Will Many Be Saved?
, by Ralph Martin. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2012). 332 pp., $24.00.
Ralph Martin has clarified a very important teaching of the Second Vatican Council in his new book “Will Many Be Saved?” Subtitled “What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization,” (the last 100 pages consist of notes, bibliography and index) should be on the reading list of every deacon, priest and bishop. The first five pages of endorsements from some of the more recognizable clergy attest to this fact.
Martin begins by stating that “there seems to be in the minds of many Catholics, and other Christians as well, a lack of conviction that being a Christian is really necessary in order to be saved.” He adds, “The Church definitely teaches that it is possible for non-Christians to be saved without hearing the Gospel or coming to explicit faith in Christ.”
However, according to Martin, this is only part of the truth. Hence, the reason for the book is “to focus on one obstacle to a response to the call to evangelization, namely, a certain doctrinal ignorance or confusion about what exactly the Church is teaching about the possibility of salvation outside the visible bounds of the Church, or of Christianity.”
Martin begins by examining carefully what Lumen Gentium, No. 16, actually states by asking this question: “What are the necessary conditions for and actual limitations on the possibility of non-Christians being saved without coming to explicit faith in Christ and membership in the Catholic Church?”
After tracing the development of the doctrine which LG, No. 16, represents, Martin writes: “The Council clearly acknowledges the possibility that those who have never heard the Gospel may, under certain conditions, be saved. But it immediately goes on to state that ‘very often’ these conditions are not met and that the salvation of non-Christians who do not meet these conditions is significantly tied to the Gospel being effectively preached to them.”
What has happened, according to Martin, is this: “In postconciliar theological and pastoral commentary, the possibility of being saved without hearing the Gospel has often been commented on so much so that many have made the leap from ‘possibility’ to ‘probability’ to ‘presumed universal salvation.’”
Next, Martin traces the scriptural background of Lumen Gentium, No. 16, focusing particularly on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and concluding: “One of the biggest obstacles to evangelization is the belief that all will be saved in their own way. The truth is, of course, that God has appointed one way to be saved: faith in the gratuitous gift of salvation offered to us in the person of his Son.”
Martin attributes the shift from belief in Christ as necessary for salvation to universal salvation — and consequently the death of evangelization — to two important theologians: Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Martin writes: “There are two contemporary theories that have been very influential in shaping the thinking of many Catholics, both on a popular and an academic level, on the question of salvation apart from explicit faith in Christ and membership in the Church. One is Karl Rahner’s elaboration of a theory concerning ‘anonymous Christians.’ The other is Hans Urs von Balthasar’s speculation concerning the possibility that everyone might be saved and our duty to hope for such.”
After tedious and contextual analysis of Rahner, Martin concludes that “despite its good pastoral intentions and theological seriousness,” Rahner’s anonymous Christian has “greatly weakened the impetus to evangelization.” He thinks that Rahner has “an overly optimistic view of the ‘response rate’ of the human heart to the grace of God.”
Martin states that Rahner “distorts the teaching of Vatican II by neglecting important texts of LG 16 that speak of the real possibility of people who do not know the Gospel being saved, under certain conditions, ‘very often’ not being fulfilled.”
Following his examination of Rahner, Martin turns to von Balthasar, stating that his “theological view, in its extreme form, is often referred to as ‘universalism’ or as ‘apokatastasis.’” After examining von Balthasar’s teaching contextually, Martin summarizes its effects on evangelization:
“Where a climate of universalism began to gain sway in the Church after the Vatican II Council, the missionary effort of the Church virtually collapsed. Mission in many places became redefined as primarily directed to improving the structures of life in this world, or even helping people to be better adherents of their own non-Christian religions. The number of missionaries and missionary orders devoted to drawing others to conversion to Christ drastically collapsed.”
Martin advocates a return to the authentic teaching of Lumen Gentium, No. 16. “The popularization of theological theories ... that give the impression that almost everybody is saved, and that perhaps only a few especially evil people end up in hell, and that there are many ways to salvation, has done much to contribute to a ‘culture of universalism’ not only in Western society as a whole but within the Church as well,” writes Martin. Thus, “when a ‘practical universalism’ holds sway in the minds of people, the zeal for holiness and evangelization will certainly be reduced.”
FATHER BOYER, a priest for 38 years and an instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo., for 26 years, is the author of 35 books primarily in the areas of biblical and liturgical spirituality. His latest book is Nature Spirituality: Praying with Wind, Water, Earth, Fire (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2013).