Thursday, November 02, 2006

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus: Florence vs. Vatican II.


Dear Mr. Carrasquillo,

My name is Ashton. I am a former Protestant who is currently in the RCIA program to become a Roman Catholic. I found your blog on traditional Roman Catholic theology and I accepted your invitation to send you an e-mail. I am soon going to read the books you recommend. I've read Ott and Garrigou-Lagrange on predestination; as a Calvinist Protestant I studied the modern Molinist/Thomist debate (Flint, Freddoso, Plantinga, Craig, Dekker, etc.) with some enthusiasm and definitely incline strongly to the Thomistic theology of grace. Your list of suggested reading is certainly very helpful and I want to thank you for that.

You seem to understand theology quite well, and so I'd like you to point me in the right direction. One of the big things which held me back for so long from becoming Catholic was the apparent contradiction between Vatican II and the Council of Florence regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the church. Do you have any insights reconciling the apparent contradiction? It is difficult for me honestly to interpret Vatican II in light of the earlier teachings on this matter. I've found Francis Sullivan's treatment of the issue to be unconvincing (to put it mildly). Any thoughts?

-Hello, Ashton. Thanks for your question. Two distinctions are in order:

I. First distinction: De fide teachigns vs. teachings that are proximae fidei (see Ott, introduction).

A) De fide teachings (teachings that pertain to the faith) are those things which are to be "believed" with the supernatural virtue of faith because they have been revealed by God. If one denies one of these de fide teachings, one is no longer Catholic, but commits heresy.

For example, it is a dogma (de fide) defined by the Council of Florence that, since God created an inherently good world, there is no evil nature in itself, but rather all being is good insofar as it is.

B) Sententiae theologice certae (doctrines that are theologically certain) are those things which have not been directly revealed, but which are necessarily and logically connected with revelation. If one denies one of these sententiae theologice certae, one is in error, but not technically a heretic; one remains within the Church.

For example, from the doctrine that God created a good world, it logically follows that evil is a privation of being, and not a positive entity. It would be false to say the contrary, but it would not be a heresy.

II. Second distinction: infallible/binding vs. non-infallible/non-binding teachings.

a) Infallible/binding teachings: When the Church uses her authority to bind the faithful to believe or hold something She is infallible. The Holy Ghost protects her from erring in those matters of faith and morals that she intends to teach as binding. We know, then, that the Holy Ghost made sure that teaching contains no error.

B) Non-infallible, non-binding teachings: We are required to hold some, but not all, of those things that are taught in the Church via Ecumenical Councils, encyclicals, papal bulls, etc. Often the Church just says things without making them binding on all the faithful. In fact, sometimes this occurs within the context of papal documents and even councils. For example, Pius IX, when he wrote in his bull on the Immaculate Conception that Our Lady is the "woman" in Genesis 3:15 who will crush the head of the serpent, he did not intend to make that statement binding. (It is obviously true, but we are not bound to believe it). The only statement or teaching that is absolutely binding in that bull is the one that expresses the dogma of the Immaculate Conception--that our Lady was free from all sin, including original sin, from the very first moment of her conception/creation. The rest of the contents of the bull are non-binding and non-infallible. They are true, but not binding or infallible.

The same is the case with most (if not all) of Vatican II. Unlike most councils, Vatican II explicitly said that it was not the wish of the Council Fathers to make any of its teachings binding. Rather, merely intended to express the same traditional doctrine of the Church in terms that "speak to modern man." So Vatican II, in general, is not infallible. What's in it is true (at least one assumes so, because we should give even non-infallible teachings the benefit of the doubt), but the Holy Ghost is not necessarily protecting the Vatican II Fathers from erring.

III. Thesis 1: It is obviously NOT the case that Vatican II's teaching on extra ecclesiam nulla salus is, strictly-speaking, heretical. This is where the two distinctions come together. Not only can never be in the Church an infallible, binding statement that directly contradicts another infallible, binding statement; but even non-infallible, non-binding statements (such as those in Vatincan II) will never be so rash as to deny directly a previous, infallible, binding teaching. What MAY happen is that a non-infallible, non-binding statement (such as Vatican II) is opposed to some of the sententiae theologicae certae, that is, to some of the logical consequences of previous dogma, if the pope or council is re-interpreting the old dogma and is, therefore, missing some of its logical consequences.

Florence teaches infallibly and in a binding way that: there is no salvation outside the Church.

Vatican II teaches, in essence, that: non-Catholics can be saved.

Vatican II is not directly denying the doctrine of Florence that there is no salvation outside the Church. It is denying, or at least SEEMS to be denying, one of its logical consequences, namely that: non-Catholics cannot be saved.

So if Vatican II is in error (which is possible, the charism of infallibility being absent), then what it would be denying is a sententia proxima fidei, not a de fide teaching. So Vatican II would not be "heretical," but only toying with theological error. But this is just a possibility--I don't think it is actually the case.

IV. Thesis 2: Vatican II's teaching on extra ecclesiam nulla salus MAY be interpreted as being compatible with that of the Council of Florence. The whole question ultimately depends on the interpretation of Vatican II's doctrine on extra ecclesiam nulla salus. The proper way to interpret it is by looking the Council in light of previous teaching.

Theologians have always taught that although non-Catholics cannot be saved while they remain non-Catholics, they can, nevertheless, be saved if they join the Church right before the moment of their death, through an extraordinary act of perfect contrition and/or baptism of desire. In that case, they would become Catholic, and hence could be saved. So, while it is still true that it is absolutely impossible for a non-Catholic to be saved, we can still hope that non-Catholics be saved by becoming Catholic. So, when Vatican II says that non-Catholics can be saved, I take that to mean that they can those who are currently non-Catholics can be saved (if they convert), not that those who die as non-Catholics can be saved (that would be impossible).

V. Conclusion:

I am not saying that Vatican II expresses the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus in the clearest way, or even that it is well expressed at all. Rather, I simply want to say that, if someone should accuse the Council of heresy, in reply one could show that:

Thesis 1: It is obviously not heretical in the strictest sense of directly denying a de fide teaching.

Thesis 2: There is enough grounds to interpret it as not even being theologically erroneous.

You said you read French. One of the French books you can read on the true doctrine of no salvation outside the Church is Édouard Hugon, O.P., Hors de l'Église, point de salut.

I hope this helps.

In Domino,
-Francisco Romero.
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