Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

Grace Abounding - Ecumenism v Conversion

By Bishop Christopher Butler

[from chapter 2 of In The Light of the Council,
Darton Longman & Todd, 1968]

In the Light of the CouncilOne of the casualties of Vatican II was polemical language. 'Heretics,' 'schismatics,' 'Iudaei perfidi,' 'Communists,' 'idolaters': such words are not found in the Council's vocabulary, and the mentality behind such language is equally absent from the Council's Acts. These speak rather of 'our separated brethren' (and point out how far from complete the separation is), of St Paul's affirmation that the Jews remain 'very dear to God,' of the devout monotheism of Islam, of the estimable aspects of the non-biblical faiths; and while they cannot but speak, not indeed in anger but in sorrow, of the falsity of atheism, they lay some of the blame for atheism on Christians. Any suggestion that we belong to the Church 'militant' here on earth is carefully excluded; we now find ourselves described as the 'pilgrim Church,' 'ever in need of purification.' Controversy - a favourite weapon of the old Church militant - is now, since the Council, restricted to bitter warfare between Catholics in the correspondence columns of our own newspapers. For all other purposes it is out, and dialogue is in. It would be too much to say that conversion (the sort that Newman experienced in 1845, I mean, not the earlier one whereby he became a believer in the living God) is entirely out, but it is certain that ecumenism is very much in; and ecumenism eschews the aim of converting individuals to the visible unity of the Church.

The motive behind this change of strategy (how difficult it is to avoid the military metaphors!) is both obvious and honourable. Churchill, on one occasion, having been remarked in amicable converse with his keen critic Dick Stokes, is said to have reflected: 'At my age a man has to reserve his spleen for his real enemies.' So, with the future of humanity at stake, the Church cannot afford to reject the possible help of any man of good will. A common front of those who obey their conscience against the forces of evil in the world might after all prove the prelude to organic unity and to the witness that this would bear to the divine mission of Christ.

There is also respectable though perhaps disputable theological justification for the new attitude. This theology is, it may be, not much more than hinted at in the Council Acts. But it was familiar enough to the theological architects of the aggiornamento. The argument runs as follows: God wills all men to be saved. Christ merited this universal salvation or redemption by his passion and God ratified it by Christ's resurrection. The only obstacle to the effectiveness of redemption is sin. Every human being who reaches moral adulthood has to opt between what his conscience judges to be right and what his conscience condemns as wrong. If he makes the basic option for the right as he apprehends the right, he is in fact (though he might deny it) opting for God; he is placing no obstacle to grace. Grace, then, finding no obstacle, takes possession, and the man is 'in Christ' (and Christ 'in him') even if his conscience has told him to reject the Christian preaching. Every man of good will is in grace, and is mystically united in Christ with all other men of good will. All together, they constitute the body of Christ in its mystical element, as distinct from its visible institutional aspect. So the Council found itself able to say 'In every age and in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him (cf. Acts x: 35).' And, if it is asked whether an atheist can be said to 'fear God,' the answer may be implied by another statement of the Council: 'Nor does divine Providence deny the necessary help to salvation to men who, through no fault of their own, have not yet reached an express acknowledgment of God, yet strive with the help of divine grace' - 'to attain an upright life.'

Thus, for the morally adult person, whether he has been brought up as a Catholic or not, everything depends on his basic option. And his basic option, while it cannot be good without the help of the grace which flows from our redemption by Christ, can always have that help - and will have it unless the man has deliberately rejected this help. No doctrine or sacrament can take the place of this basic option. Socrates and Herod the Great, no less truly than Paul and Augustine, were offered the graces necessary for salvation. To have lived and died before Christ makes no difference in this respect; the fact that our Lady was immaculately conceived ex praevisis meritis Christi shows that the redemptive efficacy of Christ had a backward as well as a forward influence. It is the will of God that all men should be saved. So runs the theological argument by which some would justify the Council's attitude.

Why Preach the Gospel?

But, if all this is true, it may be said, what is the point of the Church's missionary endeavours? We think of a Francis Xavier as heroically sacrificing himself in the urgency of his efforts to bring, to vast pagan populations, the gospel and the means of grace without which they would be damned eternally. But apparently they would not necessarily be damned eternally without the gospel; nor would the advent of the Church in their midst make any fundamental difference, since in any case their salvation depends uniquely on their basic option. (I used to be told that some missionaries used to baptise babies and then kill them, thus ensuring their salvation; but, if this missionary technique was ever employed, it is not advocated.) Why should not the Church cultivate her own garden, and leave the Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and pagans with undisturbed consciences to reap the fruits of inculpable ignorance?

This same question arises, with greater poignancy, with regard to Moslems and Jews and to our separated Christian brethren. There are many circumstances in which the Church's prudent judgment is that 'a good conscience should not be disturbed.' Cannot we generalise this principle, give up all idea of mission (so easily becoming proselytism), and simply agree to differ from those who, in all good faith, hold convictions different from our own?

