Benedict’s Avvenire interview: A man of the Council speaks

Benedict Emeritus

By way of a rare interview with the Italian journal Avvenire, the Pope Emeritus, Benedict the Abdicator, has spoken.

Life Site News seems to have broken the story in the English speaking world in an article entitled: Pope Emeritus Benedict breaks silence: speaks of ‘deep crisis’ facing Church post-Vatican II

According to the article, Benedict said:

The missionaries of the 16th century were convinced that the unbaptized person is lost forever. After the [Second Vatican] Council, this conviction was definitely abandoned. The result was a two-sided, deep crisis. Without this attentiveness to the salvation, the Faith loses its foundation.

The article went on the report:

He [Benedict] also speaks of a “profound evolution of Dogma” with respect to the Dogma that there is no salvation outside the Church. This purported change of dogma has led, in the pope’s eyes, to a loss of the missionary zeal in the Church – “any motivation for a future missionary commitment was removed.”

This article has since been widely disseminated, and the starving faithful in their turn are understandably devouring the relatively few Catholic crumbs thus dispensed as if they have just been served a veritable feast.

In its haste, unfortunately, Life Site News appears to have put forth an unrealistically optimistic spin on what, in total, is a rather troubling text.

[NOTE: The original interview can be viewed on the Avvenire website in Italian, linked above. Having made my way through the text as best as I am able, I remain open to correction from those fluent in Italian.]

First, let it be said that Benedict does not actually refer to the dogma extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation – as reported.

His interviewer, Fr. Jacques Servais, S.J., juxtaposed the mindset of St. Francis Xavier, whose missionary efforts strove “to save from the terrible fate of eternal damnation as many ‘infidels’ as possible,” with that of modern men of whom Benedict said, “the preoccupation for salvation typical of a time is mostly gone,” asking:

Can it be said that on this point, in recent decades, there has been a kind of ‘development of dogma’ of which the Catechism must absolutely take into account?

It was in response to this question, asked in light of the idea that the unbaptized were once believed to be eternally damned, that Benedict responded:

There is no doubt that at this point we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma. While the Fathers and theologians of the Middle Ages could still be of the opinion that the substance of the whole human race had become Catholic, and that by now paganism exists only on the margins, the discovery of the New World at the beginning of the modern era has radically changed perspectives.

In the second half of the last century, the awareness has been fully affirmed that God cannot let go to perdition all the unbaptized, and that even a purely natural happiness for them doesn’t represent a real answer to the question of human existence.

[Note: “Evolution” is his word. The interviewer asked about a “development” of dogma.]

So, what exactly is he saying?

He appears to be insisting that since the discovery of the New World, the task of converting the nations has been revealed to be far more challenging than churchmen of the Middle Ages may have recognized.

Over the last fifty or so years, in light of this global perspective, the “awareness has been fully affirmed” (by whom, Benedict does not say) that non-Christians are not necessarily consigned to eternal damnation.

There’s nothing entirely new here.

In 1863, Pope Pius IX made a critical distinction in the Encyclical, Quanto Conficiamur:

It is again necessary to censure a very grave error that is unfortunately entrapping some Catholics who profess that it is possible for men to arrive at eternal salvation, although they live in error, and are alienated from the true Faith and Catholic unity. Such opinion is absolutely opposed to Catholic teaching.

We know and you know that there are those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy Religion. Uprightly observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches, and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, His supreme goodness and clemency do not permit those who are not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishment.

Notice, that when speaking of the unbaptized – in particular of that very narrowly defined segment of which it can be said that they “are struggling with invincible ignorance” and “are not guilty of deliberate sin,” the Holy Father does not say they can attain to salvation; rather, he says that God does not consign them to “eternal punishment.”

What else is there besides salvation and damnation?

Given that God has not revealed to His Church precisely what happens to the souls of such aforementioned persons who die unbaptized (e.g., the unborn, and infants), theologians have traditionally speculated as to the possibility of there being a “Limbo” (referring to the fringe or hem of Hell); a state wherein such souls may dwell in perfect natural happiness.

Benedict, however, calls this into question saying that it “doesn’t represent a real answer to the question of human existence.”

In other words, he seems to be inviting the idea of salvation for the unbaptized. He went on to say:

If it is true that the great missionaries of the sixteenth century were still convinced that those who are not baptized are forever lost, and this explains their missionary commitment, in the Catholic Church after Vatican II that conviction was finally abandoned.

While it is true that some (if not most) post-conciliar churchmen have wavered, Holy Mother Church herself has not abandoned this conviction; she continues to hold precisely what Our Blessed Lord has revealed – nothing more, nothing less – and the fact remains that we simply do not know what happens to certain unbaptized souls such as those described by Pius IX.

