When getting into conversations about salvation, especially with non-Christians, it’s typically difficult to navigate all the nuances that come with such a weighty subject. We fear that we may say the wrong thing, or somehow offend them, incurring outright rejection. It takes a great deal of prudence for a Catholic Christian to talk to a non-Christian, or even a non-Catholic Christian, about this subject. And when you happen to put a well-known Catholic and a political commentator in front of a wide audience, that propensity for misunderstanding comes to a head.
This is exactly what happened not too long ago in Ben Shapiro’s interview with Bishop Robert Barron. Many have accused Bishop Barron of garbling the Christian understanding of salvation. We all know that the bishop is a wonderful evangelist, so is the criticism he is receiving fair?
Perhaps even more importantly, we would be remiss if we didn’t allow this controversy to serve as an invitation to discussion among Catholics on the topic of salvation. We should all take a step back and ask ourselves the following: Are we promoting the Catholic Church as the fullness of the faith and as the one Church established by Christ Jesus? Furthermore, do we have a sense of urgency when evangelizing, truly acknowledging that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846)?
The Question and the Answer
For those unaware, Shapiro is an orthodox Jew, while Bishop Barron is one of the leading evangelists for the Church in America. Both are particularly dynamic speakers, and both have an ardent love of God, making the interview a must-watch for their respective target bases. Early on, Shapiro, mentioning that he had promised the bishop some “awkward questions,” asked, “I get this question a lot, which is, ‘As a Jew, how does it feel that there’s other religions that don’t think you’re getting into heaven?’… So what’s the Catholic view of me? Am I basically screwed here?”
Bishop Barron responded:
No. The Catholic view — go back to the Second Vatican Council — says it very clearly. Christ is the privileged route to salvation, that God so loved the world He gave his only son that we might find eternal life ….
However, Vatican II clearly teaches that someone outside the explicit Christian faith can be saved. Now they are saved through the grace of Christ indirectly received, so the grace is coming from Christ, but it might be received according to your conscience. So, if you’re following your conscience sincerely, or in your case, you’re following the commandments of the law sincerely, yeah you can be saved.
The Controversy and the Defense
In response to this, social media blew up. Many Protestant groups wrote rebuttals to Bp. Barron’s comments, accusing him of trusting in “the traditions of men.” Bishop Barron had the courage to address some of the comments on his Facebook page. He replied to the actual video: “I don’t say [Shapiro] will be saved or easily saved. I say, with Vatican II and John Paul II, that he can be saved.” One Catholic had an honest response for the Bishop:
I am a huge supporter of you …. But there are many ways to make that point and in my opinion you presented a sort of lax and apathetic attitude for one’s duty to seek, find and live in Christ. You were technically right, but I think far away from the spirit of the Saints and fervor of the Church’s belief in the necessity of Christ and the Church.
Bishop Barron rightfully noted that he couldn’t “hit every nuance in a two minute answer to a question.” He referred those with questions to check out three documents (in particular, the Catechism, Lumen Gentium 16, and Redemptoris Missio 10), and summed up:
The clear teaching is that someone who, through no fault of his own, is following the natural law according to the dictates of his conscience can be saved. I’m not saying he will be saved or that it will be easy for him to be saved — simply that it’s possible.
How Do We Respond?
Now, we can’t judge Bishop Barron on a question asked point-blank, possibly without preparation, knowing that he was going to be watched by hundreds of thousands. We don’t know if he was prepped with questions before the interview or not. There are so many different factors that play into making a prudent response, and we should all be cognizant of that as we can all sit back in our chairs and watch the interview from afar, having the time to craft a response in a much more articulate and nuanced manner.
But his summary prompts the question: What does it mean to have “no fault”? How narrow or broad is that? It’s best to say that only God can judge the culpability of each person. This is why we entrust non-Catholics, particularly non-Christians, to the mercy of God. We don’t know if such people are invincibly ignorant or not. But even if they are invincibly ignorant, this does not remove the important responsibility we have to preach the Gospel to all nations. So often, that starts right at home with our neighbors.
