SSPX and Salvation Outside the Church
Cambridge, 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).
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.