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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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
8 comments
  • Having shared some research with Lee Penn and having read both his unpublished manuscript and his book, I’ve been acutely aware for some time that our Christian faith is under attack by those who promote United Religions Initiative and would create a universal religion for the world.

    Knowing that it could be taken away has made my faith seem more precious to me than it was before.  The cosmology we live with has a beauty that I do not find in the esoteric religions, even though they have embraced transcendence that they rightly note is lacking in our culture.  Some cosmologies are downright frightening.

    In this world the Christian belief system has produced the best life for the greatest number.  It shudders at the sight of suffering and takes pity on the poor, the lonely and the lost, seeking ways to allievate their suffering.  This is not found in a cosmology that believes in reincarnation and karma where the person becomes responsible for his own misfortune.

    Much of the beauty in the Western world owes a debt to Roman Catholicism, from architecture, to painting, to music, that which has been created for God has been inspired by the heavenly court.  It has a beauty beyond that which man can generate without help.

    I don’t see how anyone without faith can stand beside a casket and avoid falling apart.  The only comfort when our loved one dies is the knowledge that we hopefully will see them again, and that once they are in heaven they can pray for us and we can once again have a relationship with them.  The communion of saints gives life meaning as does the knowledge of God and the relationship with Him.

    Nature itself takes on a new meaning when we see in it the hand of the God who made it and us.  Its beauty reflects a world permeated with goodness and beneficence.  It gives us hope.

    And lastly there is the matter of worship.  Worship is not a faculty of man because God requires it, but rather because man requires it.  Worship can turn a dismal situation around.  Worship can bring a joy that has no equal.  As we raise our prayers to God, we rise with them, and we become grateful for what we have rather than discouraged by what we lack.  Of all that our faith gives us, worship is perhaps the greatest gift of all.

  • Is there a problem with what Cardinal Ratzinger said here? That is what your last paragraph implies. I don’t hear anything disturbing or questionable in his words. What he says is true. What Carrie says is true. They don’t contradict one another…

  • I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong or untoward about this sermon, but that it’s important to keep it[‘s] context firmly in mind.

    Joanne, I’m not sure how much plainer I can say it. I’m not saying there’s any untoward about this sermon.

  • C. S. Lewis notes, in his classic definition of “thick” and “clear” forms of religion, that resurrection from the dead came rather late in the Jewish tradition.  For centuries, Israelites worshiped God knowing that their best hope, if any, was Sheol, and really just thinking that they ceased to exist when they died.

    The one defining purpose of religion—all religions—is to understand the true nature of reality and conform to it.  The only reason it matters to be a Christian is that Jesus Christ is God.  Every person in the world could be “saved”, ultimately, but that’s irrelevant. 

    Two actors are starring in a movie about Julius Caesar.  One actor thoroughly researches the history of ancient Rome and the life of Caesar.  The other actor doesn’t do much background research beyond watching adaptations of Shakespeare’s play.

    Both actors will be in the movie.  Both actors will make money from it.  But the first actor will have a much more honest portrayal than the other.

    And that’s ultimately why it matters to be a Christian—even if everyone goes to Heaven in the end, anyway, what matters is getting there the best way we know how.

  • It matters that we “get there” but it also matters how we live while we’re here.  Catholicism promotes families, and families are the best source of hope and joy for the human being.  Ideas prohibited by Catholicism such as divorce, for instance, safeguard those families, and thus promote earthly joy.  The same can be said of many other Catholic precepts.

  • Sorry, D, it sounded like you were “excusing” his sermon there at the end, and it didn’t sound to me like he needed an excuse.
    That being said, his words could be twisted to imply (and I have heard catechists mouth this, JUST as I was teaching the imprisonment of St Paul) that “It doesn’t matter what religion we are. Buddhists, Hindus, and pagans can still get to heaven.” I hope, by God’s mercy, that Jesus can and will reveal Himself to faithful people from other religions,but how can we possibly believe that at the point of death, a Buddhist en route to Heaven will still be a Buddhist? If he were, he sure wouldn’t care about Heaven!
    My point was that the former Joseph Ratzinger was addressing s’thing else in his sermon. (our tendency to judge in God’s place?)Obviously, you thought so too.

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