How Theology Moves Along

If you want to see how the evolution of doctrine works in practice look up Avery Cardinal Dulles’ learned article "Who Can Be Saved?" in February’s First Things. In a succinct and brisk narrative Dulles describes how Christians developed their theological reflections on salvation from scriptural beginnings to the present. We can wince again to read Augustine and his followers’ pessimistic views that God doesn’t want everyone to be saved; so of course those who never have a chance to hear the gospels "are eternally punished for original sin as well as any personal sins they had committed." Pagans, Jews, heretics and schismatics outside the Church will go to the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels." After hitting this nadir, theological reflection could only move up. Beginning with the scriptural witness that God seriously wills all to be saved, theologians began to puzzle over how this might happen. Slowly over the centuries new solutions emerge with new concepts of "implicit faith," "invincible ignorance," baptism by desire," "implicit desire" and even "unconscious desire." By the time we get to Vatican II, God’s universal saving will can be trusted to give non-Christians , and even atheists, sufficient help to be saved. Karl Rahner’s influential idea of "anonymous Christians" asserts that God anonymously reveals Godself to everyone in an interior offer of grace. Salvation becomes a matter of seeking truth and living by the light of conscience. Missionary work and evangelization is still a good thing because the truths and gifts available in the church help ensure salvation. Today in the evolving theological story, contentious discussions are focused on the saving role of other religions. Cardinal Dulles refrains from detailing the still undecided ins and outs of the current fray, and concludes his essay with the hopeful words, "Perhaps some will reach the goal of their search only at the moment of death." But why, it may be asked, should the Church’s progressive journey toward greater inclusion not continue? I am inspired by another great Jesuit, Jacques Dupuis’ work. He affirms that the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Word of God is "decisive" and "unsurpassable," but not "exhaustive." God’s creativity is inexhaustible and works always and everywhere--in and out of human hearts and in other religions. And why cut off the narrative with "the moment of death?" Since we already have a concept of purgatory, perhaps an extension of the human spiritual journey awaits in the fullness of God’s time. This expansion of merciful love and time for discovery within the community of God’s family would help us understand the future of dying infants, the unborn, the mentally incapacitated and other invincibly ignorant and sinful folk. So, will all be saved? Yes, if we trust the Lord’s words: "I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut." Sidney Callahan
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 9 months ago
Well written and thought out. Given this, there is a current issue with the "Motu Proprio" and Good Friday prayers. What to do about a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews contained in the old Latin rite, which has been authorized for wider use by Pope Benedict XVI? Good Friday liturgy also contains prayer for heretics and schismatics (meaning Protestants) and for pagans (meaning non-Christians). Should those prayers too be revised, since they don’t reflect the more sensitive argot of Vatican II? More broadly, some critics charge that much of the symbolism and language of the old Mass is inconsistent with the vision of the council. So, this is more than just a theological excercise.
10 years 7 months ago
Dear Sidney: Your lovely insights remind me of Dorothy Day's reflection that there is no time with God. Julie


The latest from america

"I feel proud as a brother and as a family member," Gaspar Romero said, "but also as part of the (Salvadoran) people because over there, they love him a lot."
Pope Francis made clear that Paul VI and Archbishop Romero responded to the radical call of Jesus with “an undivided heart.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 14, 2018
Just before the announcement was made, the pope met with Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and discussed the sexual abuse scandal affecting the Catholic Church in the country.
Damien Chazelle’s "First Man" is a remarkably idiosyncratic movie, given the usual heroic/fantastic presentation on screen of space travel—or anything involving the heavens.
John AndersonOctober 12, 2018