ArticlesMarcus Grodi

The Separated Children Explained

Marcus Grodi
July 17, 2013 7 Comments

Last week I posted The Separated Children, and have received many fine kind and challenging comments, all confirming my assumption that I would need to follow up with some further explanation. I do this with a bit of trepidation, because, as I press this button to post, I fully realize that I will probably draw even more heated critiques, but I do so precisely because I want your feedback.

I wrote this parable after many years of wrestling with a conundrum. In essence, this parable is my attempt to explain (from a Catholic perspective) how I have come to understand the long history of how the Catholic Church has reached out to non-Catholic Christians. Maybe some background.

This year is the 20th anniversary of our work in the Coming Home Network International (CHNetwork) helping non-Catholic Christians come home to the Catholic Church. Over these twenty years, more than 2200 non-Catholic ministers from over 100 different denominations / traditions have contacted us, usually between 2-5 new contacts per week. To date, a little over half of these have been received into the Catholic Church, while slightly less than half are still on the journey. A nearly equivalent number of non-Catholic lay Christians have also contacted us for help, thousands have connected with our online services and Forum, and thousands more of life-long Catholics have joined us as partners in our lay apostolate.

But herein lyeth my conundrum. Over these twenty years, many Catholic priests, bishops, and Cardinals have affirmed our work, even contributing to our support, and even sometimes, in private, emphasizing that these non-Catholic clergy need to bravely follow their consciences. Yet, in all these years, I have never heard any Catholic bishop, Cardinal, or pope state publicly that our separated Christian brethren need to come home to the Church, or particularly that an ordained practicing non-Catholic minister should stop performing his or her non-Catholic sacraments, resign, and return to the Catholic Church, for the sake of his salvation.

Now, many of you reading this probably are thinking, “Well, good golly (or stronger language), why would you even think they should do this!?” But I added the phrase “for the sake of his salvation” to emphasize precisely the key to my ongoing conundrum. There are many reasons to be drawn to the beauty and truth of the Church that Jesus established in His apostles centered around Peter, but the bottom line has always been the haunting seriousness of what the Catholic Church has always taught: that outside the Church there is no salvation, or extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.

I remember, during my own journey to the Catholic Church, how I was taken aback by the following statement by St. Augustine, whom even as a Calvinist I had always considered a great defender of the Christian gospel:

A man cannot have salvation, except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church he can have everything except salvation. He can have honor, he can have Sacraments, he can sing alleluia, he can answer amen, he can possess the gospel, he can have and preach faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; but never except in the Catholic Church will he be able to find salvation (Augustine, Discourse to the people of the church at Caesarea, AD 418).

Certainly the long history of how this dogma has been understood, expressed, and applied needs to be understood in its historic context and with charity, as “reformulated positively” since Vatican II to mean “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC, 846). Yet still, in Lumen Gentium 14 as well as in the Catechism, the Church continues to proclaim, “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”

In my parable, the letters sent by the father to his separated children represent the many Church documents and conciliar statements promulgated over the centuries warning non-Catholic Christians of their need to come home for the sake of their salvation. Sending out his elder sons and their safe-at-home siblings represent the efforts by Catholic bishops, priests, evangelists, religious orders, and laity over the centuries to win back separated Christians, and, as I stated in the parable, history shows that sometimes the ways they expressed this dogma came across a bit harsh and unproductive.

I’ve struggled for a long time with this dogma, especially in relation to our work, but after much reading, discussions, and reflection, I have come to a conclusion that culminates in what I’ve tried to say in the rest of this parable of The Separated Children: that, since the middle of the twentieth century, the Holy Spirit has been leading the Church in the process of a “development of doctrine” concerning the understanding and expression of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, both in relationship to baptized non-Catholic Christians, as well as all people in the wider family of God.

I believe that behind this development was the progressive influence of secularism, relativism, individualism, industrialism, and totalitarianism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, represented in the parable as the “powerful arch enemy” that “invaded the region.” For the many centuries leading up to the modern era, when extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was publicly proclaimed by popes and councils, “schismatics, heretics,” and other non-Catholics were generally understood and addressed as groups, not as individuals, and the basic message the Church had for them was to come home for the sake of their salvation. Due to the historical contexts, the exhortation and implementation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was often perceived as a cudgel of judgement, leading to centuries of division between Catholics and non-Catholics. There was to be no ecumenical prayer, worship, Scripture study, or service, and any Catholics advocating or practicing these “ecumenical signs of indifferentism” were declared apostate—as expressed in the teachings and writings of Father Leonard Feeney in the late 1940s, as he reacted to the growing expression of this ecumenical development, as well as by modern sedevacantists.

But the rise of secularism, relativism, individualism, industrialism, and totalitarianism leading to the conflicts, wars, poverty, and unthinkable brutalities of the twentieth century, forced Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, even Jews and atheists, to work together, side-by-side, and face-to-face as never before to fight a common enemy. These calamities allowed Catholic laity, priests, bishops, and even popes, sometimes in foxholes, prisons, or soup-kitchens, to come to know non-Catholics as individual brothers and sisters. They came to recognize the authentic love and blessings of God in the lives and prayers of non-Catholic Christians, like C.S. Lewis, Corrie Ten Boom, and Dr. Billy Graham, and especially non-Catholic martyrs, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jim Elliot.

This is exactly what Blessed Pope John Paul II exclaimed in the opening paragraphs of his encyclical Ut Unum Sint:

The courageous witness of so many martyrs of our century, including members of Churches and Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church, gives new vigor to the Council’s call and reminds us of our duty to listen to and put into practice its exhortation. These brothers and sisters of ours, united in the selfless offering of their lives for the Kingdom of God, are the most powerful proof that every factor of division can be transcended and overcome in the total gift of self for the sake of the Gospel.

