind of universalism that presumes that everyone is necessarily saved.  As much as we might want it otherwise, there is ample Scriptural evidence that hell is real.  Indeed, such makes room for the misuse of human freedom and for the imposition of divine justice.  Second, salvation is a gift that apart from Christ we could not earn or merit.  No one deserves heaven.  Third, while St. Augustine will speak of a predestination to glory, it is difficult in this world to know as to which city we belong.  The many names of the elect are only known by almighty God.    

This is the basic soteriological question:  “Can someone who is not a Catholic and/or a Christian be saved?”  Similar to the notion you mention as a Protestant of “leaving a door open” for good people who do not know the Lord, we would refrain as Catholics from saying in a particular fashion who might be damned.  While the Lord is a just judge, he is also infinitely merciful.  Knowing our place, we would refrain from telling God his business.  God saves whomever he wills to save.  The catechism stipulates, going back to ancient days before there were any Protestant churches and the East and West were still one that ‘there is no salvation outside the Church.”  This is connected to the teaching that there is no other way to the Father except through Jesus Christ. The Church is defined as the mystical body of Christ.  We read in Colossians 1:18:  “He is the head of the body, the church.”  (Note also that when the apostle Paul encounters the Lord and is struck blind, he becomes aware that to persecute the Church is to attack Christ.)  Thus, Catholics will refer both to Christ and the Church as “the way.”  Pope Benedict XVI clarified that there is one covenant between the Jews and Christians and that it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  Any who would find themselves in heaven will have to thank Christ as our one Mediator and Lord.  Many non-Christian critics do not like this view, but it is a root dogma for all true Christianity.  Either the redemptive passion and Cross of Jesus is essential or it is meaningless and our Lord is a fraud. 

While the saving work of Christ is imperative, we must be disposed to the graces of God.  The more one knows the more one will be held accountable.  If a person knows that Jesus is Lord and that he directly instituted the Catholic Church as the great sacrament of his mercy and reconciliation then he or she must enter the Church to be saved.  Indeed, when we celebrate the Eucharist, congregants are asked to spiritually join themselves to Christ so that we might offer ourselves to the Father as one acceptable sacrifice.  This is the core of our worship.  Our participation at Calvary is not entirely passive. How God will judge ignorance is not for us to know.  We cannot read individual souls.  Does faith and baptismal create at least a tenuous attachment to the Church?  Would the Lord reject any who love him even though they should be bias or unaware about the nature of the Church?  Certainly the Catholic Church intercedes in her worship and prayer for those who are formally outside her ranks— might this have value?  What does it mean to know Jesus?  I suspect that some reduce this to merely be aware of his name and yet he is so much more.

A woman came to me years ago to take classes for baptism and entry into the Church because she wanted to share the faith of her husband.  It was during the process of that formation that she came to know Jesus both as her “personal” and as “our communal” Savior.  At the beginning, when I asked her about Jesus, all she knew was that “he was a nice man.”  She had yet to appreciate that he was the Word made flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity and God come among us.  A “nice man” did not cut it— not enough.  She had yet to really know the full truth about Jesus.

I should add something about saving faith as well.  Not only in James but in the Gospels themselves it is made clear that faith is more than words or even a mental dedication.  Faith must be realized by an attitude of loving obedience.  That is why our Lord becomes angry that religious leaders have neglected the spirit of the law.  He emphasizes this spirit by speaking of the twofold commandment of love, first to God and then as a love that cannot be contained and overflows upon neighbor.  John will also speak about this saying that if we say we love God but hate our brother then we are a liar. Faith is defined as both knowing the Lord and loving him.  This love is affirmed, not through empty works, but through works of charity.  There is a big difference.  What the Lord does always has value.  We invite the Lord in love to live and work through us.  Jesus warns his listeners.  Read Matthew 7: 21-23:  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’”

Catholics believe that while faith might only be apparent and false, it can also start off as authentic and later sour.  This is why the apostle Paul speaks so about staying the course or running the race to receive the crown.  We must remain steadfast in faith. The witness of Judas and Peter is always before us.  Both were called to be apostles and both betrayed the Lord.  Judas despairs and dies.  Peter repents and tells the resurrected Jesus three times on the beach, “I love you.”  He is healed and restored to his visible headship.  There are three things that last.  We abide in the HOPE of our salvation in this world.  We are to encounter and claim Christ by FAITH in our pilgrimage to the gates of the heavenly kingdom.  However, hope will be realized and faith will be replaced by an intimate knowing when we see God in the beatific vision.  It is only LOVE that enters with us into heaven and it is in this divine LOVE that we will abide with the saints and the Lord forever.  Peace!

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