That said, we do know what happens to others.

Pope Pius IX could not have articulated the Church’s conviction more clearly than when he said it is “a very grave error” to profess “that it is possible for men to arrive at eternal salvation, although they live in error, and are alienated from the true Faith and Catholic unity.” (ibid.)

He then reiterated the faith of the Church referring specifically to the dogma extra Ecclesiam nulla salus saying:

Also well-known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, to whom ‘the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior.’ (ibid.)

To be very clear, this means that “eternal salvation cannot be obtained” even by those who have been baptized and yet oppose the authority and teachings of the Catholic Church and are separated from unity with her.

Benedict made no such reference in his Avvenire interview.

As for the “deep crisis,” here’s what he actually said:

From this (evolution of dogma) came a deep double crisis. On the one hand this seems to remove any motivation for a future missionary commitment. Why should one try to convince the people to accept the Christian faith when they can be saved even without it? But also for Christians a question emerged … If faith and salvation are not interdependent, faith also becomes unmotivated.

Essentially, what Benedict is conveying is this:

If it’s no longer clear whether or not one can be saved in ways other than Christianity, both the Christian missionary and the ordinary Christian layman are left to wonder why bother and why persevere?

This is the double crisis to which Benedict refers, and yes, he does see it as a problem.

Now, pay very close attention to what Benedict states about the nature of this problem:

Lately several attempts have been formulated in order to reconcile the universal necessity of the Christian faith with the possibility of saving oneself without it.

This, presumably, is what Life Site News had in mind when it reported that Benedict spoke “with respect to the Dogma that there is no salvation outside the Church,” as if he somehow wished to see the dogma taught, believed, and lived once more.

Not so. He clearly didn’t feel that way prior to fleeing for fear for of the wolves, and there’s no reason to believe that he does now either.

In this interview, Benedict actually alters the aforementioned dogma; he avoids mentioning the necessity of “the Church,” and much more “the Catholic Church” by name, while substituting in its place “the Christian faith;” something that he describes at the outset as that which is inseparable from “the community” that one enters through Baptism.

So, which community does he have in mind? The Presbyterians, the Evangelicals, the Lutherans?

He doesn’t say, and if you think for a moment that the theologian Ratzinger intends to refer to the Catholic Church but simply failed to speak with precision, you’re kidding yourself.

Remember who we’re talking about here:

This is the same committed interreligious dialoguer and ecumenist who saw fit to convene Assisi III. He is, in other words, a man of the Council, and as such, he is pleased to twist extra Ecclesiam nulla salus into a generic reference to “the universal necessity of the Christian faith,” even as he calls into question just how necessary it truly is.

We find the basis for this deviation in the document Unitatis Redintegratio – the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II:

For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using the separated Churches and Communities as such as means of salvation. (cf UR 3)

At best what we find in this interview is that Benedict is willing to place at least some emphasis on the importance of Baptism, but make no mistake – we also find that he is keen to avoid any specific reference to the necessity of the Catholic Church.

This becomes ever more clear when one considers his description of “the Church.”

It is necessary, he says, to “emphasize that the Church becomes a community in communion with the body of Christ.”

Now, this is far from compelling ecclesiology. The Church – meaning, the Holy Catholic Church – does not “become” a community, nor does she seek “communion” with the Body of Christ, properly speaking.

The Holy Catholic Church is the Body of Christ mystically present in this world. The Holy Catholic Church is a visible community. Indeed, she is the Church of Christ, and outside of her, there is no salvation.

As we know, this kind of straightforwardness went out the windows of the Church the day they were opened to the world at Vatican II, and so it should come as no surprise that the former Council peritus and advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings remains imbued in its ways even to this day.

Nowhere in his Avvenire interview does Benedict actually condemn this “evolution of dogma.”

On the contrary, he speaks as if it is simply a given that there must be a way of reconciling the perennial faith with contemporary man’s new way of thinking about salvation.

While he rejects both the notion of the “anonymous Christian” as posed by Karl Rahner, and the presumption that “all religions, each in its own way, would be ways of salvation,” at present, Benedict concludes, “the problem is not completely resolved.”


He speaks as if Holy Mother Church is somehow unsure about the nature of salvation, how it is attained, and how it is lost.


Let’s be very clear about this interview, what it tells us and what it does not tell us:

Benedict believes that a crisis exists alright, but ultimately he sees it as a problem of understanding;  not just on the part of certain persons, but on the part of the Church.

What he does not believe is that the problem lies in a failure to embrace extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – “the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church” – and the reason is simple: he is, and has ever been, a man of the Council.

aka Donate 12-2015

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