Do you ever worry about yourself? Like the time the timer on the microwave went off, and you opened it and realized that the food was sitting on the counter, and you were microwaving nothing? Like the time your 10-year-old was running so late for dance class, and you frantically ran around the house searching for her lost tap shoe, found it, jumped into the car and got halfway to dance class before realizing that you’d left your child at home? Like the time you finally forced yourself to get to the gym so you could start using the membership you paid good money for last January, only to find out that it was a six-month trial membership and had expired already? Times when you began to suspect that there must be a screw loose somewhere?
I had that kind of moment the other day when I realized that four different readers have recently asked me a variation on the same question, and yet there I was sitting in front of the computer drumming my fingers, staring off into space, waiting for inspiration to strike. What should I blog about?
It was a Major Duh Event.
The basic question was: do Catholics think that Protestants can be saved? And the basic answer to that is: honey, Catholics don’t think that Protestants can be saved – we KNOW they can be saved.
It’s pretty straightforward. The Church teaches that anyone who is baptized according to the Trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) is baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27) and is thus a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). That is why when I, a lifelong Protestant, asked to be reconciled to the Church, no one suggested that I needed to be “re-baptized” or any such nonsense – for there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph 4:4-5). The Catholic perspective on non-Catholic Christians is expressed in Chapter Two (On the People of God) of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium:
The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Savior. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.
Hang on a second! Doesn’t the Catholic Church teach that “outside the Church there is no salvation”??? St. Francis de Sales, way back when the original versions of Protestant doctrine were fresh out of the oven, wrote:
We should deserve to be wrecked if we were to cast ourselves out of the ship of the public judgment of the Church, to sail in the miserable skiff of these new discordant private inspirations. Our faith would not be Catholic, but private.
Protestants are heretics! Unless they recant, they can’t be saved! Right?
Let’s break that down. First of all, it is correct that outside the Church there is no salvation, but what did we just say? The Church teaches that anyone who is baptized according to the Trinitarian formula (“in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) is baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27) and is thus a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13). The Church is the body of Christ. Protestants, as Lumen Gentium puts it, “being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter.”
But aren’t Protestants heretics? Fathers Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, in their “Radio Replies,” clarified this:
It would be better to say that the Catholic Church regards all forms of Protestantism as heretical. If you say, “But those who profess heretical forms of religion are heretics,” the Church replies that only those who know their Protestantism to be wrong are guilty of heresy if they continue to adhere to it. Those who know no better, and are quite in good faith are not guilty of the sin of heresy.
I suppose I was probably a pretty average Protestant back in the day. I certainly had no idea that my Protestantism was wrong – I thought my beliefs were those of the first-century Christians. I could show you from the Bible that all of my beliefs were correct! And I knew that Catholicism was a man-made religious system – after all, Catholics worship Mary and believe they can work their way to Heaven, whereas the Bible says that we are saved by grace through faith! All my fellow believers held views similar to mine. No, we did not know that our Protestantism was wrong. In fact, when I found out the truth about Catholicism, it was exceedingly difficult for me to accept the fact that I had been born into a heretical sect. I had spent 45 years of my life thinking that I was right, only to finally have to admit that I had been wrong.
Which Protestants would it be, then, who “know their Protestantism to be wrong”? Aside from the original Reformers and their cohorts (the folks St. Francis de Sales was talking about), the most obvious example would be former Catholics, well educated in the Faith, who left the Church because they wanted to contracept or remarry without an annulment. In the Protestant denomination of their choice, they are able to hold their heads high as they sing the praises of the Almighty with all the other remarried, contracepting couples, telling themselves that the doctrines of that Protestant assembly are just as conducive to salvation as the inconvenient Catholic doctrines they left behind. These people know what they are rejecting, and reject it because when push comes to shove, their selfish desires win out over their love for the Truth.
The question is – do you know many people like that?
I think most Catholics who have left the Church were poorly catechized. They didn’t reject Church teaching – they were never exposed to Church teaching! Frank Beckwith, a well-known revert to Catholicism, tells the story of his Catholic education:
My religion teachers often spoke of Catholicism as “our tradition” rather than as a cluster of beliefs that were true. This relativizing of the faith did not engender confidence in the young students under their tutelage. Moreover, basic Catholic doctrine was often presented inadequately. One day, for example, when discussing the issues of sin and salvation, one teacher told us that when you die and meet God, He weighs your sins and good deeds on a scale, and if the latter outweighs the former, one avoids eternal damnation. And because one did not behave perfectly, one had to spend time in purgatory, a place that is like Hell insofar as it is not pleasant. But it is also unlike Hell because it ends. That same teacher used the following illustration to explain the difference between these two posthumous fates: in Hell, there is a clock on the wall, and it never stops, but in purgatory, there is also a clock on the wall and it does stop. None of this, of course, is Catholic theology. It was as if this teacher had learned about Catholic theology from Protestant fundamentalist evangelistic tracts rather than from the works of her own theologians.
Dr. Beckwith asks the pertinent question, “…with a watered-down and intellectually vapid presentation of the Gospel, …is it any wonder that many of us made a mad dash to where we saw Christ lifted up in Evangelical Protestantism?”
