The Grave Consequences of the Church’s Great “Emphasis Shift”
Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission, and How We Can Reclaim It
By Eric Sammons
Publisher: Crisis Publications
Review Author: Christopher Beiting
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. “Outside of the Church there is no salvation.” The vast majority of ordinary Catholics today have never heard this and, if they were to, they would likely reject it and the idea behind it. Yet this phrase, first attributed to St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century Church Father, has been a governing principle of the Church from the very beginning. Many Church Fathers and theologians have taught the idea over the centuries, and it has been enshrined in Church councils (“There is indeed one universal church of the faithful, outside of which nobody at all is saved,” Lateran IV, 1215), papal teachings (“It is a perfectly well known Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church,” Pope Pius IX, Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, 1863), and Church statements (“Among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also in that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church,” Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, Suprema Haec Sacra, 1949). How did we get from clarity and certainty on this central point to the muddledness that prevails today, and what are the consequences of this change?
The answer is found in the very title of Eric Sammons’s Deadly Indifference. Following in the footsteps of earlier works on the subject, from Ralph Martin’s Will Many Be Saved? (2012) to Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s Christus Vincet (2019), Sammons offers an excellent examination of the consequences of the Church’s recent teaching about salvation. In short: It has led to widespread religious indifference among the faithful, the notion that all religions are equally capable of leading people to Heaven.
While many bishops and priests talk about how “vibrant” and “dynamic” their dioceses and parishes are, no one who is reading this can seriously believe them. Sammons, editor-in-chief of CrisisMagazine.com, opens his book with statistic after statistic, all of which point to decline rather than growth. When the second-largest religious group in America is “former Catholics,” it should be obvious that things are bad and getting worse. What happened to put us here? There are many reasons, but for Sammons, one of the major ones is the way the Church has chosen to downplay the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus from the era of the Second Vatican Council to the present. In this timeframe, a sense of religious pluralism has arisen within the Church, leading Catholics to think there is no one true Church, that many or all religions are equally valid, and that there are numerous paths to attaining eternal salvation. The result is a widespread sense of religious indifference. If all religions are the same, why be Catholic? Indeed, why be anything at all?
The problem with the religious indifference spawned by religious toleration is that it is both non-scriptural and ahistorical. Sammons reminds readers that a main theme of the Old Testament is the Jews’ failure to adhere to the First Commandment. When things go wrong for the Jews in the Bible, it is due to their failure to worship Yahweh alone. Similarly, a main theme of the New Testament is Jesus’ message that He is the only way to salvation. Religious pluralism is most emphatically not endorsed by either the Old or New Testament, nor was it endorsed by the Church through the ages.
True, the Church has taught that there are other ways to salvation besides sacramental Baptism; there is also baptism of blood and baptism of desire. The Church rightly condemned the mid-20th-century followers of Fr. Leonard Feeney, who insisted that anyone who was not formally baptized in the Church could not be saved. And from the days of St. Thomas Aquinas onward, the Church has insisted that those who suffer “invincible ignorance” of the faith can still be saved, as long as they obey the precepts of the natural law, follow God, and lead virtuous lives. However, Sammons notes that the Church has also always taught that “although it is possible for a non-Catholic to be saved, Catholics are discouraged from believing it is probable that non-Catholics will be saved. Living a virtuous and dutiful life and keeping the precepts of the natural law is incredibly difficult for a Catholic who has access to the sacraments; how much more so for the pagan who does not!”
So, what happened? Sammons uses the term “Emphasis Shift” to describe it. The Church hasn’t actually changed her teaching, but she has changed its emphasis. For Sammons, the chief culprit was Vatican II, or rather, the way in which the ideas of certain theologians like Karl Rahner, who advanced the notion of the “anonymous Christian” (i.e., a person who could obtain the grace of God and attain salvation outside formal Christianity), were introduced into the Council documents. The result was a concerted program of de-emphasizing the uniqueness and catholicity of the Church, in hopes of making her more appealing to non-Catholics. Whereas the Church once engaged in proclaiming Christ and His message, now she engages in “dialogue.” From stressing her uniqueness, she now acts as if she were just one of many other churches. And she has gone from warning against errors in other religions to promoting her commonalities with them. Whereas the Church used to condemn ecumenism as error, after Vatican II she created formal offices devoted to it.
Unfortunately for all concerned, this great Emphasis Shift had other unintended consequences: the collapse of mission work, the widespread exodus of members from the Church, apathy among those who remain, and the triumph of what Sammons calls “the Church of Beige,” a bland, lowest-common-denominator Catholicism that strives to be attractive by not being distinctive or controversial. The motivating factor for the past few popes to lead us down this road was laudable enough: the experience of the destructive wars of the 20th century and a concomitant desire for world peace. But the consequences have been to stress peace over everything else, which means that the Church has become obsessively focused on a this-worldly goal (peace), rather than an otherworldly goal (salvation). The Church has thus lost sight of her primary mission and become too worldly — and too beige.
As a way of understanding all this, Sammons has created a handy chart he calls the “Salvation Spectrum,” which shows the range of beliefs on salvation. It goes from Absolutist (believes only baptized Catholics can be saved) to Exclusivist (admits to extraordinary means of salvation but only focuses on ordinary ones) to Inclusivist (increasingly focuses on extraordinary means of salvation) to Pluralist (believes salvation is possible through many religions) and, finally, to Universalist (believes all human beings are saved). Of these, only the Exclusivist and Inclusivist are actually Catholic; the other three are not.
