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Salvation Is Not Assured

In new book, leading theologian looks at Church’s teaching

Can a person who has never heard of Christ be saved? If so, why do we need to send missionaries to preach the Gospel in distant lands? These question do not seem to be an urgent concern of many in the Church today, yet Ralph Martin claims that we need to reclaim a missionary spirit if we are to live the faith in full.

Martin is director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, and president of Renewal Ministries. His book, Will Many Be Saved?, looks closely at the Second Vatican Council and explains why missionary activity almost died after the Council. He also gives a ringing call for bringing it back, for the sake of the Church and of souls.

Theologian and author Ralph Martin consults with Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., during Vatican Synod of the New Evangelization.

Fathers for Good spoke with Martin after he returned from the Synod on the New Evangelization at the Vatican, where he was a consultor.

Fathers for Good: In Vatican II, what was new or developed in the Church’s teaching regarding salvation?

Ralph Martin: Lumen Gentium 16 brought into the highest level of magisterial teaching a teaching on the possibility of being saved without hearing the Gospel that had emerged as a theological consensus and had been taught by both Pius IX and Pius XII. It did so in continuity with Scripture and Tradition, and while it spells out clearly that even though it is possible under certain conditions for someone to be saved who hasn’t heard the Gospel (inculpable ignorance, sincerely seeking God, living in fidelity to the light of conscience assisted by grace) this frequently isn’t the case. In the important last three sentences LG 16 introduces the realistic understanding that such people are not living in a neutral environment – nor are any of us – but the world, the flesh and the devil “very often” lead us to join the “many” on the broad path that leads to destruction. So for the sake of the salvation of such as these, it is urgent that we evangelize and invite people to discover the “narrow way” of Christ and the Church and find eternal life.

FFG: How has Vatican II been used to undermine missionary activity?

Martin: Every post-Vatican II document on evangelization has bemoaned the confusion that still exists about whether or not it is still important to carry out missionary work. This is partly due to new emphases in the Council documents such as the Decree on Ecumenism and the Decree on Non-Christian Religions, which have raised doubts in peoples’ minds about whether it is still important for people to become Catholics or even Christians. Widely promoted theological theories have contributed to this confusion, which is why I spent two chapters of my book addressing these unsound theological currents that are not in harmony with Scripture, Tradition or the authentic teaching of Vatican II.

FFG: How can we reclaim missionary direction and zeal?

Martin: If we understand that people’s eternal salvation is at stake – which is what my book tries to make clear – we will make every effort in prayer, the witness of our own lives, and the words we speak to those we care about, to help them to repent, believe, be baptized if they are not already, and live a committed life in the Catholic Church. What is also important is that we cultivate our own relationship with the Lord, and open ourselves to the “new Pentecost” that recent popes have been encouraging us to pray for. The Holy Spirit can instill in us if we desire it, a desire to share Christ with others, just as he did for the Apostles after Pentecost.

FFG: Will many be saved or few? Can we know?

Martin: Only God knows how many will be saved. The multiple indications that we find in Scripture are that many will be saved, but it also would not be surprising, given what Scripture says in other instances, that many may be lost. But, let’s see what we can do to cut down that number by our lives of holiness and our commitment to the work of evangelization!

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