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 1949 Holy Office Letter (Fenton) 
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New post 1949 Holy Office Letter (Fenton)

The science of sacred theology has been greatly aided by Archbishop Cushing’s action in publishing the full text and the official English translation of the Holy Office letter on the Church’s necessity for salvation. This letter, the third of three Roman documents to directly deal with this dogma over the course of the last ten years, contains the accurate and authoritative explanation of a divinely revealed truth that had been very frequently misinterpreted in recent Catholic writing. The publication of this document can and should serve to bring about a decided improvement in the treatment of the dogma of the Church’s necessity for salvation in our popular Catholic literature.

The text of the letter consists of twenty-four paragraphs. The first three of these are introductory, and speak of the circumstances that prompted the issuance of this message. The following sixteen deal with “explanationes…ad doctrinam pertinentes.” The last five paragraphs contain “invitamenta atque exhortationes, quae ad disciplinam spectant.”

In the introduction, the letter asserts that it is dealing with a grave or serious controversy which has been stirred up (excitata) by people connected with St. Benedict Center and Boston College. It further states that the Holy Office believes that the controversy arose in the first place because of a failure properly to grasp and to appreciate the axiom “extra Ecclesiam nulla sallus,” and that the dispute became embittered by reason of the fact that some of those associated with St. Benedict Center and with Boston College refused respect and obedience to legitimate ecclesiastical authorities.

Both here and in the doctrinal part of the letter we encounter the clear implication that the Holy Office is taking cognizance of many varieties of mistakes about the Catholic Church’s necessity for salvation. When the letter sets out to place the blame for the embitterment of the controversy, it directly inculpates the St. Benedict Center group, which was guilty of disrespect and disobedience to ecclesiastical authority, and which, incidentally, was originally punished precisely for that disobedience. When, on the other hand, the document speaks of the origin of the dispute, it simply ascribes the controversy itself to a failure to know and to appreciate the formula “extra ecclesiam nulla sallus.” Those who have studied in any detail the copious modern writings on this subject are well aware that there have been several faulty explanations of this dogma published during the first part of the present century.

Thus what makes this letter from the Holy Office so outstandingly important is the fact that it sets out, not only to correct the basic misinterpretation of the dogma made by the St. Benedict Center group, but to show the doctrinal quality of the teaching itself and to offer an accurate, full, and authoritative outline of its explanation. In accomplishing its purpose, the Holy Office letter has given to Catholic theologians by far the most complete and detailed exposition of the dogma that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation which has yet to come from the ecclesiastical magisterium.

The specifically doctrinal portion of the Holy Office letter opens with a paragraph which repeats what the Vatican Council taught about those truths which we are bound to believe with the assent of divine and Catholic Faith. The letter tells us that “we are bound to believe with divine and Catholic faith all of those things contained in God’s message that comes to us by way of Scripture or Tradition (quae in verbo Dei scripto vel tradito continentur), and which are proposed by the Church, not only in solemn judgment, but also by its ordinary and universal teaching activity, to be believed as divinely revealed.

Now the teachings we are obliged to believe with the assent of divine and Catholic faith are the truths which we know as the dogmas of the Catholic Church. These dogmas are truths which the apostles of Jesus Christ preached to His Church as statements which had been supernaturally communicated or revealed by God Himself. They constitute the central or primary object of the Church’s infallible teaching activity.

It is important to note that our Holy Office letter describes the doctrine “that there is no salvation outside the Church,” not only as an infallible teaching, but also as a dogma. It insists, in other words, that this doctrine is not merely something connected with God’s public and supernatural message, but that it belongs to the revealed message itself. The doctrine is presented as a truth which the apostles themselves delivered to the Church as a statement which God had supernaturally revealed to men through Our Lord. It is one of the truths with which the Church is primarily and essentially concerned.

In thus designating this teaching as a dogma of the Church, the Holy Office letter merely repeated what Pope Pius IX had taught in his allocution Singulari quadam, issued Dec. 9, 1854, and in his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, published on Aug. 10, 1863. Thus our document does not make any new contribution on this particular point. It merely recalls, for a generation which might have forgotten the fact, the sovereign truth that the teaching with which it is concerned is an actual part of divine public revelation.

