On Church & Salvation – Part II

It is assumed that one has read the argument(s) posed in Part I. This analysis is organized into five sets of “clues”.


Clue 1: Wording Matters


To reiterate the (implied) argument: If said person dies outside the so-called True Church, they are automatically damned (even if they believe in Christ and/or are a good person).


None of those conditions actually contradict each other, they are referring to different conditions or aspects of Salvation. And all the conditions must somehow be true. After all, God is just (Deuteronomy 32, Psalm 7, Daniel 9) and justice demands that everything be accounted for.


On the one hand, Christ stated certain conditions and God has to be consistent to His own rules or else He is a “soft” god. On the other, God has to take into account not merely the individual’s actions but also their intent and circumstances; that is, the relative and subjective aspects or else he is a “hard” god.


Note that none of the quoted material are worded like the (implied) argument. The closest is the dogma proclaimed by Pope Eugenius IV “…unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock…” But even that does not actually state “If you die outside the Church, you are automatically damned.” Even if it is not a dogmatic definition, the wording matters.


There are Scriptural references that are worded in the negative; that is, Christ warned of the danger of willfully rejecting Him, “He that despiseth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him; the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” (John 12:48) He also warned, “He that is not with me, is against me…” (Matthew 12:30) The phrase Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is presumably derived from these.


So, to state the obvious, acceptance of Christ leads to Salvation and willful rejection of Christ leads to damnation. But this discussion is about the “in between” cases.


Clue 2: Subjective vs Objective, Relative vs Absolute


Re Condition 1: “Belief” can be considered an intent, which is subjective and absolute.

Although belief is explicitly stated as a condition, God considers the individual’s circumstances, which is relative. Christ said, “And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48) More specifically applied to this condition, ignorance can only be held against an individual insofar as it is culpable: “If I had not come, and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” (John 15:22)


Christ also quoted Isaiah 42, indicating that God considers sentiments of contrition, “The bruised reed he shall not break: and smoking flax he shall not extinguish: till he send forth judgment unto victory.” (Matthew 12:20)


This does not do away with the absolute condition since Christ warned, “He that is not with me, is against me…” (Matthew 12:30) Although this is vague when read in isolation, it perhaps indicates that a decision is required by the individual in the end.


Re Condition 2: Whilst intent is the most important in terms of personal merit or demerit, it does not necessarily change anything objectively.


For example, if one is sick and wants healing, that intent is important and necessary for it drives action, such as seeing a doctor and following the prescribed treatment. But said intent on its own does not necessarily make one objectively better.


Continuing from the previously mentioned Romans 10, St Paul wrote, “…but, with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation” which implies the need for some objective expression of subjective belief. A reasonable extension are acts of penance or, read loosely, trying to be good in general. (Luke 13, James 2)


A pseudo-fundamentalist would argue that no one is ever good enough regardless of how much good one does, so it doesn’t count anyway. But that is over-simplistic.


It is true that we all “need the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and no amount of natural and finite merit can get one into heaven. This problem cannot be dismissed. However, insufficiency does not imply non-existence or unnecessary. This view conveniently ignores the distinction between the infinite merits of Christ and the finite merits of man.


Even one who is obeying their conscience without belief has merit. (James 1:17) Obviously, it is optimal to do good whilst consciously accepting God but conversion typically takes time. Scripture states that “charity covers a multitude of sins” (Proverbs 10, 1 Peter 4) which is consistent to “love they neighbor” and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) indicating the value of good acts which God will take into account even if it does not do away with the condition.


Re Condition 3 and Condition 5: Since fallen humanity is by default supernaturally dead, Baptism is necessary to effect the indwelling of the Holy Ghost to give supernatural life. Intent on its own does not necessarily achieve this but there are exceptions. There is such a thing as Baptism by Intent, Baptism by Blood and Lay Baptism so these possibilities are clues, and perhaps Paul was alluding to these various specifics in Hebrews 6:2 without contradicting the general principle of “one baptism”. (Ephesians 4:5)


Baptism is nevertheless the ordinary means instructed by Christ. (Matthew 28, Mark 16) If that is the way Christ instructed, then one should do it that way. The general does not exclude exceptions and exceptions do not override the general.


