Spring 2015

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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* This paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, 26–28 September 2014 in Pittsburgh, PA. A shorter version of the paper will appear in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly.

1. Henri de Lubac, “The Theological Foundations of the Missions,” in Theology in History, trans. Anne Englund Nash (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).

2. Cf. Henri de Lubac, Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940–1944, trans. Elizabeth Englund (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990); see also de Lubac, “Letter to My Superiors,” in Theology in History, 428–39; Jacques Prévotat, “Henri de Lubac et la conscience chrétienne face aux totalitarismes,” in Henri de Lubac et le mystère de l’Église (Paris: Cerf, 1999), 183–208.

3. De Lubac, Theology in History, 379.

4. Ibid., 382.

5. Ibid., 383.

6. Cf. Lumen gentium, 16; Gaudium et spes, 22; Ad gentes, 7. In his encyclical letter Redemptoris missio, 9–10, John Paul II summarizes Catholic doctrine on the possibility of salvation for nonbelievers. He writes:

[T]he Church believes that God has established Christ as the one mediator and that she herself has been established as the universal sacrament of salvation. . . . It is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for salvation. Both these truths help us to understand the one mystery of salvation, so that we can come to know God’s mercy and our own responsibility. Salvation, which always remains a gift of the Holy Spirit, requires man’s cooperation, both to save himself and to save others. . . . The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation. For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this Paschal Mystery in a manner known to God.” (Gaudium et spes, 22)

7. De Lubac, Theology in History, 383.