Why does it matter if people convert to Catholicism? Isn’t being Methodist good enough? Is a lapsed Catholic — a part of our religion by baptism — beyond hope? What about a nominal Christian who believes in doing good, even though she rarely darkens the doorstep of a church? And what about all those of other faiths – Hindis, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and so on?
The answer to the question is simple: yes, it matters; more than anything else in this life. Though you don’t often hear it expressed in such clear language these days, the Catholic Faith is the True Faith, the one Church established by Christ for the remission of sins and the salvation of souls. We profess as much in the Creed, when we say that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” and when we “confess one baptism for the remission of sins.” One Church. One Baptism. Not many. Without these, there can be no salvation.
“Jesus answered: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:5)
It is true that we share our one baptism with other Christian denominations, provided that they practice the sacrament according to its proper matter and form. And while this washes away original and actual sin, and saves us from the clutches of the Devil, baptism alone is not enough enough to get us through this life. We need the other sacraments; in particular, we need the Eucharist:
I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever. (Jn. 6:48-59)
But to receive the Eucharist, we must first be cleansed of our sins:
But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. Therefore are there many infirm and weak among you, and many sleep. (1 Cor. 11:28-30)
How are we to be cleansed? By absolution – a power granted by Christ to his apostles and priests:
He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. (Jn. 20:21-23)
And all of this is given under the authority of the papacy, granted to Peter by Christ himself:
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven. (Mt. 16:18-19)
It is for all of these reasons that the Church has infallibly declared, through a successor to St. Peter, the necessity of membership in the Church for those desirous of eternal salvation. in the papal Pope Boniface VIII decreed this truth in the papal bull Unam Sanctam in 1302:
Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins…Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
“Outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins…” This is a phrase that echoes the much earlier words of St. Cyprian of Carthage, now famous (if rarely heeded): Extra ecclesiam nulla salus – Outside the Church there is no salvation. In his Treatise on the Unity of the Church, St. Cyprian asks:
Who, then, is so wicked and faithless, who is so insane with the madness of discord, that either he should believe that the unity of God can be divided, or should dare to rend it–the garment of the Lord–the Church of Christ? He Himself in His Gospel warns us, and teaches, saying, “And there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (St. John 10:16). And does any one believe that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks? The Apostle Paul, moreover, urging upon us this same unity, beseeches and exhorts, saving, “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that ye be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10).
Even the so-called “ecumenism of blood” — a popular concept in our times — is an idea that can easily fall short of the truth. St. Cyprian teaches:
Even if such men were slain in confession of the Name, that stain is not even washed away by blood: the inexpiable and grave fault of discord is not even purged by suffering. He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church; he cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there. Christ gave us peace; He bade us be in agreement, and of one mind. He charged the bonds of love and charity to be kept uncorrupted and inviolate; he cannot show himself a martyr who has not maintained brotherly love.
Pope Eugene IV emphasizes these same truths in the papal bull Cantate Domino, issued from the Council of Florence in 1441:
The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, and heretics, and schismatics, can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire “which was prepared for the devil, and his angels,” (Mt. 25:41) unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this Ecclesiastical Body, that only those remaining within this unity can profit from the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and that they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, almsdeeds, and other works of Christian piety and duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.
So what are we to make of all of this? Is it possible for someone not Roman Catholic to be saved? The simple answer is a resounding no. The theological answer is somewhat more complex. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
The Fathers and theologians frequently divide baptism into three kinds: the baptism of water (aquæ or fluminis), the baptism of desire (flaminis), and the baptism of blood (sanguinis). However, only the first is a real sacrament. The latter two are denominated baptism only analogically, inasmuch as they supply the principal effect of baptism, namely, the grace which remits sins. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that when the baptism of water becomes a physical or moral impossibility, eternal life may be obtained by the baptism of desire or the baptism of blood.
Each of these other baptisms has their own definition, but we do not have sufficient space to do more than summarize these here. The essential distinction to be made by the non-sacramental baptisms of desire and blood are their unifying aspects – through each, a soul is united to the “bosom and unity of the Catholic Church,” rather than persisting in the error of separation. As the Encyclopedia states of baptism of desire, “justifying grace is bestowed on account of acts of perfect charity or contrition … it is evident that these acts supply the place of baptism as to its principal effect, the remission of sins.” And again, on baptism of blood, “theologians commonly maintain that the baptism of blood justifies adult martyrs independently of an act of charity or perfect contrition, and, as it were, ex opere operato, though, of course, they must have attrition for past sins. The reason is that if perfect charity, or contrition, were required in martyrdom, the distinction between the baptism of blood and the baptism of desire would be a useless one.”
The distinction between what Cyprian and Eugene teach us and the understanding expressed through the concept of “baptism of blood” might be easily missed, but there is one: a man who clings to the idea that his own version of Christianity is true can die in the name of Christ and not be saved, if he persists in schism, heresy, or error; but a man who is not Catholic who dies for Christ out of conviction that His Church is the True Church and membership in her is necessary for salvation can, like the good thief, find himself with Our Lord that very day in paradise.
