SSPX and Salvation Outside the Church

Pope and Dalai LamaCambridge, MA. I was inspired by Fr Jim Martin’s excellent piece on the deep anti-semitism of the Society of Saint Piux X (SSPX) and looked for myself at the website of SSPX to see what else might be found there. The essay to which Fr Martin refers, “The Mystery of the Jews,” is now missing from the website, but I did find an interesting pair of articles in debate with Fr. Leonard Feeney, SJ, on salvation outside the Church. Working at St Paul’s Parish and the Catholic Student Center at Harvard in the 1940s, Fr Feeney had argued that the consistent position of the Church should be that no person, Christian or non-Christian, outside the Church could be saved. All were damned.

     To be candid, I expected that the SSPX website would embrace Fr. Feeney’s stance — but in fact the site does not. Rather, a 1986 article, “Fr. Feeney and Catholic Doctrine,”  argues against the Feeney view, and asserts rather that while one must be baptized to be saved, there are, in addition to baptism by water, also baptism by blood and by desire - that is, by martyrdom and by a deep (and sometimes implicit) longing to participate in Christ. This teaching, vaguely familiar to me from the catechisms of my youth, is in turned explained at length by Fr. Joseph Pfeiffer in an article entitled “The Three Baptisms.” Fr. Pfeiffer cites the Vatican letter to Cardinal Cushing, Archbishop of Boston, in firm rejection of the very unchristian idea that all non-Catholics are damned: “That one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance, God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wants his will to be conformed to the Will of God..." (Letter to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8, 1949).

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          Fr Feeney

     For more support, Fr Pfeiffer refers to a 19th century treatise by Bishop George Hay, The Sincere Christian Instructed in the Faith of Christ, from the Written Word. This book discusses at great length how God can reach non-Christians and bring them to salvation. I was amazed to find Bishop Hay’s book in the Harvard University Library, and could read (briefly) through the 50 pages or so on how non-Christians could be saved, by God’s gracious interaction with heathens, pagans, Turks, and others who are bereft of the graces of the Church, even in their paganism. Try reading Fr. Pfeifer’s article, exercise your mind to understand the technical terms in which it is argued; if you can find it, take a look at Bishop Hay’s book. There is always more to learn.

     My reaction to all this was threefold. First, while Fr Pfeiffer and the current editors of the SSPX website are not liberals, it is interesting that they reject Fr Feeney’s rather cold and unimaginative restriction on God’s love, and insist that in various ways God can and does reach people outside the Church. While SSPX has rightly been given a hard time in the press, it should not be caricatured as entirely closed-minded on every issue.

     Second, I also appreciated the deeply attentive and serious way in which Fr Pfeiffer and others were clearly seeking to explain how others can be saved, notwithstanding Church teaching on the necessity of the Church. I do not think we can simply embrace today, after Vatican II, the notion of the three baptisms of water, desire, and blood, which would have to be rethought in light of today’s understanding of baptism, but we share the same challenge: how to draw on the resources of the faith as we believe and practice it, to speak of salvation in Christ, for all, without seeming to be, or actually being, self-righteous, smug in a claim that we, the saved, know who is not saved.

