Apart from salvation, why be a Christian?

Apart from salvation, why be a Christian?

A reader sends along a link to this 1964 homily by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger on the topic of salvation outside the Church. His approach is different from the usual on this matter. He starts by saying, let’s just say that you don’t have to be a formally enrolled member of the Catholic Church to be saved and that God is able to do as He wills without consulting with us and our theories.

If it is theoretically possible that you can be saved without being a Catholic or even a Christian, then why be a Christian? He says, “What is that special thing in Christianity that not only justifies but compels us to be and live as Christians?” Note he’s challenging us to look at our faith and our Church as more than a ticket into a heaven. Too often, when we debate this question, it comes out sounding an awful lot like the workers in the vineyard who complained at being the same as those who were hired at the end of the day. It sounds like being a Christian is a big burden we’d rather not carry if we didn’t have to. Is that what our faith is really like?

When they realized that the day’s wage of one denarius could be much more easily earned, they could no longer see why they had sweated all day. Yet how could they really have been certain that it was so much more comfortable to be out of work than to work? And why was it that they were happy with their wages only on the condition that other people were worse off than they were? But the parable is not there on account of those workers at that time; it is there for our sake. For in our raising questions about the “why” of Christianity, we are doing just what those workers did. We are assuming that spiritual “unemployment”—a life without faith or prayer—is more pleasant than spiritual service. Yet how do we know that?

He says that if this is how we think then we are approaching our faith as a burden that weighs us down, not as “the truth that sets us free” or a yoke whose burden is easy and light.

We are seeing in the Church only the exterior order that limits our freedom and thereby overlooking the fact that she is our spiritual home, which shields us, keeps us safe in life and in death. We are seeing only our own burden and forgetting that other people also have burdens, even if we know nothing of them. And above all, what a strange attitude that actually is, when we no longer find Christian service worthwhile if the denarius of salvation may be obtained even without it! It seems as if we want to be rewarded, not just with our own salvation, but most especially with other people’s damnation—just like the workers hired in the first hour. That is very human, but the Lord’s parable is particularly meant to make us quite aware of how profoundly un-Christian it is at the same time. Anyone who looks on the loss of salvation for others as the condition, as it were, on which he serves Christ will in the end only be able to turn away grumbling, because that kind of reward is contrary to the loving-kindness of God.

[Thanks to Laura for the link.]

(It seems apropos to mention here that nothing a pope says or writes before his election is covered by the charism of infallibility and should not be considered magisterial. Likewise, we should not always hold someone to something they said 43 years ago since everyone is always growing and their understanding is growing. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong or untoward about this sermon, but that it’s important to keep it context firmly in mind.)

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