If these issues of separation matter so much in life, death, and salvation, how then are we to deal with those of other faiths in our daily lives? Taking for granted that we must treat all of our fellow men with charity and love, how should we approach our separated brethren?
In his encyclical on Christian Unity, Mortalium Animos, Pope Pius XI remarked on the growing trend and desire expressed by Catholics to pray in common with members of other Christian denominations for purposes on which they could agree, such as peace in the world. He writes:
It is clear that the Apostolic See cannot on any terms take part in their assemblies, nor is it anyway lawful for Catholics either to support or to work for such enterprises; for if they do so they will be giving countenance to a false Christianity, quite alien to the one Church of Christ. Shall We suffer, what would indeed be iniquitous, the truth, and a truth divinely revealed, to be made a subject for compromise? For here there is question of defending revealed truth.
Who then can conceive a Christian Federation, the members of which retain each his own opinions and private judgment, even in matters which concern the object of faith, even though they be repugnant to the opinions of the rest? And in what manner, We ask, can men who follow contrary opinions, belong to one and the same Federation of the faithful? For example, those who affirm, and those who deny that sacred Tradition is a true fount of divine Revelation; those who hold that an ecclesiastical hierarchy, made up of bishops, priests and ministers, has been divinely constituted, and those who assert that it has been brought in little by little in accordance with the conditions of the time; those who adore Christ really present in the Most Holy Eucharist through that marvelous conversion of the bread and wine, which is called transubstantiation, and those who affirm that Christ is present only by faith or by the signification and virtue of the Sacrament; those who in the Eucharist recognize the nature both of a sacrament and of a sacrifice, and those who say that it is nothing more than the memorial or commemoration of the Lord’s Supper; those who believe it to be good and useful to invoke by prayer the Saints reigning with Christ, especially Mary the Mother of God, and to venerate their images, and those who urge that such a veneration is not to be made use of, for it is contrary to the honor due to Jesus Christ, “the one mediator of God and men.” How so great a variety of opinions can make the way clear to effect the unity of the Church We know not; that unity can only arise from one teaching authority, one law of belief and one faith of Christians. But We do know that from this it is an easy step to the neglect of religion or indifferentism and to modernism, as they call it. (Emphasis added)
There are some who believe that the divisions between Christians and those of other faiths are simply man-made constructs, irrelevant in the pursuit of larger, mutual goals. That faith is from God, and religion — in its doctrine, dogma, liturgy, and rubrics — is made by man. These individuals, even those who call themselves Catholic, believe that the distinctions between those of the True Faith and those of other faiths — particularly other Christian sects — are mostly trivial, and that we can and should see ourselves as partaking of a shared journey toward heaven, during which we should be working and praying together, not evangelizing or “proselytizing”; not seeking, as some refer to our desire to convert others, an “ecumenism of return.”
But what of the “false Christianity” which Pope Pius warns we give rise to when we pray together with those who do not hold to the same eternal truths? What of the dogmatic proclamation of Pope Boniface that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff,” or the warning of Pope Eugene that “No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church”?
What of the very scriptural teachings themselves, which tell us precisely what men need for salvation, and how we are to act if they reject instruction on these things, “going forth out of that house or city” to “shake off the dust from your feet”? (Mt. 10:14)
Ecumenism and interfaith dialogue make us feel good, but they do not necessarily do good. Like parents afraid to discipline their children for fear they will be rejected, those who refuse the solemn duty to share their faith and its requirements with others think they’re being so much nicer to people by not telling them that they need to change. But in so doing, they fail to express the authentic love of souls that Christ exemplified, not only on the cross, but also when He offered “hard sayings” and did not back down when some turned away from them. He did not suffer and die so that all men, no matter what they believed and how they lived, could be saved. He offered a way – THE way, the truth, and the life. He did not establish many churches, but one Church. He did not say that “all roads lead to heaven,” but rather, that we should enter in “at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat.” (Mt 7:13)
Even the apostles didn’t always like it. But as Peter said when Jesus pressed him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (Jn. 6:69)
Love does not mean unconditional acceptance. It means desiring the good of another, even when they themselves have turned away from it. It means telling someone that they’re doing something that is hurting them, even when they don’t want to hear it. It means dying for the faith rather than compromising it. It means judging acts (but not souls) and offering fraternal correction, in order to help others to avoid eternal judgment.
The problem with our current approach to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue is that they amount to religious indifferentism, leaving us complacent in the idea that others are fine where they are, and can get to heaven through natural virtue and partial truth, but without conversion. Such thinking is tragically wrong, and inevitably stifles the zeal for souls that leads to evangelization.
Instead, we should faithfully carry out the the solemn duty of the Great Commission:
Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Mt. 28:19-20)