Narrow is the gate. Or is it?

The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology  by Stephen Bullivant (Oxford University


Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II actually teaches and its implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin (William B. Eerdmans Alban Books)

- Reviewed by Gavin d’Costa

For most of history, Christians thought that the vast majority of people would go to hell. The gate of Heaven is narrow. In the twentieth century, hell fell into disrepute. Christians, including many Catholics, began to think that most people will be saved. God is merciful and loving. Dante would have turned in his grave. He knew who was going to hell and even to which region in hell.

Vatican II does not contain a single reference to hell even when speaking of eschatology. Karl Rahner claimed that the most significant teaching of the council was its ‘salvation optimism’. Lumen Gentium (LG), the council’s decree on the Church, was the key. It overturned centuries of salvation pessimism: all non-Catholics (which included other Christians, religious non-Christians and non-religious groups such as atheists) could be saved if they were ignorant of the Gospel and they sought God, or the truth, in their conscience.

This was a dramatic development of doctrine. Some protested that it was actually discontinuous with previous teachings – and a minority claimed the council invalid. Others have sought to balance this emphasis with what critics have called a neo-Augustinian theology, foreign to the council. The debate continues.

Since the close of the council, some have blamed this salvation optimism as the cause of the death of the missionary movement. In truth, that death had already started with the colonial critique: mission and empire building were interrelated and mission was the export of European Christian cultural forms. Both Paul VI and John Paul II wrote on the necessity of mission, given the deepening crisis.

Ralph Martin’s book seeks to redress the balance against salvation optimism. Stephen Bullivant is suspicious of the “how” of salvation optimism. Both these books are important contributions to an assessment of what the council taught in Lumen Gentium.

Bullivant, who teaches theology at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London, charts atheism’s complexities and types. He claims that the doctrine of invincible ignorance came into full play at the council and finally allowed the Church positively to appraise certain forms of atheism, when before it could only condemn them. He further argues that atheism in some of its forms provides a coherent moral platform for doing good. He is more optimistic than recent popes.

But then Bullivant asks the difficult ‘how’ question – which the council did not answer. How are such atheists to be saved given the classic requirement of faith, baptism, and the mediation of the Church as stated in LG 14? He insists that the council demanded this as a necessary means. Bullivant draws on the ancient teaching of Christ’s ‘descent into hell’, where Christ preaches to the righteous of the nations. Something like this must happen after death.

Ralph Martin’s book has endorsements from more cardinals than I’ve ever noticed on an academic publication. Perhaps Martin, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation, is better at reading the ‘signs of the times’ than most. His thesis is simplicity itself. LG 16 has rocked the world with its positive affirmations about non-Catholic Christians, other religions and non-religions: and that is a true development of doctrine, to be applauded. He is not sympathetic with the Lefebvrite ‘fundamentalists’ (his words).

Full review in The Tablet:

Wikipedia on Gavin d’Costa:'Costa

Stephen Bullivant:

Interview with Dr Ralph Martin:

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