If you want to explain why the pope respects the religious instincts of non-Catholics, read Pio Nono

A bust of Pope Pius IX in a Florida museum PA

Last week, I wrote a piece explaining my view that, as I put it in my headline “To call the Pope’s meeting at Assisi a betrayal of the faith is an utter absurdity”.

This elicited the following response (there were many thousand more words from the same writer, but this was the general gist of it all: “if you really believe that God is pleased with these pagan shindigs, where two popes in succession have emphasised that they are not interested in converting anyone, but are relying on pagan prayers to false gods to achieve world peace…. then you really do need to take a holiday. Try Mecca”. Nice, huh?

The point is that to recognise that men and women of other religions should be respected, and that their spiritual search for a God they have not fully apprehended should be recognised, is in no way to deny the ultimate need for their conversion. Nearly everyone who becomes a Catholic is converted from some other religion, which has been for them a stepping-stone to the fullness of faith which is to be found only in the Catholic Church.

Unless you take seriously what non-Catholics already believe, they will never take the final step towards full communion with the Holy See. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§843) “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 and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”

I just can’t see the problem with that. It isn’t even an idea which appeared for the first time at the second Vatican Council. It doesn’t in any way deny the fundamental principle that outside the church there is no salvation, extra ecclesiam nulla salus: even Pio Nono accepted that not everyone outside the Church would be damned, that culture and circumstances would be weighed in the balance by God: as he put it in his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved…. but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labour in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God.

Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?”

As he explained in the same encyclical, those who, “Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God … live honest lives… are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin.”

The most recent and the fullest development of this tradition, of course, is to be found in Nostra Aetate, the Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions: “[The Church] regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” That DOESN’T say that non-Catholic religions are on the same level as the Church: it does say that they may “reflect” the truth. Thus also, Lumen Gentium: “The sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, . . . subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines”(LG 8).

My first conclusion about those going on and on and on about the alleged “scandal” of the Pope’s forthcoming meeting with non-Catholics was that the real issue here wasn’t the Assisi meeting at all, but a fundamental hostility to Vatican II and all its works—and especially any text which develops this particular element in the Church’s teaching about itself. Nostra Aetate, of course, was the basis of a major improvement in the Church’s relationship with the Jews, and there have been accusations that the hostility of some so-called “radical traditionalists” to the document has an element of anti-Semitism in it.

I do not make this accusation myself: the SSPX, for instance, absolutely denied any anti-semitism in the aftermath of the affair of Bishop Williamson’s holocaust denials, and I accept this assurance in the absence of (as far as I can see) any hard evidence to the contrary. I did come across this, in a very moving obituary by an SSPX priest, of Archbishop Lefebvre (who was, I have no reason to doubt, a courageous and holy man), in a passage on the Archbishop’s attitude to the Council documents: “Cardinal Bea…was … a decisive instrument of the Judeo-Masonic sect to obtain from the Council the redaction of Dignitatis Humanae and Nostra Aetate. Anti-Semitic Paranoia perhaps? But that certainly doesn’t mean that that’s what the archbishop thought.

But all this, frankly, is irrelevant. Vatican II actually turns out not to be the issue at all. The real point is this: don’t think that you can accuse Pope Benedict of a scandalous betrayal of the Church’s teachings about its own unique possession of the fullness of God’s revelation of himself, on the basis of the fact that that he’s prepared to accept that some people who believe non-Christian religions “are able”, in the words of Pio Nono “to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace since God … knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men”.

Pope Benedict denies absolutely that Vatican II introduced any new teachings that were not already part of the Catholic tradition: and certainly, on the possibility of the salvation of non-Catholics, and on the sincere search for God of many outside its boundaries, he turns out to be dead right.