Our letter also brings out two important consequences of the fact that the doctrine of the Church’s necessity for eternal salvation is actually a Catholic dogma. The first implication is that this truth is one of “those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach.” The second implication is to be found in the fact that God has entrusted the authoritative and infallible explanation of these revealed truths, not to private judgment, but to the teaching authority of the Church alone. Both of these implications are highly important for our contemporary theologians. As a matter of fact, the Holy Father himself took up these two points in his encyclical Humani generis, which, though it appeared two years before the publication of the full text of the Holy Office letter, was actually written a year after this document.

In the context of the present discussion and the misunderstandings which occasioned the writing of our letter, the reminder that the Church has never ceased to preach and will never cease to preach the truth that it is necessary for man’s salvation is timely and advantageous. It is important to note that the letter uses the term “praedicare, to preach.” By employing this word, the document assures us that, during every part of its history, the Catholic Church continues to set forth publicly and openly the teaching it has received from God through Our Lord and His apostles. Thus the Holy Office does more than merely affirm that the Church has always conserved and guarded its doctrinal treasures. It insists that the Church has never ceased to teach its own dogma.

Now there has been a long tendency on the part of some Catholic writers to imagine that certain dogmas of the Church tend to grow obsolete, and that, in the interests of its own progress, the Church does not insist too rigorously upon those teachings which are represented as out of touch with modern conditions. Pope Leo XIII reproved one aspect of this tendency in his letter Testem benevolentiae. It is perfectly manifest that the one dogma of the Church which its enemies would consider as least in line with the currents of modern thought is the teaching that there is no salvation outside of the true Church. Similarly a mentality like that of the St. Benedict Center group would tend to hold that, at least in our time, the Church universal has not been teaching the dogma of its own necessity for man’s salvation effectively.

Moreover, this statement of the Holy Office letter comes as a rebuke to the more extreme forms of the much discredited “state of siege” theory, according to which the Church has in some way modified its doctrinal life since the days of the Council of Trent by adopting an artificially defensive position. Our letter assures us at this point that the Church will never pass over or soft-pedal any of its dogmas, in the interests of a so-called defensive mentality or for any other reason.

The second implication or consequence noted by the Holy Office letter is equally timely. In insisting upon the fact that Our Saviour has confined the explanation of His dogma, not to private judgment, but to the ecclesiastical magisterium alone, the letter makes it perfectly clear that Catholics are to be guided in their understanding of revealed truth by the official teachers of the Church, and not by any merely private authors, however ingenious and influential these latter may be. And, to put the matter as concretely as possible, Catholics are not to accept any teachings of private writers, even when these teachings seem particularly in harmony with the modern mentality, if these teachings are not strictly in accord with the doctrine of the magisterium. It is quite obvious that private teachings of this sort have been presented in recent times, on the subject of the Church’s necessity for salvation and in other sections of ecclesiology.

These first three paragraphs in the doctrinal portion of the Holy Office letter deal with the fact that the teaching that “there is no salvation outside the Church” is a dogma of the Catholic faith, and with two of the consequences that follow upon that fact. The remainder of the doctrinal section (the only one with which we are directly concerned in this article) is given over to an exposition of the way in which the Church itself understands and teaches the dogma of its own necessity for eternal salvation. In these few paragraphs, theologians will find that three distinctions, long used by the Church’s traditional theologians in their explanation of the Church’s necessity for salvation, are here, for the first time, presented clearly and decisively in an authentic statement of the Church’s magisterium as employed by the teaching Church itself in its own understanding and explanation of the dogma. They are (1) the distinction between a necessity of precept and the necessity of means, (2) the distinction between belonging to the Church in re and belonging to it in voto, and (3) the distinction between an explicit and an implicit intention or desire to enter the Catholic Church. It is precisely because all of these distinctions are used for the first time in a document of the magisterium to explain the Church’s necessity for salvation that this letter is one of the most important Roman documents of recent times.

First, the Holy Office shows us that the classical distinction between the necessity of precept and the necessity of means, long used by competent theologians in explaining the dogma of the Church’s necessity for salvation, actually enters into the Church’s own understanding and explanation of this doctrine. Dealing with the Church’s necessity of precept, the letter brings out the fact that the command, “to be incorporated by Baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, and to remain united to Christ and to His Vicar.” Is one of the orders which Our Lord actually commissioned His apostles to teach to all nations. The document goes on to explain the Church’s necessity of precept to mean that “no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth.”

The Sacred Congregation’s letter thus states explicitly that there is a serious command issued by Our Lord Himself to all men, a command that they should enter and remain within the true Church. The man who disobeys that command is guilty of serious sin. If he should die in that state of willful disobedience, he will inevitably be lost forever. Such is the basic meaning of the Church’s necessity of precept, as explained by the letter from the Holy Office, and as understood by the Church itself.

