“Our Father, Who Art in Heaven”

Vatican II and the Catholicity of Salvation: A Response to Ralph Martin

Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

"Far from diminishing the urgency of the Church's missionary task, a hope for the salvation of all is an invitation to be grasped, wholly and without reserve, by the urgency of the Gospel."*

In January of 1941, Henri de Lubac delivered two lectures on the theme of “The Theological Foundations of the Missions.”1 These lectures are noteworthy for several reasons. First, it is helpful to recall the setting: early 1941 was a dark and difficult time for the Catholic faithful in France. Their country had fallen to Nazi Germany, and the seductive poison of Nazi ideology was making inroads in the Church. More than a few members of the Church were ready to collaborate with the Vichy regime. Together with several confreres, de Lubac embarked on a program of aiding the resistance movement by providing “spiritual resistance” to anti-Semitism.2 Accordingly, he used the occasion of a lecture on the theological foundations of the missions to remind the faithful of the essential unity of mankind and of Christianity’s abiding indebtedness to Israel, the root from which the Church springs.

When [Christ] speaks as the Son of God, he speaks at the same time as the son of Israel. He confides to his disciples the mission he received from his Father and that which he inherited from his people. Since he is the son of missionary Israel, the Church that he founds to continue Israel can only be missionary.3

The second reason it is worth rereading these lectures by de Lubac is that they anticipate and illuminate the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the catholicity or universality of salvation. One of the basic questions that de Lubac explores is the relation between the Church’s missionary mandate and the possibility of salvation for those who have not encountered the Gospel. He writes,

Two responses present themselves, two responses that apparently clash, between which it seems that one might have to choose. Are the missions necessary in order to make salvation possible for the pagan, or merely to make it less difficult for him? Is it essentially a question of wrenching him from hell or of providing him with more numerous and more powerful means of grace?4

De Lubac labels these two answers a more “rigorist” solution and a more “laxist” solution. In his view, both solutions raise inextricable difficulties. “On the one hand, it is not legitimate to found zeal on false reasons. Now it is false to say that, without a missionary, the ‘pagan’ would be irrevocably given up to hell.”5 Here de Lubac anticipates the teaching of Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes on the possibility of salvation for those who, through no fault of their own, have not encountered the Gospel.

On the other hand, the idea that the missions simply make it easier for the pagan to be saved “makes the inverse mistake of implying . . . that Christianity might not be absolutely necessary: as if Christianity did not always bring to everyone something which the world cannot do without.”7 Lumen gentium, 14 expresses the same teaching: “the Church is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church.”


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