So the key to take away from all this discussion should not be on how Bishop Barron responded. Rather it should cause us to reflect on how we respond. Do we make the necessity of the Catholic Church something to be brushed off, effectively embracing the “God on the mountaintop” theory? Are we able to proclaim with St. Peter that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12)?
“All Salvation Comes Through the Church”
Theologians from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas and beyond have noted that a person who is not culpable of his ignorance may be saved outside the formal confines of the Church. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, all salvation comes through the Church, which is Christ’s Body. “Christ and his Church together make up the ‘whole Christ’. The Church is one with Christ” (CCC 795). As much as people want to have Jesus without the Church, we cannot overlook this simple fact: the Church is necessary for salvation.
Of course, we acknowledge that this grace might be operative outside the Church; but are the chances of this grace being accepted particularly high? Ultimately, only God knows. This is why we put our trust in him and do not judge the souls of anyone, living or dead. But taking our Lord’s words at face value, as the Church Fathers and past ecumenical councils have seen it from the Council of Florence to the Second Vatican Council, it may be the case that the probability is not high.
Crossing the Marsh by Yourself
There is the example of trying to cross through a foggy marsh or forest. You can’t see very well, and there are many traps that you cannot see on your own — pitfalls, wild beasts, not to mention starvation if you keep wandering aimlessly.
But say someone gives you a compass and tells you that they know the way out. They’ve come to lead you out of the forest. They also warn that there are other people traveling in the forest that are confused about the proper way to get out, or even have their own motives for keeping you in the forest, leading to your destruction. Do you follow them or reject them?
If you reject the help of this guide, thinking that you might make it on your own based on what you already know, it’s possible that you might. But realistically, probably not. This is what needs to be explored when dealing with the salvation issue. We can’t keep someone in the dark, not proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel and the necessity of Christ, in the hopes that they might make it to Paradise if they stay on the road they are on now.
Ralph Martin and Lumen Gentium 16
This is the direction the conversation among Catholics needs to go. Bishop Barron and Dr. Ralph Martin of Renewal Ministries were already having this discussion a few years back following the release of the latter’s book Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. In the book, Dr. Martin looks at what the Council taught regarding salvation, paying close attention to the final section of Lumen Gentium 16. It’s the last part of the paragraph that Dr. Martin draws our attention to, often overlooked:
But 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. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
Dr. Martin concludes the following from a full reading of LG 16:
Just because salvation is possible for people who are inculpably ignorant of the gospel or have not heard a presentation that is adequate, does not mean they are thereby saved. It is essential that the initial, mysterious “yes” that is said to God be followed by perseverance in that “yes” to the end. Inculpable ignorance of the gospel is a condition of, not a cause of, salvation. (Op. cit., 53)
While analyzing Hans Urs von Balthasar’s thought on the subject, Dr. Martin states:
While we cannot judge the state of anyone’s soul and what transpires at the moment of death, it certainly appears — from the view of human resistance to grace, and subsequent judgment, contained in the Scriptures and from empirical observation — that many people persevere to the end in their rejection of God and/or in a life of immorality. (Ibid., 155)
This is why it is urgent that we proclaim the Gospel to all peoples, in order that the truth may set them free. It is also imperative that we make it clear that the fullness of that truth is found in the Catholic Church. There are of course times where we must use prudence in what we say; but at the end of the day, we must be careful not to hold back the fullness of Truth from those we encounter.
It matters that people come to a knowledge of Christ and it matters that we become baptized. We cannot allow the exception to the rule to become the rule. For all we know, it may be our bold witness that leads one of our acquaintances or loved ones to our true homeland in Heaven. However, we must also exude the gentleness that Bishop Barron showed for Shapiro in this interview.
Sometimes how we say things is just as important as what we’re saying. But that’s how it so often is with the truths of Catholicism: it’s both/and instead of either/or. We need both kindness and truth when proclaiming the saving Gospel of Christ Jesus.