     Third, the conversation carried on at the SSPX website, hearkening back to Bishop Hay in the early 19th century, reminds us that the pre-Vatican II Church also had an earnestly hard time in explaining "no salvation outside the Church," just as does the post-Vatican II Church. Yes, there have been many changes, and most of us welcome these changes as the work of the Holy Spirit; but even those who do not like the changes ought not to dream of a pre-conciliar Church in which everything was clear. Everything was not clear; the tension between the need for the Church and a near certainty that God’s love is universal was as evident in past centuries as it is now.
     So what’s the difference? Despite all the rhetoric, the Church is still the Church, with most of the same graces and most of the same flaws. Like our predecessors, we still need to use every resource we can find to explain how God works in familiar and mysterious ways, in the Church and outside the Church. We succeed, and we fail, and we keep leaving it to the next generation to do better. But there is a difference: unlike Bishop Hay in the 19th century, and unlike Fr Pfeiffer in the article I have referred to above, we cannot today merely talk about heathens, pagans, Turks, and others who are described as bereft of the benefits of the Church. Rather, we - whichever our religion - are in this together, and we need to be talking to one another. It is not permissible — and it makes no sense — for us to sit around talking about whether Hindus and Buddhists and Native Americans and other are saved, when we need also to be talking with them and listening to them. If we talk just to ourselves, our comfortable conversation will do little to shed light on who our neighbors are, or who we are. We are in the age of dialogue, and we cannot retreat to a monological church.
     SSPX can remind us of the riches of our tradition, and the honesty with which pre-conciliar Catholics could struggle with issues still facing us today. The rest of us, in the living Church that has flourished in the irreversibly post-Vatican II era, can remind SSPX that we too are motivated with the same concern for Church and world that they have nurtured — and we have learned to talk with those who seem religiously rather different from ourselves, rather than merely about them.
     But, to practice what I preach: I need to listen to SSPX views of salvation outside the Church and related matters; I welcome SSPX comments on this piece.