The distinction between natural and supernatural life applies to one’s merits. If one is supernaturally dead but is naturally alive, then one’s good actions has natural and finite merit even if it has no supernatural merit.


It is through Baptism that one gains supernatural life and in turn one’s natural merits become supernaturalized. That being the case, this does not override Christ’s promise that subjective belief leads to Salvation. It is interesting to note that promise does not include nor exclude objective conditions or elaborate on the how. (John 3:16)


Also, Christ’s instruction in Mark 16 lists both “belief” and “Baptism” as conditions for Salvation but only lists unbelief as condition for damnation, hinting that there is some flexibility regarding Baptism as a means.


Re Condition 4 and Condition 5: Even after Baptism supernaturalizing one’s natural life and merit, it is still of finite value. It is through Holy Communion that the Church’s finite merits are literally united to Christ’s infinite merits and in turn gain infinite value. This is one of the reasons why the Church is also referred to as the “Mystical Body of Christ” and that it is objectively necessary to be part of it.


It is no mere coincidence that Baptism and Holy Communion are “Sacraments”, mechanisms by which God effects graces for the benefit of humanity with the end purpose of Salvation by linking our life and merits to Christ’s.


Holy Communion is necessary but not in the same manner as Baptism since one does not need to directly participate in Holy Communion to benefit. At every valid Mass, the entire Church’s finite merits are offered up with Christ’s infinite merits. Of course, it is more optimal if one personally attends and the common pastoral rule is that one should receive Holy Communion a minimum of four times per year.

The Last Supper, ~1330 (tempera and gold on wood), Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio)
The Last Supper, ~1330 (tempera and gold on wood), Ugolino da Siena (Ugolino di Nerio)

Clue 3: The Penitent Thief


Many cite the case of St Dismas the penitent thief on the cross as proof that Salvation be can achieved exclusively by Condition 1. (Luke 12)


If Christ’s words are accepted as true, then the case of Dismas certainly supports Condition 1 as a possibility. However, this does not address the other conditions. Just because Dismas did not receive Baptism in the ordinary sense and was promised salvation does not mean this is supposed to be the norm. Dismas’s circumstances can be considered extreme.


If Christ gave general instructions to baptize (Matthew 28, Mark 16), then we should obey out of faith and love. (Exodus 20, John 14, Revelations 2 etc.) The general does not exclude the exception and the exception does not override the general.

St Dismas, 18th-century Russian icon (egg tempera)
St Dismas, 18th-century Russian icon (egg tempera)

Clue 4: Death & Particular Judgement


The argument “If a person dies outside the so-called True Church, they are automatically damned” often assumes, whether consciously or not, that straight after physical death is Particular Judgement which is instantaneous. (Hebrews 9, Ecclesiastes 11)


In this context, physical death is presumed to be the separation of the soul from the accidental body. However, Paul indicates the human makeup is not that simple:

For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two-edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

In this passage is the explicit distinction between “soul” and “spirit”. If the human makeup includes the spirit as well as the accidental body and soul, then “death” (and judgement) is a more complicated process than initially thought and is more fitting to the trinitarian “image”. (Genesis 1:27) Also, the passage vaguely indicates some sort of process when God judges, including the discerning of “thoughts and intents” of the individual.


This is consistent to the fact that nowhere in Scripture does it state that Particular Judgement is instantaneous, nor are any dogma that defines as such. If anything, Scripture tells otherwise. Christ gave the following warning:

Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. (Matthew 12:31–32)

It seems that sins (except for one) can still be forgiven “in the world to come”. This is also recorded in Mark 3 and Luke 12 where “in the world to come” is not mentioned, but discrepancy is not necessarily contradiction. Matthew simply has more information. In short, this passage suggests that the soul has one last opportunity to accept Salvation even after physical death.


Christ’s warning “He that is not with me, is against me…” indicates that an either/or decision must be made. Such a decision needs to be an informed one and it is as if He knows there will be an opportunity to make it after physical death in case it wasn’t already made in life.