Of the two that are Catholic, the Exclusivist view prevailed in the Church until Vatican II, with the Inclusivist position prevailing ever since. Sammons notes that there are gradations within the Inclusivist view, which he attempts to clarify. For example, he categorizes Pope Benedict XVI as a Reserved Inclusivist; Pope St. John Paul II, with his strong praise of other religions and the Assisi World Day of Prayer, as a Moderate Inclusivist; and Pope Francis, with his effusive praise of other religions and signing of the Abu Dhabi declaration in 2019, as an Expansive Inclusivist. The problem with Inclusivism is that it shades imperceptibly into Pluralism and even Universalism, no matter what its adherents intend. As a result, while our most recent popes are not actually Pluralists, a misunderstanding of their teachings has caused countless Catholics to deviate into Pluralism. And Pluralism, as we have seen, leads to indifference.
Even the much-touted New Evangelization of John Paul II is a product, not a repudiation, of the great Emphasis Shift, stressing as it does a non-confrontational approach, focusing on fallen-away Catholics rather than other Christians (let alone non-Christians), and downplaying eternal consequences like salvation and damnation. The New Evangelization has, frankly, been mostly a failure. Although appreciating his efforts, Sammons is not sparing in his critique of Bishop Robert Barron, perhaps the most visible American face of the New Evangelization. Sammons cites a couple videos in which Barron seems to go out of his way not to encourage a Protestant and a Jew to become Catholic! When the doyen of the New Evangelization can’t provide reasons for people to convert to Catholicism, we have a real problem.
What is to be done? In Sammons’s estimation, we should admit that what we have been doing isn’t working and go back to what does work. That means doing three things.
First, we need to recover the proper Catholic teaching on the nature of salvation, abandon Inclusivism, and return to the traditional position of Exclusivism. One of the most important ways of doing this is to focus not on possibilities but on realities. We shouldn’t focus on what God might or might not do to save nonbelievers, but instead focus on the basics of what God has commanded us believers to do. Sammons’s words on the matter are worth reproducing here in full:
So the important question is not, “Can God save non-Catholics?” The important question is, “What has God asked us to do to be saved?” He has commanded us to be baptized by water and be members of His Church in order to be saved. Therefore, we need to obey His command and leave the extraordinary means to His divine mercy and judgment. Let’s shift the emphasis back to the ordinary means and stop treating the extraordinary means as ordinary.
In other words, we need another Emphasis Shift back to what the Church traditionally believed. Those who feel queasy about such a prospect, with visions of the Spanish Inquisition dancing in their heads, must remember that returning to Exclusivism does not mean being religiously intolerant. Religious toleration has long been a part of Catholic teaching. But all religions are not equal and should not be treated as such, and toleration does not equate to promotion. The ultimate goal is not toleration but evangelization and conversion.
Second, we need to acknowledge that the New Evangelization has failed and we need to return to the Old Evangelization. (Not coincidentally, Sammons, who has a long background and extensive experience in parish and diocesan evangelization, wrote an earlier book on this very subject.) We need to proclaim the Gospel and abandon the fruitless practice of incessant, endless dialogue. What have decades of dialogue achieved, anyway? What is the goal of all this dialogue? There doesn’t seem to be one.
When it comes to ecumenical efforts, the ultimate goal of the Catholic Church is a shared life in the sacraments. Sadly, the only non-Catholic group with whom we share that goal is Orthodoxy, so dialogue with the Orthodox is possible. But there is no way there can be a meaningful union of Catholicism and, say, Methodism. It is far better for the Church to abandon vain hopes of union with Methodism and instead focus on converting individual Methodists. This does not mean abandoning contact with other Christian groups or other religions. But it is instructive to consider that far more substantive results have come from Christians working together in something like the pro-life movement than from any official Church-sponsored ecumenical effort. Indeed, it was Sammons’s experiences as a Protestant working in the pro-life movement that brought him into contact with committed, zealous Catholics and led to his conversion.
Third, we need a renewal of parish life. Parishes do a lot of different things these days — in Sammons’s estimation, perhaps too much. If a parish-sponsored softball league leads to parents skipping Mass on Sundays to get their kids to the games, that’s a problem. As with the Church as a whole, each parish needs to consider its primary mission: the salvation of souls. Parish resources are finite, and every parish needs to evaluate its activities and ask itself, “Does this contribute to the salvation of souls?” If the answer is “no,” the parish should quit doing it. Along with this approach goes the idea of not soft-pedaling the hard teachings of the Church, like the existence of Hell and the possibility of eternal damnation. Moreover, the very “vibe” of parishes needs to change, to get us away from the Church of Beige and back to being the Catholic Church. Having priests celebrate Mass ad orientem would be a good start, as would abandoning the glut of wretched music that is not even Christian, let alone Catholic. Also, there ought to be more occasions for silence during worship.
Sammons’s proposals would no doubt be welcomed by most readers of this magazine. All the same, putting his proposals into practice would mean opposing aspects of the Second Vatican Council, as well as some of the teachings of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis, and Bishop Barron. Good luck with that.
A number of perceptive people have concluded that the Church is in the middle of one of the epochal crises she faces every 500 years or so, a mess as bad as the one at the time of the Protestant Reformation. It is worth noting that the primary impetus for reform back then was not the hierarchy but the laity, with popes and bishops among the last to realize a serious problem was afoot. That situation does not seem all that different from the one we are in today.
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