As some of you might have noticed, Christine Niles of Church Militant recently hosted a webcast which explored the thrice-defined dogma of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (EENS), or "No salvation outside the Church." I took this as a wink from God, because I've been meaning to write something on this very important teaching for quite a while now. After months of procrastination, it seems the time has arrived to put my thoughts down on paper... or whatever blogs are made of. I offer them for your consideration.
Instead of going through the list of familiar papal pronouncements which treat the doctrine of EENS, I'd like to approach the teaching from a completely different angle. In particular, from that of the theology of damnation. This might at first seem to be a rather odd point of entry, but there are good reasons for exploring the theology of damnation before attempting to digest EENS. Three such reasons concern us here:
- Damnation is the theological complement to salvation. Any doctrine which explicitly defines matter related to salvation implicitly defines matter related to damnation, as the one is the logical and eschatological complement of the other. Thus, EENS has just as much to do with damnation as it does with salvation.
- Damnation is the rule, not the exception. It is often assumed that nearly everyone is saved, and that only a few exceptionally bad individuals - Hitler, Stalin, the guy who invented reality TV - are damned. On the contrary, damnation is the condition into which all of us are born, and unless we receive and die in the saving grace of God, damnation will also be our eternal reward. Christ came to save us from damnation, and it's a miracle every time a soul is saved precisely because, according to God's law, we fully deserve that damnation. This is essential background knowledge for approaching the doctrine of EENS.
- Damnation is poorly understood. While damnation is the logical and eschatological complement to salvation, it is not simply the inverse of salvation. That is to say, the state of damnation is positively differentiated in a way which is not reflected in the order of salvation. Understanding this qualitative differentiation is essential for putting EENS in its proper theological context.
While the first two points should be readily grasped by all, the third stands in need of some clarification. In what does the qualitative differentiation of damnation consist? And how does it help elucidate the doctrine of EENS? Before we attempt to answer these important questions, it behooves us to identify the prevailing view of damnation, as this is what we will be attempting to correct as we proceed. This preliminary step proves to be key, because much of the disdain for the doctrine of EENS arises from a faulty understanding of damnation - which, incidentally, many Catholics have adopted from their Protestant neighbors.
As a general rule, Protestants believe that there are two possible fates for each individual soul - fates which are instantaneously awarded and diametrically opposite to one another: heaven and hell. One minute you're eating a delicious strip of crispy bacon, and the next, you're either sitting on a cloud strumming your harp or you're down in the pits of hell being roasted over hot coals while listening to Kenny G for all eternity. Of course, I'm taking some creative license with the imagery - it could well be Zamfir - but the dichotomy referred to is nonetheless an unmistakable feature of the Protestant's theological landscape. So much so, in fact, that, next to bashing the mother of Our Lord, there's little else Protestants love more than attacking the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. In their strictly two-category system, Purgatory is like a third-party American President: interesting to think about but utterly impossible.
Most Catholics in the West have unconsciously absorbed this way of thinking about damnation. Sure, they know about Purgatory, but it's generally treated like a quirky doctrinal addendum and imagined to be not unlike a really horrible waiting room. This is a rather unfortunate state of affairs, because Catholic teaching on damnation is not only intellectually and morally satisfying, but also demonstrates the perfect harmony of God's mercy with His justice.
Back in the day - i.e. before the ecumenicidal leveling of every distinctively Catholic doctrine into the feel-good mush regularly served up in parishes around the world - theologians worked at providing genuine insight into the truths of our Catholic Faith. And damnation was, believe it or not, something of a "big deal" - so big, in fact, that theologians spent a lot of time examining it in great detail. They discovered that there are actually four kinds of damnation, each with their own variety of poena or "penalty" and each with their own proper spiritual 'location', though all can be considered as parts of "Hell", viz:
- poena aeterna damni et sensus of Hell proper, i.e. the Inferno
- poena temporalis damni et sensus of Purgatory
- poena aeterna damni of the Limbo of the Unbaptized/Infants
- poena temporalis damni of the Limbo of the Fathers
For those of you with a working knowledge of Latin and an appreciation of the Scholastic art of logical division, the breakdown here is as clear as it is precise. For everyone else:
There are two primary forms of "penalty", "punishment" or "pain" (all of which are etymologically related to Latin poena): (1) poena damni, the punishment of damnation, and (2) poena sensus, the punishment of the senses, i.e. sensory pain. Each of these can be either eternal (aeterna) or temporary (temporalis) in duration.
From this, we can draw several illuminating conclusions, many of which I will leave to you, gentle reader, to discover on your own. One critical insight which deserves to be highlighted, however, is this: the punishment of damnation and the punishment of sensory pain are not the same thing. In point of fact, the punishment of sensory pain is limited to Hell and Purgatory. This makes good Catholic sense, because Hell and Purgatory are the respective sentences for mortal and venial sin, and are therefore predicated upon the moral fault of the individual. Where there is no personal moral fault, as is the case with those who die with nothing other than the stain of original sin on their souls, there is no punishment of sensory pain. And how could it be any other way? God, being omnibenevolent, is not going to allow a person to be tormented for something of which he is not personally guilty.
At the same time, however, God is all-holy and all-just, and nothing bearing the stain of sin can stand before Him. And this is the essence of salvation: to be fully reconciled to God by removal of the stain of sin and to stand in His presence, i.e. to enjoy the beatific vision. Yet, the stain of original sin can only be removed by the waters of baptism. Thus, baptism is absolutely necessary in order to avoid the punishment of damnation and to enjoy the beatific vision, and the souls of those who die free from all personal sin but who are nonetheless stained with original sin are, technically speaking, damned. In this category would fall not only babies who die before baptism, but also virtuous pagans who never receive the opportunity to hear the Gospel and be baptized. But - and this is important - such a person does not suffer the positive pains of Hell.