This is also consistent to Christ having “preached to those spirits that were in prison”—that is, those who died in the “days of Noah” and who must have repented in their deaths since at the time of writing they were still stuck in Purgatory. (1 Peter 3)


Another passage of significance is Christ’s description of the Last Judgement recorded in Matthew 25. Although the Last Judgement is not to be confused for Particular Judgement and it is unclear how literally this should be read, the reaction of the saved is nonetheless interesting. He indicated that the saved did good works for Him personally, “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink…”


It can be speculated that Christ knew His words would be recorded and that future generations would read them, so it is strange when the saved reply, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink?”


Two key points can be observed. Firstly, although the saved seem to be genuinely confused, they nonetheless at that point address Christ as “Lord”, indicating the importance of an explicit confession. Secondly, that the natural and finite merit from good works performed in life, although insufficient on its own, can be worthy in God’s eyes at judgement. This implies that said merits somehow can be supernaturalized and gain infinite value through Christ during that process. This is consistent to the abovementioned passage from Matthew 12.


This leads to the point regarding “sin/blasphemy against the Holy Ghost”. Some commentators describe this as works of God being attributed to the devil with malicious intent. Whilst that can be an example, there is a simpler explanation: God is big enough to forgive anything, except those who do not want forgiveness. Isn’t that and “sin against the Holy Ghost” the same thing? After all, it is the Holy Ghost who inspires conversion and one receives Him to gain supernatural life, ordinarily through Baptism.


In short, the obstinate rejection of Salvation is the rejection and therefore “sin against the Holy Ghost”, and there is one final opportunity after physical death to be saved for anyone who wants it. If one accepts Salvation, Particular Judgement then concludes with one “dying” in the True Church.


If one doesn’t like the phrase “outside the Church there is no salvation”, then think of it as “all saved souls ipso facto form part of the True Church”. This opportunity is consistent to the justice and mercy of God since all the conditions can still be satisfied to the letter without anyone being damned on a technicality.


Clue 5: Visions of St Anne Catherine Emmerich


The German mystic and stigmatic St Anne Catherine Emmerich (b. 8 September 1774 – d. 9 February 1824) had some visions and insights which corroborate the above.


From a vision dated 4 November 1820 (K.E. Schmoger, The Life and Revelations of St Anne Catherine Emmerich: Volume II, reprint of 1885 ed., Tan Books, USA, 2012, p.230):

Judgement takes but a very short time. It is held the instant the soul leaves the body and just over the place where death occurred. Jesus, Mary, the holy patron, and good angel of the soul are present. Mary is present even at the judgement of Protestants.

From a vision dated 2 November 1821 (ibid., p.256):

I have seen in purgatory Protestants who were pious in their ignorance; they are very desolate, for no prayers are offered for them.

From a vision dated 2 November 1822 (ibid., p.259):

I never see any visitor in purgatory, excepting my guide; but away off on the earth, I behold here and there anchorets, religious, and poor devout people, praying, doing penance, and laboring for the dear souls. This part of purgatory belongs to the Catholic Church. The sects are separated here as on earth and they suffer much more, since they have no members praying for them and no Holy Sacrifice.


Conclusion


Given all the conditions, it is no surprise that Christ warned, “Strive to enter by the narrow gate…” (Luke 13:24) Common sense suggests that it is important to do the best one can in their circumstances. One can be excused insofar one honestly does not know better and that circumstances prevent one from acting on it even when one does know. Christ never promised it would be easy, but He did promise that progress will be made if one corresponds to whatever graces provided. (Matthew 25, Luke 11, Revelation 3)


Whilst this one last opportunity for Salvation is a safety net which reassures us of God’s mercy and justice, to deliberately rely on this is presumption which is no doubt a sin and therefore not recommended.


These are reasons to pray for yourself and others, including the dead and dying. Such prayers may help others in their last moments, even at their Particular Judgement.


The Last Judgement, 12th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
The Last Judgement, 12th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
 

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