The Only Name, Part I
This is the third essay is a series focusing on the distinctives of Catholicism. I have attempted to demonstrate in the previous essay that two broadly Christian theologies, the Incarnation and the Messianic Prerogative, are distinctly Catholic in origin and nature.
Throughout most of history, religion has rarely laid claim to an exclusive knowledge of truth or an exclusive path to salvation. Pagan polytheists aggressively adopted the gods and myths of foreigners. The more philosophical pagans, while they made various truth-claims about the good life, rarely avowed to have all the answers. Even more rarely did such philosophers claim that only those who held to their system of thought could attain true happiness.
The only real and lasting counter-examples in the ancient world are the Hebrews. Not only did they reject the overwhelming religious consensus in favor of polytheism, they repeatedly asserted that they had been given unique and privileged access to eternal happiness through the Law of God. Sacked, conquered, and dispersed, the Jews had every reason to abandon their convictions for the sake of convenience. Some did. Still, the remnant persisted in their strange belief that it was exclusively through them that “all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18).
When Christ came, he laid a hold on the mantle of exclusivity. “No one comes to the Father but by me,” we learn in John 14:6. In doing so, he finally fulfilled the Abrahamic prophecy from God in Genesis 22. Of course, His own did not receive Him (John 1:11): in a sad twist, Israel faulted their Christ for claiming unique access to the Father, the very thing which distinguished them from the surrounding nations. Nevertheless, His Apostles and follows preached the Gospel of Jesus’ exclusive power to save and rule mankind. He is the one Mediator between God and Man, the one Name at which every knee shall bow, and the one Name given to man for salvation (1 Timothy 2:5, Philippians 2:10, Acts 4:12).
Since the coming of Christ, exclusivity has become a more popular claim in religion. Islam, for example, makes similar assertions about its privileged position before God. Christian heresies have often followed suit. In fact, a ‘problem’ with religion that many modern people raise is the competing and exclusive claims of each faith. No doubt, we have entered a new epoch of religious history: exclusivity is commonplace.
However, I would argue that there is a specifically Christian understanding of exclusivity that is only fully developed in the Catholic paradigm. To establish this fact, we must first clarify the Catholic view of exclusivity, an often-misunderstood teaching. The dogma is encapsulated in the phrase extra Ecclesiam nullus salus, “outside of the Church there is no salvation.” In other words, to the extent that any human being experiences salvific grace, he experiences it through the Church. The plan of salvation includes those who are not in full union with the Church, of course. Catholic exclusivity does not deny this fact. Rather, it posits that all such ‘unusual cases’ are still a result of a mystical union with the Church, albeit an extraordinary one.
This claim is both bolder and more generous than those found in other religious systems. Take, as an example, my own previous intellectual tradition—Calvinism. No Calvinist assembly would dare assert that salvation is only accessible through its existence. However, such an assembly would be deeply reluctant to acknowledge the salvation of persons outside of its own theological system. Both aspects of Catholic exclusivity—its sole access to grace, and its ability to disperse grace in extraordinary ways in unusual cases—are rejected in the Calvinist paradigm.
Indeed, with the possible exception of Eastern Orthodoxy, only the Catholic Church makes both claims. Some cults claim singular metaphysical access to grace—but such groups generally conclude that only those who are explicitly associated with their beliefs can be saved. Conversely, many groups will acknowledge that persons who are not explicitly associated with their community can be saved. However, not a single group (at least to my knowledge) that concedes this fact retains its claim to metaphysical privilege.
I am familiar with two objections to the Catholic understanding of exclusivity, both of which are often raised in the Evangelical society I keep. The first critiques the Church for metaphysical arrogance in the realm of salvation. The second claims that the Catholic Church has liberalized its theology of salvation to the point of universalism. Remarkably, I have even heard both claims from the same individuals—a good example of the cognitive dissonance that anti-Catholic arguments are often accompanied by. I will address the first critique by comparing Christianity’s claims to those of Catholicism, but I will address the accusation of liberalism now.
The dual nature of Catholic exclusivity is not a modern invention to explain away cult-like, medieval Church-worship. In Dante’s Paradise, we find several non-Catholic persons. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that excommunication from the Church entails the denial of sacraments, not necessarily the damnation of the anathematized. Saint Augustine also reminds us that heretics can be saved, especially if they are separated from the Church through no direct fault of their own. Justin Martyr extends this concession to pagan philosophers, whom he speculates may have been justified through their wisdom. Catholic documents which have acknowledged that God’s salvation will include non-Catholics, are not contradictions of the age-old doctrine of extra ecclesiam nullus salus. They are in conformity with the historical theology of the Church.
The Catholic view is an elegant solution to a tricky problem, but it is also the view which best parallels the claims of ‘mere’ Christianity as found in the Holy Writ. I will soon write a second post expositing this claim in detail.