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8 years 6 months ago
I agree with the Holy Office in 1949 and 1952, with the SSPX and with you that Fr Feeney was wrong. That said his outrageous view is in the range of allowable opinion. You're right that traditional Catholicism is not monolithic. Fr F wasn't thrown out for two decades for his view but for disobedience: kicked out of your order in ’49 for not obeying a transfer. Because his theological view is allowable he and his followers didn't have to recant when they came back into the official church (Fr F in the early 1970s). Likewise Bishop Williamson's views on history are not denials of doctrine or even morals (he doesn't deny or defend the Nazis murdering hundreds of thousands including Archbishop Lefèbvre's father) and so are irrelevant in the matter at hand today; I enjoy the irony of liberals angry over lifting an excommunication. How is 'today's understanding of baptism' different from what the faith has always taught? Unless I misunderstand you that seems rather close to the indifferentism the church has always rejected (and which the SSPX fear ecumenism and religious liberty are). All are saved through Christ and his (one true) church; the range of opinion is to do with how some might implicitly be so. I live a non-Vatican II, 'unreformed' church life but probably agree with you, along with the recent Popes, that, rightly understood, religious liberty and ecumenism are good.
8 years 6 months ago
P.S. Correction: 1953.
8 years 9 months ago
Very interesting post. FYI www.dici.org, the 'press agency of the Mother House of the Priestly Society Saint Pius X,' has a Q&A on its teachings on its French pages (but not in its English section). In the section ARTICLES DE FOND : LE THOMATIQUE, it argues that there is no salvation outside the Church (http://www.dici.org/thomatique_read.php?id=000161). Among its arguments supporting this view, it says there are no obvious signs of divine origin in other religions. It takes Islam as an example and says that moral corruption reigns in the Muslim world 'not de facto... but by principle, as a normal and fitting thing.'
8 years 9 months ago
I find this to be a well-written article and it reflects a serious concern and struggle by the writer; it is also informative and edifying in the presentation of historical material. However, I do disagree with the writer's praise of James Martin's budding efforts at investigative reporting concerning SSPX; rather than edifying, Martin is struggling to bring up dirt and to find the worse in SSPX and, it appears, the Pope and the Vatican. The better to inflame the issues? This seems to be his reoccuring theme on a few fronts. How can the writer appeal for dialogue and still praise one (Fr. Martin)who speaks against, not with? Fr. Clooney has the resources and the interest to delve into mysterious subjects of serious theology and to share his findings with the world. For this surely we thank him.
8 years 9 months ago
Fr.Jacques Dupuis, SJ (1923-2004) wrote a book that was published in 1997 with the title 'Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.' Among other things it is about salvation and non-Christian religions. Dupuis' book examines of the often quoted axiom 'extra ecclesiam nulla sallus' (no salivation outside the church) that was formulated at the Council of Florence in 1442 and directed mainly at schematics and heretics they were having 'problems' with at that time. In time it became impossible 'to believe in any guilt on the part of entire masses of people who had failed to join the Christian faith.' Catholic thinkers from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries tried to soften the stance of the Catholic Church through such theories as limbo, implicit faith, baptism by desire, etc. This eventually lead to the Catholic thinking about religious pluralism that occurred the latter part of the 20th century and at the Second Vatican Council.
8 years 9 months ago
Years ago I made my first contact with Buddhism when I attended a three day workshop sponsored by Buddhist monks and Benedictine monks. I can still remember the first question I asked a Buddhist practitioner. I asked this young man what Buddhism meant for him. His answer to me was 'mindfulness'. That answer grabbed me and I have been interested in Buddhism since then. Practically speaking Buddhism has been a strategy for confronting reality directly yet in a way that negates confrontational patterns of knowing. This has been a gift. It has given me the opportunity to simply witness life at times. This can lead to compassion. It has been an opportunity to learn to develop compassion as a strategy and as a goal. I am a beginner. http://www.monasticdialog.com/
8 years 9 months ago
Father Clooney's citation of the letter of the Holy Office condemning Fr. Feeney’s teaching cuts out a little too early. The rest of the citation states (among other things): ''With these wise words he reproves both those who exclude from salvation all united to the Church only by implicit desire, and those who falsely assert that men can be saved equally as well in every religion.'' http://www.sspx.org/miscellaneous/fr_feeney_catholic_doctrine.htm That salvation is possible outside the Catholic church does not mean that it's possible without Christ. This being the case, it's not 'smug' to advise believers in other religions of this. Indeed we are obligated to inform them, while not denying that Christ, and only Christ, may save them through their religion. This may induce them to choose the direct path to and through Christ which is the Church. It is contradictory to sustain that it is possible to explicitly reject Christ while implicitly accepting him, unless the person does not know what s/he is doing. In case there's any doubt, I'm not associated with SSPX or any religious order or organization other than the Catholic church.
8 years 9 months ago
Interesting article and I am glad that Father has found that the SSPX is not as unreasonable and radical as it has been portrayed. The dogma of ''No Salvation Outside the Church'' has it seems been hard to comprehend ever since it was first promulgated. There have been ongoing attempts to balance God's justice for the uninformed or truly ignorant and the obedience due to Our Lord's command to go out and make disciples of the nations. I believe that as modern communications increase and spread around the world, the existance of truly invincibly ignorant populations will dramatically decrease. For this reason the position of the SSPX (which is that of the traditional Church) will be rehabilitated, because we are no longer dealing with a lack of knowlege of Christ and the Church, but of prejudice and bigotry, essentially characatures and misinformation. Bishop Fultan Sheen said it best when he said that anti-Catholics are against a ficticious Church of their own makings and not the true Catholic Church. This means that we have alot of work in store for us to share the true message of Christ and the salvation offered by His Church.
