The true and holy Roman Pontiff, valid successor to Peter and to Benedict, Pope Francis, has already spoken on the topic of salvation a few times. So far, his comments are personal opinion, not magisterial teaching.
But to those who would dismiss his views on that basis, I must point out that Pope Francis is well-qualified to write and teach theology. Like most Bishops and Cardinals, he has a Ph.D. in theology (or the equivalent). He was a professor of theology. And he has many years of experience as a Bishop and then a Cardinal, teaching and guiding the Church. So his opinion should not be swept aside like so much chaff.
On the other hand, there are some loud-mouthed commentators online who speak as if the Pope has nothing to teach them. They speak as if they are the authoritative judges over the Pope, to see if his teaching is true — by comparison with the faulty version of Catholicism in their own minds. They speak as if they were judges over everyone, and as if no one were qualified to correct them. If any of the Apostles or disciples of Christ had behaved in this way, He would have rebuke them sharply. Today, we have the Church to guide and teach us. But many teachers and authors, who boast of their faithfulness to Catholicism, do not see the Church as their Teacher and Guide. They are their own teachers, and they are not even qualified for that role.
What will happen when Pope Francis, who does not mind stirring up some controversy in the course of following Christ Jesus, begins to teach on the topic of salvation from the papal Magisterium?
I expect that this faithful and holy Teacher and Shepherd of the Church will teach that a path to salvation is open to all human persons without exception.
God wills that all human persons be saved. Does this imply that all are in fact saved? No. For God respects our free will, and some human persons choose to sin gravely (actual mortal sin) and they refuse to repent. All those persons and only those persons who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin are judged by God at the particular judgment and are sent to Hell. No one is sent to Hell for any other reason. This theological position is based on my understanding of the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.
But is conversion the only path to salvation for those human persons who possess sufficient accurate knowledge of Christianity or Catholicism? No, it is not. If a non-Christian believer is sincere in his disbelief, he does not sin to the extent of actual mortal sin in rejecting the Church, and so he can still be saved — by at least an implicit baptism of desire and, if he does sin gravely in some area of life, by at least implicit perfect contrition. And if a non-believer (atheist, agnostic) is sincere in his disbelief, he does not sin to the extent of actual mortal sin in rejecting the Church, and so he can still be saved, in much the same way.
Non-Christian believers and non-believers can enter the state of grace by the love of neighbor, and can return to that state after actual mortal sin by implicit perfect contrition. For the true selfless love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God.
So already the teaching of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium is clear enough to perceive these truths. But when these ideas are taught by Pope Francis under the ordinary papal Magisterium, or perhaps under Papal Infallibility, many conservatives will reject this teaching. Their teacher is the conservative Catholic subculture that developed in reaction to Vatican II. They have exalted themselves as judges over the Popes and the Magisterium to decide what is and is not religious truth. When the Pope says anything that contradicts their own faulty understanding, they immediately assume that the Pope must be wrong. They do not accept the Pope or the Church as their Teacher. So when Pope Francis eventually teaches these truths of salvation, which are already well-supported in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, many conservative Catholics will reject his teaching.
Some will try to radically re-interpret his teaching, to agree with their own understanding. Others will try to marginalize his teaching, by saying that salvation for non-Christians who decline to convert is exceedingly rate. And some will claim that his teaching is only the Pope’s opinion, or that it is non-infallible and erroneous. But eventually the Pope will teach on this topic so clearly and definitively, by repetition and perhaps eventually by a statement under Papal Infallibility, that they will not be able to ignore or radically re-interpret his words.
Then they will accuse the Pope of heresy, for teaching something contrary to their own limited distorted understanding of the teachings on salvation in Tradition, Scripture, and past teachings of the Magisterium. Then many conservatives will depart from the one true Church. These individuals are ignorant of past magisterial teaching on salvation, and arrogant in judging and condemning the Pope. How ironic it is that these persons, who hold a narrow distorted view of the Church as the sole Ark of Salvation, would respond to the Church’s teaching on salvation by departing from that sole Ark of Salvation.
Pope Francis will also teach the truth on other topics, in contradiction to the assumptions, misunderstandings, and over-simplifications common among some conservative Catholics. He may teach that the Church has the authority to ordain women to the deaconate. And he might schedule at time for women’s ordination to begin. This teaching and decision, too, will cause many conservatives to depart from the Church. For they have long ago decided that conservatism is their Teacher, not the Pope or the Church. Whatever seems liberal to them is treated as if it were heresy, even when it is the true teachings of the Pope and the Church.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.
Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
is now available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.
Thank you for this great article, and all the previous ones, especially this week. I am a traditionalist and a conservative and submit to ecclesiastical authorities in full union with the Pope and the Magisterium. I think that the type of people you describe in your article that consider themselves more catholics than the pope are not conservatives in general but fundamentalists. The blog “Catholic in the Ozarks had an article on 5 November titled Catholic Traditionalism verses Fundamentalism, which demonstrates that the traditionalists operate Inside the Church, and fundamentalists do not. It is important to not confuse them. Maybe the term “radical trad” apply also to fundamentalists who are recognized especially by their lack of humility.