Knowing who will or will not get into heaven is a tricky subject for most people of faith, but author Ralph Martin tackles it head on in his new book, “Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization” ($24, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Martin recently spoke to Our Sunday Visitor via email from Rome, where he was serving as a theological expert during the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why did you feel this book was necessary at this time?
Ralph Martin: I’ve been concerned for a long time that a presumption that virtually everyone is saved has taken hold in the minds of many Catholics. This obviously undermines motivation for evangelization, not to mention holiness and obedience to the Word of God. The teaching of Vatican II has been very much misunderstood on this point, and the book tries to clearly and decisively set the record straight. It is, indeed, possible under certain conditions for those who have never heard the Gospel to be saved, but as the Constitution on the Church from Vatican II says in Section 16, “very often” these conditions are not met and peoples’ salvations are at risk unless they hear the Gospel and respond.
OSV: We hear the term “New Evangelization” a lot in the Church today, and yet I think many Catholics are still unsure of what that means. Can you explain “New Evangelization” to the person in the pew?
Martin: First of all let’s define evangelization. I think the best definition I know is that given by Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical “Mission of the Redeemer” (Redemptoris Missio):
“The proclamation of the Word of God has Christian conversion (in original) as its aim: a complete and sincere adherence to Christ and his Gospel through faith ... Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple” (No. 46).
Evangelization in its broad sense can refer to everything that the Church does, but the core definition has to do with conversion — helping people come to faith in Christ and surrender their lives to him.
The best definition of “New Evangelization” is again given by Blessed John Paul II in his encyclical. He makes a threefold distinction. Primary evangelization is directed toward those who have never heard the Gospel before. Pastoral care is directed toward those living in some relationship with Christ. “New Evangelization or re-evangelization” is directed toward those from traditionally Christian cultures or backgrounds “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” (No. 33).
The New Evangelization is new in whom it is addressed to, those who may have been baptized or practiced their faith at one time, but now are no longer living a relationship of friendship with Christ. It is also new in terms of who does it: us! And it is new in the cultural situation in which it is conducted — a de-Christianized culture where respect for God and his ways are no longer honored, but rather mocked and attacked.
This doesn’t mean we all need to be preachers. Evangelization can be a very simple sharing of our faith with someone who asks a question; or passing on a book on the spiritual life to someone who would benefit from reading it; or inviting someone who would benefit by hearing more about the faith to a parish mission talk, etc.
OSV: Many people, I think, are uncomfortable with the idea of discussing who can and cannot be saved. How do you answer them?
Martin: No one can judge what condition an individual person’s soul is in, but we can know a lot, objectively, about what kind of behavior and beliefs put people in danger of being lost. Consider, for example, the teaching of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 6: 9-11):
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
OSV: Can you talk about the particular passage from Lumen Gentium your book addresses, and why it is so critical to the conversation on salvation?
“The New Evangelization: What It Is and How It Affects the Life of Every Catholic,” by Ralph Martin (OSV ebook for Kindle or Nook, $.99)
Martin: Here’s the passage:
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation … But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom 1:21,25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, ‘preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:16) takes zealous care to foster the missions” (No. 16).
Here, based on Scripture and tradition, Vatican II is saying that while it is possible to be saved without hearing the Gospel, we’re not living in a neutral environment, and there is a lot that conspires to push us along the broad path that leads to destruction. Our own disordered desires, a result of original and personal sin; the influence of the evil one who continually tempts us; and the powerful influence of “the world” — a culture that seeks to get us to desire things that aren’t good for us and live in a way that will lead us to destruction.
Even those of us who are Catholic — with all the help we have available through the Scriptures, the sacraments, the Catholic community, etc. — sometimes may struggle not to yield to darkness. And Vatican II also clearly teaches that it is not enough to be a Catholic in “name only,” or simply by cultural or ethnic background or even to go to Church — unless we’re living in the grace of God.
OSV: Is there a fear that we’re too late? A recent Pew study showed that one in five Americans claim no church affiliation. How do we evangelize people who seem to have no interest in — and maybe even animosity toward — the Church?
Martin: It’s never too late to “begin again” to “cast out into the deep” even though until now we have caught no fish. Personal friendship, love, the witness of our life all prepare the way for conversations that can lead people in our life to a better understanding of what it means to be a Catholic.
Mary DeTurris Poust’s newest book is “Everyday Divine: A Catholic Guide to Active Spirituality” (Alpha, $14.95).