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
Pope Martin V, The Council of Constance, Session 15, July 6, 1415 - Condemning the articles of John Wyclif - Proposition 6: "Those who claim that the children of the faithful dying without sacramental baptism will not be saved, are stupid and presumptuous in saying this." -Condemned
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
St. Francis De Sales (Doctor of the Church), The Catholic Controversy, c. 1602, pp. 156-157: "The way in which one deduces an article of faith is this: the Word of God is infallible; the Word of God declares that Baptism is necessary for salvation; therefore Baptism is necessary for salvation."
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
Water is necessary for baptism, and baptism is necessary for salvation. Therefore, water is necessary for salvation. See below: Pope Paul III, The Council of Trent, Session VII (Touching Baptism), March 3, 1547: "Canon II: If anyone shall say, that true and natural water is not of necessity for baptism, and, on that account, wrests to some sort of metaphor those words of our Lord Jesus Christ; 'Except a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost' (John iii. 5.); let him be anathema. "Canon V: If anyone shall say, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation; let him be anathema."
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
I thought this article was well written and contributory. Other religions such as Hindus, Buddhists and Islam, as well as other non-Catholic Christian religions have very different views and teachings about faith and morals. One may rightly ask: if a person follows, as best he/she can, all the tenants and teachings of their religion, will they be saved? My memory may be in error here, but I remember reading something like: faithful people outside the Catholic Church can be saved, even if they follow teachings that the RCC deems sinful or immoral because of "invincible ignorance". This means that God will not condemn them for following a teaching that might offend God and not be true, even if it is taught by their faith as truth. For that matter, many Catholics who disagree with certain teachings for good reasons of an informed conscience are also put into the classification of the "misguided" or "invincibly ignorant". This brings us to the import and role of an informed conscience, which is another subject. Nevertheless, it continues to be perplexing to me that the magisterium teaches (and I could be wrong here) that other Christian religions do not possess the fullness of truth that the RCC does….but their faithful can be saved if they are baptized in Christ and faithfully follow their religious beliefs as most Catholics follow there religious beliefs (even those who disagree with certain teachings based on their informed consciences). This would seem to leave out other religions that do not believe in Christ or in baptism in his name. How could one have any desire for Christ, for baptism, or the Christian religion if one is brought up by Buddhists, et al?
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
Pope Pius IX, First Vatican Council, Session 3, Chapter 4, #14, April 24, 1870: "Hence, too, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is ever to be maintained which has once been declared by Holy Mother Church, and there must never be any abandonment of this sense under the pretext or in the name of a more profound understanding."
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
Pope St. Leo the Great, dogmatic letter to Flavian, Council of Chalcedon, 451: "For there are three who give testimony — Spirit and water and blood. And the three are one. In other words, the Spirit of sanctification and the blood of redemption and the water of baptism. These three are one and remain indivisible. None of them is separable from its link with the others."
Jim McCrea
3 years 8 months ago
If one is not persuaded by evidence presented that accepting Christ is necessary for salvation, is one guilty of rejecting Christ, or is one simply not persuaded?
Michael Barberi
3 years 8 months ago
Jim, A good point especially those who never knew anything about Christ or the Christian religion such as Buddhists. Is there salvation for those outside the Catholic Church such as those in other Christian Churches, Jews and other legitimate religions that have no root in the Judeo-Christian religion? Some of these religions don't believe in a baptism, certainly not a baptism in Christ.
John Tobak
3 years 8 months ago
Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Session 11, February 4, 1442: "It [the Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the 'everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels,' unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives;"
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
John Tobak, Pope Eugene IV in 1442 did indeed believe and teach as truth the proclamations that those outside the Catholic Church, including Jews, cannot share in eternal life and will go into 'everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels'. I am certain that some Popes before and after him believed the same thing. Nevertheless, I don't believe the magisterium in 2014 professes this same error of truth, especially after the decrees of Ecumenism and their history after Vatican II. I assume your remarks were sarcasm.
John Tobak
3 years 7 months ago
Pope Eugene IV was speaking EX CATHEDRA and, therefore, infallibly.
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
John Tobak, There has only been two times in all of Catholic Church history where a pope spoke ex Cathedra, namely, Mary's Immaculate Conception and Assumption. That's it. Sorry to burst your bubble.
John Tobak
3 years 7 months ago
Was Pope Pius IX not speaking EX CATHEDRA when he defined what it means for the Pope to speak "EX CATHEDRA?"
Michael Barberi
3 years 7 months ago
John Tobak, You should do more research on the topic infallibility and the question about what teachings by popes were declared definitively as ex-Cathedra. To your surprise, but not those familiar with this subject, that I am correct that only two teachings by popes have been proposed as ex-Cathedra, as I mentioned.
John Finn
3 years 8 months ago
"Are Non-Christians Saved?" "....We are no longer ready and able to think that our neighbor, who is a decent and respectable man and in many ways better than we are, should be eternally damned simply because he is not a Catholic...... "...If we are honest, we will have to admit that this is not our problem at all. The question we have to face is not that of whether other people can be saved and how. We are convinced that God is able to do this with or without our theories, with or without our perspicacity, and that we do not need to help him with our cogitations. The trouble that really troubles us is not in the least concerned with whether and how God manages to save others." Joseph Ratzinger, 1964

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