This document also teaches us, however, there is more than a necessity of precept involved in the dogma of the Catholic Church’s necessity for salvation. It insists upon the fact that Our Lord has “also decreed the Church to be a meansof salvation, without which no one can enter the kingdom of eternal glory.” In other words, Our Saviour has done two things: He has commanded all men to enter the Church; and He has established this society as one of the supernatural resources apart from which no man can enjoy the Beatific Vision as a member of the Church triumphant in heaven.

This statement by the Holy Office is tremendously important in the field of dogmatic theology. For many years past there have been attempts on the part of some Catholic writers to depict the Church’s necessity for salvation as exclusively or almost exclusively a mere necessity of precept. Now the authoritative voice of the Roman Church itself assures us that the Church is necessary both with the necessity of precept and with the necessity of means. This letter is the first authoritative document in which this truth is set forth clearly and explicitly.

Likewise of tremendous moment is the letter’s use of the classical theological distinction between belonging to the Church in re and belonging to it in voto. Henceforth those who wish to explain Catholic teaching on this point should use these two distinctions (necessity of precept as distinct from necessity of means: belonging to the Church in re as distinct from belonging to it in voto.), if they are to act as faithful exponents of Catholic truth. It is interesting to note that the Holy Office has made no use of such terminology as “the soul and the body of the Church,” or “the Church as the ordinary means of salvation,” in setting forth what the Church itself has always understood as the meaning of its own necessity for eternal salvation.

Furthermore, it is also interesting to see the connotations of the terms “votum” and “desiderium,” used here by the Holy Office communication. These terms are translated, not incorrectly, but perhaps somewhat inadequately, in the official English translation of the letter as “desire” and “yearning.” In employing these terms the Holy Office makes it clear that, in order to be saved, men must either be attached to the Church actually or in re as members, or be joined to the Church by a genuine act of the will, intending or desiring to become members.

In other words, according to the connotations of these two terms, the explicit votum by which a man may be joined to the Church so as to achieve his salvation must be a real desire or intention, and not a mere velleity. The act of the will in which the implicit salvific votum of the Church is contained must likewise be more than a mere velleity. This operation also must be a real and effective act of the will.

In teaching that a votum or a desiderium of the Church can, under certain circumstances, suffice to bring a man to the attainment of the Beatific Vision, we must not forget that the Holy Office letter likewise uses a procedure which has been employed by the traditional Catholic theologians for many years. It classifies the Church itself, along with the sacraments of Baptism and Penance, among “those helps to salvation which are directed toward man’s final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution.” Conversely, of course, it thus implies the existence of other resources which are ordered to man’s ultimate goal by way of intrinsic necessity. Realties like the Church itself, and the sacraments of Baptism and Penance, may under certain circumstances achieve their effect when they are processed or used only in intention or desire. Helps of the other classification, like sanctifying grace, faith, and charity, must, on the other hand, be possessed or used in re if they are to achieve their purpose at all.

The letter applies this principle when it assures us that, in order for a man to obtain eternal salvation, “it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.” Such, of course, has been the explicit teaching of traditional Catholic theologians since the days of Thomas Stapleton and St. Robert Bellarmine. It is a commonplace of Catholic theology that a man could be saved if, finding it impossible to actually to join the Church as a member, he really sincerely intended or desired to live within this society.

The Holy Office then proceeds against what has been perhaps the most obstinate and important error of the St. Benedict Center group when it explains that “this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens”; but that “when a person is involved in invincible ignorance, God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.”

It is noteworthy that the theologians of the Church have never included the doctrine of the Church itself among those supernatural truths which must be held explicitly if there is to be the necessary minimum for an act of true and salvific divine faith. The Holy Office letter, however, does not go to this theological reasoning, but directly to the authoritative teaching of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis to back up its contention. That encyclical effectively taught the possibility of salvation for persons who have only an implicit desire to enter and to live within the Catholic Church.

In the text of the Mystici Corporis, the Sovereign Pontiff clearly and authoritatively taught the requisites for actual membership in the Church. He issued as his own teaching the Bellarminian doctrine that “Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.” He likewise, however, spoke of the possibility of salvation for those who “are related to the Mystical Body by a certain unconscious yearning and desire (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto).” He depicted such individuals as existing in a state “in which they cannot be sure of their salvation” since “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.”

