One of the Catholic doctrines most alien to a convert, but also the most urgent spur for conversion, is the long-disused extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. It is a cause for wonder, a mystery almost as deep as that of predestination. Fear of dying outside the Church, a society seemingly necessary for salvation, is one of the greatest motivators for leaving one’s non-Catholic life behind. The Church is the pearl of great price, the barque of Peter, the city of God, all worth more than any measly treasures that can be found outside its confines. Without the terrible suspicion that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is true, many would never convert at all.
So what a shock it is to the convert who has sold all he has in order to obtain this pearl, to realize that few within Peter’s barque actually care about this doctrine. Even those who believe it are strangely apathetic in defending or promulgating it. The fewer who both believe and insist upon this doctrine are considered mad if not schismatic—Fr. Feeney’s disciples, sedevacantists, and a few others—which is greatly ironic if not humorous.
There’s a lie in here, somewhere, and the convert knows it. He knows he’s been lied to, but unsure at what point the lie occurs. Is it a lie that nobody outside the Church is saved? Is it a lie that the Catholic Church is the “Church” referred to in this doctrine? Is the lie that he could have remained blissfully ignorant of all things Catholic and floated into Heaven on his mere good intentions?
The answer, if one is given at all, is usually that “outside,” “Church,” and “no” are fuzzy concepts that admit to multiple interpretations. After listening to this half-baked sophistry for an hour or two, the convert inevitably asks the question: Did I need to convert to be saved? Heaven help him if he asks a Balthasarian. At least the Feeneyite will try to keep him Catholic.
The exclusivity of the Catholic doctrine is nearly unknown among Protestant denominations. Most of them will acknowledge the basic acceptability of other broadly Christian creedal communities, in spite of doctrinal and practical disagreements. Islam is one of the few world religions to also profess exclusivism, which is probably one of the reasons why they have opposed Catholicism so vociferously for centuries.
I am not suggesting that the proper interpretation of extra Ecclesiam is a simple or easy one, but it has to mean something, and the apologists drop the ball explaining the doctrine even while practically acting as though the interpretation ought to be strict. After all, they insist that everyone who is capable of understanding the teachings of the Church must investigate them and then strive to become her members. Their salvation, supposedly, depends on it. Which is why the apologists scurry into the cracks once they are queried about John Paul’s praise of other religions, Mother Theresa’s indifferentism towards the pagans under her care, and Cdl. Ratzinger’s assurance to a Lutheran that she could safely remain non-Catholic.
The terrifying attrition rate of Catholic converts should give us pause. Many converts feel that they have been lied to on their way in, and that the extra Ecclesiam doctrine is used as a bully stick to keep them from leaving. Nobody likes to feel trapped, and those who apostatize often do so out of a sense of desperation rather than boredom or malice.
As I’ve said before, a healthy dose of realism is necessary for those shepherding new converts into the One Fold. They need to be realistic about the failings of the Church today, and brutally honest towards those they are godfathering or sponsoring. The Church on Earth is the Church Militant, but militant not only towards the non-Catholic world and the Devil; the Catholic must also be on his guard against the many threats within the Church. It has always been this way, and if 1950s-triumphalism is responsible for any great evil it was the dulling of the wit towards internal threats.
|(José Benlliure y Gil)|