Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Catholic inclusivism?

This post is actually a reprint of a comment that failed to publish over at Malcolm's blog, probably because of the inclusion of hyperlinks, which can activate anti-spam software on some blogs, depending on their comment settings. A bit of background: Malcolm had written a post titled "Slow News Day," about the conversion of Tony Blair's sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, to Islam. In the comments, Dr. Hodges asked, "Doesn’t the Catholic church allow for salvation outside the official church? Lauren Booth might yet make the grade..." Malcolm replied, "Does it? I thought not. Kevin would know..."

So here we are. I've actually dealt with this question on a few occasions throughout this blog's history (use the search function to look up words and phrases like "Nostra Aetate," "inclusivism," and "Vatican II"), but it's good to revisit the subject. What follows, then, is the comment I had hoped to append to Malcolm's thread.

The Nostra Aetate document from Vatican 2 (see here) seems to open the door to a more inclusivistic approach: salvation is still Christian, and still through Christ, but to the extent that one's religious practice manifests Christian virtues, those non-Christian traditions can conceivably be ways of salvation. See this passage, for example:

Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She 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. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

The document goes on in that vein, next addressing Islam and Judaism in a very conciliatory tone. Some consider this document a revolutionary change in Catholic thinking (and the 2000 Dominus Iesus of then-Cardinal Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen by many non-Catholics as a step backward toward the old extra ecclesiam nulla salus); others aren't so sure. While I was out west on my walk, one Catholic monk I spoke with was doubtful that Nostra Aetate should be read as an explicit statement of theological inclusivism. Catholic opinions seem to vary. My own reading of the document, as a non-Catholic, is a hopeful one, and is a reading shared by many of my Catholic and non-Catholic instructors in grad school.

Sorry I can't be clearer, but as my engineer friend would probably note, with great frustration and annoyance, religion isn't an exact science. Everything's open to interpretation.

Nostra Aetate concludes this way:

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to "maintain good fellowship among the nations" (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

Make of that what you will.



Malcolm Pollack said...

Thanks Kevin! (I don't know why that comment was blocked. There aren't that many links.)

Despite the generous tone of the passages you quote, it does seem to be, as you say, that salvation "is still through Christ".

So Tony Blair's sister-in-law is officially headed for perdition, no?

Kevin Kim said...

Were I a classical theist, I might venture that her status is "between her and God."

I think, though, that if Ms. Booth were trapped on a desert island with a boatload of Catholic priests, and if she suffered a mortal blow from a falling coconut, the priests would want to administer last rites and commend her soul to God when she finally passed away. So as a practical matter, from the priestly point of view, I'd say that her chances of gaining entry into Christian heaven would be pretty good, as long as it wasn't established that she had kicked the coconut tree in an attempt to kill herself.

Catholic thinker Paul Knitter wrote about something like this in his 1980s-era book, No Other Name? It's a type of inclusivism that he associated more with Protestants than with Catholics, but I think it applies even to Catholics: the idea that, when you die, you don't automatically get sent to heaven or hell, but instead stand in judgment for a tick of the cosmic clock and are given one last chance to make a profession of faith.

Obviously, from my point of view, that's a load of post-mortem nonsense (the same way I feel about Tibetan Buddhist descriptions of the bardo), but it is a form of inclusivism.

Although it's a common stereotype, there's no single, clear "party line" in most of Catholic theology. Like Protestants and other types of Christians, both Catholic laity and Catholic clergy are called to exercise their conscience when ruminating on such matters. If anything, a priest might be uncomfortable with a discussion that focuses on "getting into heaven" as opposed to "devoting oneself to God."

The notion of salvation still being through Christ is one reason why certain pluralists critique inclusivism: they consider this a "hidden arrogance" position, essentially patting the non-Christian on the head and telling them that, despite being Muslim or Hindu or whatever, they're still a good little Christian. Cf. Karl Rahner's idea of the "anonymous Christian."

Malcolm Pollack said...

But to be saved one would at least have to be rather explicit (at some point, either pre- or post-mortem) about accepting Christ as your Saviour, right?

In other words, all that "there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet" stuff would have to go, I should think; the prospective Muslim saviee would have to renounce the Shahada.

But then again, I don't want to be telling Christ what to do.

Given all this, I think Tony Blair could at least be hopeful about it, though.

Kevin Kim said...

"But to be saved one would at least have to be rather explicit (at some point, either pre- or post-mortem) about accepting Christ as your Saviour, right?"

I'd say: not necessarily, and that's the point of Rahner's anonymous Christianity. But your question goes right to the issue of religious adherents' attitudes toward other religions. An exclusivistic attitude might impel someone to view their religious commitments in narrow, doctrinal terms. Such a person might say that there's no way Ms. Booth will ever get to heaven. A more inclusivistic or pluralistic stance would view the situation less doctrinally and more "humanly," if you will, allowing for salvation even for those not explicitly following one's own chosen path.

That, by the way, is roughly how I view the thrust of Jesus' often-transgressive teaching: pious Jew though he supposedly was, the Jesus of the gospels often demonstrated little patience with those bent on adhering merely to the letter of the law. Through the centuries, however, his followers have often forgotten or ignored this aspect of Jesus' ministry. (Of course, one could argue that there's scriptural evidence that Jesus himself had his doctrinaire side, but I was only offering my humble take. The larger debate on who Jesus really was is a messy one, not easily covered in under 4096 characters.)