I would say, no wonder at all.
The point is, if a person has been exposed to authentic Catholic teaching, understands it, and then rejects it for selfish or rebellious reasons, then yes, he or she is guilty of heresy when preferring Protestant error to Catholic truth. As for the average, run-of-the-mill Protestant who has no clue what the Catholic Church really teaches, he or she does not understand that Protestant doctrine is erroneous, and therefore is not culpably Protestant. He or she can certainly be saved.
But it will be difficult….
That shouldn’t be surprising. Jesus said that the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it, so we already know that salvation isn’t something that just happens to you while you’re busy doing other things. Catholics believe that being saved is difficult for Catholics as well as for Protestants. That’s why God gives Catholics so much help.
We have the sacraments. The sacraments are conduits of God’s grace, grace that we Christians desperately need if we are to avoid mortal sin. Anyone who hopes to die in God’s friendship needs to remain as close to Him as they can, and the sacraments make this possible. This helps to explain Jesus’ adamant insistence on the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood in John 6:
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.
He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”
“And that disproves the Catholic argument!” Protestants sometimes argue. If John 6 is to be understood literally, then what Jesus is saying it that Catholics, who believe that they receive His very Body and Blood in Holy Communion, have eternal life, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. Protestants do not receive the actual Body and Blood in Holy Communion and therefore, according to this argument, have no life in them, ergo, Protestants cannot be saved! Yet, performing a quick reality check, we spy clueless, lethargic, Communion-receiving Catholics and fervent, God-fearing, Bible-reading Protestants. Therefore, what Pope Pius XII called “those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church” really don’t amount to anything at all. The Catholic argument is self-refuting, or so goes the Protestant counter-argument.
Not so fast….
The answer is found in the Gospel according to John, for not only did Jesus say:
“…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.” Jn 6:53
He also said:
“…unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Jn 3:3
Remember what we said about baptism – anyone who is baptized into Christ is thus a member of the body of Christ. Does that person have new life? You better believe it! But have you ever heard of peripheral vascular disease? Imagine a part of your body suddenly losing full access to your circulatory system. Do you feel that that wouldn’t be a problem?
A very kind reader shared his “aha!” moment with me, which came when he was reading John 1:4:
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.
The footnote to this verse in the “Ignatius Catholic Study Bible” offers this comment:
Earthly life is a gift that is given and sustained by God through his eternal Word (Heb 1:3). Ultimately, natural and biological life points beyond itself to the supernatural and divine life that Jesus grants in abundance to the children of God (10:10; 2 Pt 1:4; CCC 1997). This new life comes to us when we give ourselves to Christ in faith (3:16; 20:31), and Christ gives himself to us through the sacramental action of the Church (3:5, 6:53).
Protestants and Catholics alike receive new life when they give themselves to Jesus, i.e,. when they are born again in baptism. Jesus warned us, however, to avail ourselves of the sacrament of Holy Communion that He might give Himself to us.
Remember, Protestants are not entirely cut off from the life Christ continues to pour out upon us. The Church believes that Jesus is spiritually present wherever two or three gather in His Name, meaning, He is present at Protestant worship services. No, they do not receive the graces that we receive in Holy Communion – certainly not. BUT, they DO receive grace in spiritual communion. The difference between the graces available to Protestants through the sacrament of baptism, plus the grace of spiritual communion, plus immersion in the Scriptures versus the graces available to Catholics through the sacraments of baptism, Reconciliation, Holy Communion, and lectio divina is often explained as being comparable to working out with a set of dumbbells versus working out in a fully equipped gym – it is truly awe-inspiring what some Protestants achieve with their dumbbells! Sadly, many Protestants do more with the grace they have access to than Catholics do with the graces from the reception of the Eucharist! This in no way disproves the Catholic notion that John 6 is to be taken literally, however, because remember – no one is forced to accept or act on the grace that Jesus pours out. St. Paul emphasized that fact:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Cor 15:10
We must cooperate with grace. God pours it out lavishly upon Catholics, but we can spurn it. Christians are free to choose to hide their light under a bushel and bury their talents in the ground. Catholics have a special incentive to avoid doing that – we are the slaves who received 5 talents in the parable of Matthew 25 – we are the ones to whom more has been given, the ones from whom more will be required. A dire judgment awaits so many of us because we have received so much, and yet our response is tepid. Let’s not forget that the Church teaches that not only Protestants but also Catholics CAN be saved….
Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Mt 25:30
It may be time to start worrying….
Let me put this bluntly: Get off your tush. Your gym membership is going to expire, and you will be held accountable for the use you’ve made of it. Did you, as a faithful Catholic with full access to the sacraments, avail yourself of those sacraments? And, having availed yourself, did you “work harder than any of them (though not you, but the grace of God that was with you)”? Or has God’s grace towards you been in vain? When you stand in line for your judgment, will there be buff-looking Protestants ahead of you? Will you be the 97-pound Catholic weakling? And what excuse do you propose to give? You had free access to all the fitness equipment you could ever need, and you failed to use it….
You started strong, O Catholic. Finish strong….
On the memorial of St. Phaolô Buòng Viêt Tông
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Cardio Room at Cole Harbour Place developed in 1999/Wikimedia Commons