The Holy Office interprets these teachings of the Mystici Corporis as a condemnation of two errors. One of them, that defended explicitly by members of the St. Benedict Center group, is the doctrine that no man be saved if he has only an implicit desire or intention to enter the Church. The other is the teaching that men may be saved “equally well (aequaliter)” in any religion. For the previous condemnation of this latter error the letter refers to two pronouncements by Pope Pius IX, his allocution Singulari quadam and his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore.

Finally the letter brings out two points which many of the writers who have dealt with this question have passed over all too quickly. It insists that, in order to be effective for eternal salvation, any intention or desire of entering the Church, whether explicit or implicit must be animated by perfect charity. No benevolence on a merely natural plane can suffice to save man, even when that man actually intends to enter and to live within the true Church of Jesus Christ. Non-membership in the Church, even on the part of a man who wishes to become a Catholic, does not in any way dispense from the necessity of those factors which are requisite for the attainment of the Beatific Vision by intrinsic necessity, and not merely by reason of divine institution.

Furthermore, the Holy Office also insists upon the necessity of true and supernatural faith in any many who attains eternal salvation. A man may be invincibly ignorant of the Catholic Church, and still be saved by reason of an implicit desire or intention to enter and to live within that society. But, if he is saved, he achieves the Beatific Vision as one who has died with genuine supernatural faith. He must actually and explicitly accept as certain some definite truths which have been supernaturally revealed by God. He must accept explicitly and precisely as revealed truths the existence of God as the Head of the supernatural order and the fact that God rewards good and punishes evil. Our letter manifestly alludes to this necessity when it quotes, in support of its teaching on the necessity of supernatural faith in all those who are saved, the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

Now most theologians teach that the minimum explicit content of supernatural and salvific faith includes, not only the truths of God’s existence and of His action as the Rewarder of good and the Punisher of evil, but also the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation. It must be noted at this point that there is no hint of any intention on the part of the Holy Office, in citing this text from the Epistle to the Hebrews, to teach that explicit belief in the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and of the Incarnation is not required for the attainment of salvation. In the context of the letter, the Sacred Congregation quotes this verse precisely as a proof of its declaration that an implicit desire of the Church cannot produce its effect “unless a person has supernatural faith.”

Still, the teaching of the letter must be seen against the backdrop of the rest of Catholic doctrine. And it is definitely a part of the Catholic doctrine that certain basic revealed truths must be accepted and believed explicitly, even though other teachings contained in the deposit of faith may, under certain circumstances, be believed with only an implicit faith. True and supernatural faith, we must remember, is not a mere readiness to believe, but an actual belief, but an actual belief, the actual acceptance as certainly true of definite teachings which have actually been revealed supernaturally by God to man. Furthermore, this salvific and supernatural faith is an acceptance of these teachings, not as naturally ascertainable doctrines, but precisely as revealed statements, which are to be accepted on the authority of God who has revealed them to man.

The doctrinal portion of the Holy Office letter ends with the declaration that, in the light of what the document itself has taught, “it is evident that those things which are proposed in the periodical ‘From the Housetops,’ fascicle 3, as the genuine teaching of the Catholic Church are far from being such and are very harmful both to those within the Church and those without.” The issue of From the Housetops to which the letter refers contained only one article, written by Mr. Raymond Karam of the St. Benedict Center group, and entitled “Reply to a Liberal.”

The most important error contained in that article was a denial of the possibility of salvation for any man who had only an implicit desire to enter the Catholic Church. There was likewise bad teaching on the requisites for justification, as distinguished from the requisites for salvation. The first of these faults has been indicated in a previous issue of The American Ecclesiastical Review.

The Holy Office letter is by far the most complete authoritative statement on and explanation of the Church’s necessity for salvation yet issued by the Holy See. A tremendous number of documents in the past have asserted the dogma. The encyclical Mystici Corporis showed clearly that the explanation of this teaching involved a recognition of the fact that salvation is possible for men “who are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire[/i].” The encyclical Humani generis reproved those who “reduce to an empty formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.”

It remained for the present document to state and to use the distinction between the necessity of precept and the necessity of means, to explain this latter in terms of belonging to the Church in re and in voto, and explicitly to distinguish between explicit and implicit intentions of entering the Church. Because it has done these things, and because it has joined up the teaching on the Church’s necessity with the doctrines of the necessity of faith and of charity, the Holy Office letter will stand as one of the most important authoritative doctrinal statements of modern times.

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.
(American Ecclesiastical Review, December, 1952, pages 450-461.)

Tue Oct 04, 2011 2:42 am
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