In fact, of course, the Church has been missionary from the outset. She has never had any hesitations about her missionary task, though she has fulfilled it with varying enthusiasm and success in different epochs of her long history. And she is as sure about it today as she ever was

In the first place, she is sure that she has been entrusted with the fullness of God's redeeming word to mankind. From the first she was sure that, in so far as post-Christian Judaism contradicted her own message, post-Christian Judaism was false. She had the same certainty about Graeco-Roman paganism and about Greek philosophy. These certainties abide today. For all her ecumenical enthusiasm, she is sure that Protestantism, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in so far as they contradict 'Roman' Catholicism, are false.

And secondly, she is convinced that she has a commission through Christ from God to preach to every man the fullness of the gospel entrusted to her alone. Like St. Paul she can say: 'Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel.' It is a duty imposed upon her and she cannot escape from it. As the Council puts it: 'Although, by ways known to himself, God may be able to bring to faith (without which it is impossible to please him) men who are inculpably ignorant of the gospel, still the Church has a necessity incumbent on her, and also a sacred right, of evangelising: hence missionary activity retains its value and necessity today as always.' Again, in the declaration on the non-Christian religions we read that the precepts and doctrines of these religions, while differing in many points from what the Church holds and teaches, yet 'not infrequently reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Still the Church proclaims and is bound to proclaim Christ without ceasing. He is the way, the truth and the life, in whom men find the fullness of religious life; in him God has reconciled all things with himself.'

The Means of Grace

The question arises, why God has laid this duty upon the Church. To answer it, I suggest we reflect upon the way in which grace is ordinarily conveyed to an individual. It is, I suppose, easier today than it ever was in the past to realise that God ordinarily exercises and executes his providence by the normal operation of creatures. Basic in his providential plan for each of us is our existence; and this we owe, 'under God' as we piously and very truly observe, to our parents, to biological law, to the material universe and the whole past history of that universe and the human race. Each of us is a debtor to other creatures far beyond our powers of reckoning up the account. And once we are in existence, it is again by means of creatures that God's redeeming grace ordinarily comes to us. A careless young man is converted and becomes a saint because he has seen a corpse in an open tomb. An earthquake or an aircraft accident will send observers flocking to the confessional. A chance word, the flicker of an eye-lid, will throw us back on self-reflection and initiate a conversion. As Newton, so the story has been told, saw an apple falling to the ground and then 'saw' his theory of gravitation, so Brother Lawrence saw a tree in winter and then 'saw' the universal law and immediacy of divine providence.

Anything, any action, good, bad or indifferent, can be a means or vehicle of grace to someone. Von Hügel tells a story of a young man who was converted to Christianity and the Church after spending some time in godless sophisticated Berlin, followed by a visit to unsophisticated Catholic Bavaria; both experiences doubtless contributed to the conversion. But other things being equal, it is obvious that 'evil communications corrupt good manners,' and we are more likely to receive grace - or shall we say are likely to receive more abundant grace - from good creaturely influences than from bad. Innumerable good people, Christians, Jews or others, can testify to their immeasurable spiritual debt to their pious parents.

But similarly, we are more likely to receive abundant grace from religious truth than from religious error. If the servant who knew his master's will and did it not was more reprehensible than his fellow who lacked that knowledge, this was because he had rejected more abundant grace than his fellow: A priori, we should have expected the one with fuller knowledge to show the greater obedience; he had had more grace: so that obedience should have been easier.

We too easily forget that sufficient grace is given in varying degrees of abundance. It is entirely true that every adult will, before he dies, have had enough grace offered to him to make the option which salvation entails for him. It is not true that every adult will have had the same abundance of sufficient grace. It should surely be obvious that, while both Nero and Augustine had sufficient grace, Augustine was helped, to a degree which Nero did not share with him (so far as we know), by the example and influence of a devout mother. And today it is obviously true - other things being equal - that the child of materialistic, selfish egotists is worse placed for his adult option than the child of a good Catholic home.

All these very obvious considerations can be generalized and applied to the whole human race. One can say, very simply, that the world would be a worse place than it is if the gospel had never been preached; perhaps few of us realise sufficiently what a bad place it in fact was in pre-Christian days. And when we say 'worse,' we shall mean especially that it was a world in which both the basic option for God was more difficult (though always perfectly possible) than it has since become, and the full flowering of the life of grace - that is, of the love of God - was less likely to occur. Similarly, other things being equal, both basic option and eventual sanctity would be less difficult than they are if Christian unity within the 'complete' communion had been maintained throughout the centuries.

It follows that the Church's commission to proclaim the gospel and bring the 'means of grace' to all men is not just an obscure behest from an arbitrary divine fiat, but it is a necessary consequence of the law of charity which makes each of us our brother's keeper.

A final question, strictly speaking irrelevant to our argument, may yet be asked: Why did God give more abundant graces to Augustine than to Nero? And the short answer, I think, is that we do not know. We do know that it was not because Augustine 'deserved' better than Nero. And it seems to me that we also know that God is not 'obliged,' either in justice or charity, to give 'the maximum of grace' to everyone; 'a maximum of grace' is a collection of words which has no meaning. What we do know is that God is bound by no law; he is unbounded love, and no adult will fail to attain to everlasting union in love with him except by his own deliberate and grave fault.