Saturday, October 23, 2010

Can Those Of Other Religions Be "Saved" ?

Written by Dr. Sherman Kuek, SFO

One of the complications arising from living in Asia stems from the religious composition of the Asian population. The Asian continent is the very source of the world religions that thrive in the world today: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and a good many other religions.

Having to make sense of this plethora of religions together with their variety of truth claims must be disconcerting to the Asian man on the street. This is so even for those of us who follow Jesus Christ, who call ourselves Christians. Over the centuries, Asian Christians have come to make sense of these other religions among them in different ways. There are two prevalent notions I would like to briefly explicate here:

Two Common Notions about Other Religions

•i) Only the Christians will be saved.

If you have friends around you who are non-Catholic Christians, you may very likely have heard the claim that only Christians can be saved, and that for as long as a person has not "received Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Saviour", he is bound for damnation. This is the prevalent notion among Evangelical Christians insofar as their understanding goes pertaining to the salvation of humankind.

This very exclusivist position on the salvation of peoples of other religions is one of two common notions among Christian people of other religions. For most of the strict Evangelical Christians (although not all), there is no relationship whatsoever between the Christians and people of other religions; it is only those who explicitly profess the Christian faith who will ultimately be saved. For the record, there are some of them who think Catholics are not saved either, since "they worship Mary and not Jesus Christ"!

ii) All people will be saved regardless of their religion.

Another common position, strangely, seems to be very prevalent among Catholics in this part of the world. It is the pluralist position which claims that all religions lead to salvation, and that no one religion is better than others.

This pluralistic notion is, of course, rejected by the Holy Catholic Church. If all religions led to salvation, then Jesus Christ would have been a most foolish or insane person to think that He would have to die for the sins of the world.

Furthermore, if the truth claims of all religions were equal, the unenviable onus would fall upon the adherents of all these religions to reconcile their seemingly conflicting beliefs.

For example, some religions believe that after death, there will be judgement, heaven, and hell, whilst some others believe that death would merely lead to one's reincarnation into another life which may be of a similar or different state.

Two conflicting claims such as these cannot both be right; one must be correct and the other wrong.

The Catholic Church does not give assent to either one of these two positions in regard to her relationship with non-Christian peoples. It is therefore sad that many Catholics continue holding on to at least one of these two notions. What is even sadder is the fact that many, if not most, Catholics have no idea of the position of the Catholic Church on her relationship with peoples of other faiths.

For those who have come to this knowledge, they continue to be fascinated and awed by the beauty of this position. It is a position that is inclusive, which takes into account God's grace and love for our neighbours but without having to compromise the uniqueness of Jesus Christ who gave His life for the sins of the world, and whose Body and Blood is offered upon the altars of our churches daily as a result of His one timeless sacrifice.

Clearly, there is a need for Catholics to understand the finer nuances of the Catholic faith and position in regard to this issue rather than to hold naïve positions on it.

Who Is My Neighbour?

The Catholic Church, especially since the Second Vatican Council, has come to assess other religions in rather positive light. Of course, as we shall see in a while, this positive assessment has to be understood in proper terms lest one should once again slip into either one of the two fallacies about the status of our non-Christian neighbours in relation to the Church.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that God's salvation plan includes all peoples: even Jews, Muslims, and peoples of other non-Christian religions. "Christ, the New Adam, through the mystery of His incarnation, death and resurrection, is at work in each human person to bring about interior renewal." (Dialogue and Proclamation, 1991, no.15).

This holds true not for Christians only but also for all persons of good will in whose hearts grace is active invisibly. For since Christ died for all, and since all are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the Paschal mystery.

(Gaudium et Spes, 1965, no.22)

The Church further goes on to say that all those who have "not yet received the Gospel are related to the people of God in various ways" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.839). In nos.839 to 842 of the Catechism (also in Lumen Gentium, 1964, no.26), further explication is given on the unique nature of each of these relationships. Then, the Catechism, no.843 sums up these relationships as follows:

The Catholic Church recognises in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since He gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as "a preparation for the Gospel..."

It is imperative that we should note here - categorically - that the Church does not say that all religions are equal or that all religions bring salvation. In fact, the Catechism also speaks of how "in their religious behavior... men [i.e. people of other religions] also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them" (no.844). This unambiguously points to the necessity of evangelisation.

Is My Neighbour Saved?

We would do well to make no mistake about this: the Catholic Church continues to insist that "the Church is the ordinary means of salvation... and... she alone possesses the fullness of the means of salvation" (Redemptoris Missio, 1990, no.55). It has been in accordance with God's eternal desire that the Church, instituted by Christ, in the fullness of time, should be the sign and instrument of His divine plan of salvation (refer to Lumen Gentium, no.1).

The centre of the Church is, of course, the mystery of Christ. She is the "universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen Gentium, no.48), and is "necessary for salvation" (Lumen Gentium, no.14). The Lord Jesus Himself inaugurated her mission "by preaching the good news, that is, the coming of God's Kingdom" (Lumen Gentium, no.5).