I believe that the Holy Spirit used this to change the hearts and consciences of many in the hierarchy, especially beginning with Blessed Pope John XXIII, who began emphasizing less and less the things that divide Christians and instead more and more the ways that Catholic and non-Catholic Christians are similar, ways in which the truths and gifts of the Catholic Church are shared outside the Church, not in a perfect way, but in ways by which God mercifully extends His grace, using these separated churches and ecclesial communities even as “means of salvation.” This development was carefully but consistently expressed throughout the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and then further developed in the writings of Popes Paul VI through Benedict XVI, particularly in Blessed John Paul II’s Ut Unum Sint, and then clarified by then Cardinal Ratzinger in Dominus Iesus.

Certainly, the long term objective remains visible unity, as the recent popes have all emphasized: that all the elements of truth outside the Catholic Church are of the Church and lead toward this eventual unity. And none of this diminishes the Church’s, as well as every individual Catholic’s, responsibility to evangelize by telling the full truth of the Catholic gospel.

However, it seems that the Holy Spirit has been calling Catholics, as has been expressed in the Church documents since the mid-twentieth century, to no longer think of non-Catholic Christians as “heretics or schismatics” who have, through their weak and stubborn wills, refused the grace of God, but instead as baptized brothers and sisters still-on-the-journey of continual conversion to Christ, and, in fact, members by baptism in the Mystical Body of Christ.

This new understanding is expressed in the following statement by a famous convert whom I consider a patron “saint” of our work, Avery Cardinal Dulles:

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. …  God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given (from an article entitled “Who Can Be Saved?” published in First Things, Feb 2008).

Many Catholics have interpreted the Church’s more positive attitude toward the salvation of our separated brethren, as thus expressed by Cardinal Dulles, to mean that there is no reason to evangelize them, but in the following quote, Cardinal Dulles, clearly states the contrary (in the one instance where I’ve heard this stated publicly):

The question could be raised whether Catholics should evangelize other Christians. According to the teaching of Vatican II, these others are not fully initiated into the Body of Christ. Baptism is only the first sacrament of initiation and demands to be completed by the Eucharist (UR, 22). Full communion requires acceptance of the Church’s entire system and admission to the Eucharist, the sacrament of full communion (LG, 14). Since the whole creed and the dogmas of the Church, as well as the sacraments and pastoral government, pertain to the gospel, it follows logically that Christians who are not Catholics still require additional evangelization. (From an article entitled “Vatican II and Evangelization” in the book, The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles, 2007)

I believe the misinterpretation by some of the Church’s more positive view of “no salvation outside the Church” comes from a general uncomfortableness with seeming contradictions, causing us to prefer “either/or” conclusions. It’s this tendency which continues to feed the constant divisions of our non-Catholic Christian brethren. Catholic theology, however, has always been more accepting of the “both/and” of many theological mysteries, while at the same time holding to “black & white”, “either/or” distinctions when appropriate. As GK Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.”

For many centuries, the Church seemed to understand extra Ecclesiam nulla salus as an “either/or” issue, though always with some qualifications. Now that the Church has “re-formulated” this dogma more “positively,” it does not mean that the pendulum has swung to an opposite “either/or”, but rather that the Church recognizes, in a way she never did before, how this dogma has always been a mysterious “both/and”, not unlike the two seemingly opposite truths of the fear and love of God. The absolute necessities of fearing God and loving God both have substantial Scriptural mandates, but at times, in the Church’s history, one or the other have been emphasized, even seemingly over-emphasized at the expense of the other truth. One might say the pervasive tone of the 20th century was an overemphasis on the love of God with rare mention of the fear of God—only a very few references to the fear of God can be found in Vatican II documents, or any magisterial or papal document since. But the few references to the fear of God in these documents indicate that this is not a “negative” conviction that has become obsolete and replaced by the more “positive” love of God, even though Scripture does say that perfect love drives out all fear. Rather the Church continues to teach BOTH the necessity of the fear of God AND the love of God. Without an adequate underlying fear of God, one cannot truly love God or understand God’s love; likewise, without an adequate understanding of the love of God, fear of God becomes servile fear, rather than maturing into filial fear.

The same is true with the negative and positive understandings of “no salvation outside the Church.” The re-formulated positive understanding is a corrective to the once more pervasive negative understanding, but together they provide the best and most balanced motivation for evangelization. Catholics are called to stand beside non-Catholic Christians, pointing them, in love, to the fullness of the Church, but not motivated out of fear that they are potentially damned if they refuse to enter, for the Church already recognizes that, through their baptisms, through their faithfulness to Scripture and the Christian faith as they know it, through their sacrifices already given in obedience to the call of God, they are already loved by God, and being drawn by Him to an ongoing conversion to Him.

I realize that not all Catholics struggle with this, but I’ve come to believe that many of us need to accept that, though the long-term goal for all people is unity in the Church, God’s immediate call for many non-Catholic Christians may be to remain in their non-Catholic communities, using their God-given gifts to help those to whom God has called them to serve to come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and a growing openness to the Church. By recognizing the “both/and” of this dogma, we can stand side-by-side in prayer and brotherhood, for in the end anyone’s ability to come to “know” the truth of the Church, in such a way that they would give up anything to become Catholic, is a gift of grace.

Or, as the father says at the end of the Parable, “We must entrust their full return to God, but in the mean time, we must stand beside them in the faith, hope, and love that we share, always pointing them to the fullness that we have received with joy.”


Marcus Grodi

Marcus Grodi is the founder and president of the Coming Home Network International, a lay Catholic apostolate whose mission is helping Protestant clergy and laity come home to the Catholic Church. Marcus is also the host of The Journey Home program on EWTN.