This is not merely speculation culled from theological manuals. At least two Popes and an Ecumenical Council have said as much:
The Roman Church teaches [...] that the souls of those who depart in mortal sin or with original sin only descend immediately to Hell, nevertheless to be punished with different punishments and in disparate locations. - Pope John XXII, Nequaquam sine dolore
That is to say, the unbaptized who die without personal sin (i.e. "only original sin") are, strictly speaking, "damned," as they endure the poena damni or punishment of damnation. But the extent of their damnation is limited to the deprivation of the beatific vision, and they dwell in a "disparate location," i.e. not in Hell proper, as the place of sensory punishment. This teaching was confirmed by the Council of Florence in the following terms:
...the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to Hell to be punished, but with unequal pains. - Council of Florence, Laetentur Caeli
Pope Pius VI later taught the same in his condemnation of an error widely held at his time:
The doctrine which rejects as a Pelagian fable that place of the lower regions (which the faithful generally designate by the name of Limbo of the Children) in which the souls of those departing with the sole guilt of original sin are punished with the punishment of the condemned, exclusive of the punishment of fire [...] is false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools. - Pope Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei
This statement is clearer still in that it identifies "that place of the lower regions," i.e. Limbo, as receiving not merely children but all who die free from personal sin yet with the stain of original sin, and that such persons, while undergoing the poena damni, do not experience the poena sensus, i.e. the "punishment of fire."
This same teaching was summarized by Fr. L. E. Latorre in his Guidebook for Baptism:
The great majority of theologians teach that such children and unbaptized adults free from grievous actual sin enjoy eternally a state of perfect natural happiness, knowing and loving God by the use of their natural powers. This place and state is commonly called Limbo.
This statement goes even further, claiming that, more than simply being free from sensory pain, those in Limbo actually experience natural happiness. This, however, appears to be a point upon which there was heavy disagreement among theologians. As one historian notes:
In the fifth session of the Council of Trent, the Dominicans advocated the stricter view, making of the limbus infantium [Limbo of the Infants] a dark, underground prison, while the Franciscans placed it above in a region of light. Others made the condition of these children still better: they supposed them occupied with studying nature, philosophizing on it, and receiving occasional visits from angels and saints. As the Council thought it best not to decide this point, theologians have since been free to embrace either view.
Finally, I offer the following useful summary, which appeared in the July, 1849 edition of Brownson's Quarterly Review:
Suppose now, - and if the supposition is inadmissible the objection vanishes, - that among the gentiles there are persons who die out of the Church, free from all actual sin: they, certainly, will never see God, will never enter heaven, will not be saved; yet nothing obliges us to believe that they will be doomed to the punishment of sense, or to the positive sufferings of hell. What will be their fate, beyond the fact that they will not be saved, we do not know, and do not attempt to determine. We remit them, if such there are, to the bounty of God, who, for aught we know, may place them in the category of unbaptized infants who die in their infancy. But no injustice is done them in not admitting them to the beatific vision; for to see God by the light of glory is a gratuitous reward, promised only to supernatural faith and sanctity, never due and never promised to mere natural innocence or to mere natural virtue. The defect of natural innocence or of natural virtue excludes from it, but the possession of either or both does not and cannot entitle to it; and natural innocence and virtue are all that it can be pretended that these have. Hence, supposing such persons, supposing them to die free from all but original sin, no injustice is done them in excluding them from salvation, and therefore the dogma which denies the possibility of salvation out of the Church asserts nothing contrary to the justice or even to the fidelity of God.
This quote brings us neatly back to our original question: How does the qualitative differentiation of damnation help to elucidate the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus? I hope the answer is already sufficiently clear. But allow me to highlight what I consider to be the most salient point:
There is absolutely nothing harsh or judgmental in the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. On the contrary, a proper understanding of the teaching reveals both God's supreme justice as well as His infinite mercy, as He neither punishes nor rewards arbitrarily. If we approach the teaching with a wrong understanding of salvation and damnation, then we are bound to misunderstand what it means. We do not need to adjust the meaning of the term "outside," as some have attempted to do; we do not need to adjust the meaning of the term "Church," as others have attempted to do; and we certainly do not need to abandon the doctrine of Limbo, as still others have attempted to do. The Catholic teaching on salvation and damnation, including the teaching on the absolute necessity of the Church, is inextricably intertwined with her teaching on countless issues, being of central importance to moral theology, soteriology and eschatology, and a doctrine such as EENS cannot be "tweaked" to appease the sensibilities of a decadent and unrepentant generation without distorting a whole host of intimately related truths.
Now, I understand that some might be concerned that the approach taken above - and it is nothing more than one possible approach - could be seen as demoralizing to the Church's missionary efforts. After all, if the Virtuous Pagan can attain something resembling natural happiness without being a member of the Church, then why should Catholics risk life and limb to bring them the message of the Gospel? In response, I would point, first, to Our Lord's positive commandment to "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." Second, I would highlight that, as Catholics, we know that man was created to live in the presence of Almighty God, and that to fail in attaining this, our proper end, is always a tragedy, even if it does not necessarily bring with it the painful torments of Hell. That is to say, our goal in evangelization and mission is not merely to assist the Church in her work of saving souls from Hell (or Purgatory, or Limbo), but also to assist her in bringing souls to the throne of majesty to enjoy the beatific vision of Our Lord in all His glory. That is the true mission of the Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation.
|Dante and Vergil Visit the Virtuous Pagans in Limbo|
"Lost are we and only so far punished that, without hope, we live on in desire."
Gustave Doré (1832-1883)