However, the Church also acknowledges the reality that not all people are privileged to hear the Gospel in its fullness. Some receive it only partially, perhaps because of the inadequacies of its transmitters, whilst others almost never receive it at all throughout their lifetimes. As a result, their religious conscience does not incline them to realise a need for Christ and His Church. Of these, the Church says,

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.

(Lumen Gentium, no.16)

In summary, the Holy Catholic Church acknowledges the goodness found in all religions, and the possibility of salvation for those who seek God to the best of their abilities. However, in the same breath, it affirms the abiding efficacy of Christ's work to save the world.

In other words, we believe that if people are saved, regardless of their religious adherence, it is Christ who saves them. Other religions are a preparation for the Gospel of Christ; they are not the Gospel itself. Hence, the all too common practice of substituting our reading of Sacred Scripture with the scriptures of other religions is nothing less than a scandal to the integrity of Christ's redemptive work.

We should not be ashamed to make unique truth claims about our faith, because making exclusive truth claims is innate to the nature of religion. After all, which religion does not claim itself to be uniquely true? To defy this nature of religious beliefs by turning truth claims upon themselves, and insisting that no one religion is unique, would constitute starting a whole new religion; and ironically, this new claim itself would be exclusive too!

For the Church to acknowledge the possibility of salvation for peoples of other faiths is entirely different from saying that all religions are the same, for such a notion defies the very nucleus of our faith - that it is Jesus who saves! The words of the first Pope of the Church, the Apostle Peter, continue to resound today: "Only in Him [i.e. Jesus Christ] is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved (Acts of the Apostles 4:12)".
The Church Dialogues with Other Religions

Hence, at all times and in all places, the Church continues to fulfill its mission of drawing people to Christ through itself. The two primary modes of evangelisation prescribed by the Church are dialogue and proclamation.

Proclamation is squarely "the communication of the Gospel message, the mystery of salvation realised by God for all in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is an invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the community of believers which is the Church" (Dialogue and Proclamation, no.10).

Dialogue, on the other hand, is less straightforward, and in this article I would like to dwell on this particular facet of evangelisation. Here is what dialogue means: the context of religious plurality, dialogue means "all positive and constructive interreligious relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment", in obedience to truth and respect for freedom. It includes both witness and the exploration of respective religious convictions.

(Dialogue and Proclamation, no.9)

But why do we have to couple dialogue with proclamation? Why would proclamation itself not be sufficient? To put it succinctly, the Church deems it fit that dialogue be an integral part of our evangelisation activity because we represent a God who dialogues.

"God, in an age-long dialogue, has offered and continues to offer salvation to humankind. In faithfulness to the divine initiative, the Church too must enter into a dialogue of salvation with all men and women" (Dialogue and Proclamation, no.38).

The Church speaks of four different forms of interreligious dialogue in no particular order of priority:

a) The dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations.

b) The dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people.

c) The dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.

d) The dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.

(Dialogue and Proclamation, no.42; also in The attitude of the Church Towards the Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, 1984, nos.28-35)

Dialogue is indeed an integral part of the evangelising mission of the Church. However, let us also not forget, "proclamation is the foundation, centre, and summit of evangelisation" (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975, no.27).

To drive this point further, we can surmise that the Church would not have so emphasised the importance of proclamation as "the foundation, centre, and summit of evangelisation" if all religions were equal in revelation and truth. We can dialogue and share in order to learn, understand and respect one another. Ultimately however, the truth must be spoken, and all dialogue must be at the service of truth. There must be a point at which dialogue transposes into proclamation.

At the same time, dialogue, by its sheer nature, also means that the religious conscience of the human person must be respected, that "no one must be constrained to act against his conscience, nor should he be impeded in acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters" (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965, no.3).

Dialogue ensures that the graces of voluntary and willing conversion are preserved in the evangelisation efforts of the Church.

Evidently from this entire discussion, it does not necessarily follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned. And yet, Holy Mother Church continues to invite our non-Catholic neighbours to dialogue, and to ultimately proclaim among them the truth of Jesus Christ.

But lest we who are already found within the Church sink into complacency about our own salvation, we are also reminded: still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. St Augustine of Hippo once remarked, "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12). This serves as a stern warning to those of us who distort the truth in our dealings with our non-Christian neighbours: we must be careful what we teach, in both word and deed.

Source: Catholic Asian News



Grégoire said...

On this topic. Does the CCC, specially provisions 839-843 contradict provisions of the Bible specifically Acts 4:12, John 14:6, John 10:7-9, 1 Tim 4:10, Rom 2:12, Acts 10:34-35, Lk13:23-30 ?

Tom said...

Everyone can be saved by Jesus. Jesus saves everyone who believes in HIM.

John O'Brien said...

This issue is still a source of contention in the Church.

Y said...

Why can't the catholic church be clear about this once and for all ?

Post a Comment

Please use a name or a pseudonym when posting a comment.