Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fr. Brian Harrison on Implicit Faith in Christ, Part I

As I mentioned in the comment box on a previous post, I planned to write a post against a certain article that has been circulating the web for awhile, and is held up by various groups, such as the feeneyites, as strong support for their position. This is the first one of my posts on his article.

For those are are unfamiliar with Fr. Harrison, you can read about him here:

Fr. Harrison is a strong opponent of the idea that an implicit faith in Christ can suffice for salvation, and he wrote a 33 page presentation against this idea. This can be found here:

Fr. Harrison introduces his presentation by admitting that the theological opinion of salvation by implicit faith is a nearly universally held opinion today, and that, “in recent times seems to have been held by nearly all bishops, possibly even popes in their private capacity.” He then goes on to claim that this opinion is “false, and even proximate to heresy.”

Alarm bells should be ringing in any sensible readers mind at this point. May I ask what gives Fr. Harrison the right to proclaim his own opinion on Church teaching over “nearly all bishops,” and to assert that they are holding a position “proximate to heresy”? Perhaps he would answer, the infallible teaching authority of the Church from the very beginning. Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that he trusts his own interpretation of those teachings over that of nearly all the bishops. Surely he does not think that they are simply ignoring former Church teaching; if they are not ignoring it, do they then think that the Church has changed her teaching? Or is it not rather that they have read these texts, and interpreted them in light of current Church teaching as being fully consistent?

To make the assertion that nearly all the bishops can be wrong on a teaching of faith and morals is a grave one indeed. If one says that all the bishops held something which necessarily leads to heresy, this would itself be heretical; it is the mission of the bishops to teach the truth in such matters to the faithful, and such a position implies that the Church itself has failed in her mission.

(Christus Dominus N.2) “Christ gave the Apostles and their successors the command and the power to teach all nations, to hallow men in the truth, and to feed them. Bishops, therefore, have been made true and authentic teachers of the faith, pontiffs, and pastors through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to them.”

(Lumen Gentium N.24) “Bishops, as successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord, to whom was given all power in heaven and on earth, the mission to teach all nations and to preach the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain to salvation by faith, baptism and the fulfillment of the commandments.”

(Dei Verbum N. 7) “But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, "handing over" to them "the authority to teach in their own place.” Let us ask again about what one must be saying to affirm that explicit faith is necessary for salvation. Either, 1) One must say that nearly the entire body of bishops is simply wrong on this matter, and on their interpretations of the earlier Church teaching, 2) they are ignoring earlier Church teachings, and proposing what they believe the Church is teaching, or 3) they understand early church teaching in a way that is perfectly consistent with the statement that someone can be saved by implicit faith. Which of these is most reasonable?

Fr. Harrison goes on to quote this decree from the council of Florence: “The Most Holy Roman Church, founded by the word of our Lord and Savior,. . . firmly believes, professes and preaches that no persons living outside the Catholic Church – not only pagans but also Jews, heretics and schismatics – can come to share in eternal life, but will go into the eternal fire . . . unless they are aggregated to her before the end of their life.”

According to Father Harrison, this decree “makes crystal clear” who is should be understood as being outside the Catholic Church. Strangely enough, he then goes on to say he intends to limit himself to a discussion of the first two classes of persons listed, because “the question as to who, precisely, was understood by the Florentine Fathers to be counted as a heretic or schismatic involves some complexities which I shall not attempt to discuss today.”

Looks like it is not so “crystal clear” after all. Rather, it seems that qualifications have to made as to who should be understood as falling under these terms. Fr. Harrison seems to assume that all those who externally appear as pagans and Jews must be considered as falling under this condemnation. Yet if this is so, why should it not be true of heretics and schismatics as well? In fact, as I showed in this post, Augustine holds that even someone who explicitly holds heretical positions knowing that they are against the Church's positions, if he has been brought up this way by his parents, and is sincerely seeking the truth, is not to be counted a heretic. Thus, someone who appears externally to be a heretic, and who may recognize that he believes something other than the Church's teaching, can still not fall under this condemnation.

Fr. Harrison then says he is going to sum up his position by modifying the traditional statement, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” to “extra Christianismum nulla salus”, meaning that “nobody dying as a non-Christian – that is, as a pagan, Jew, Muslim, atheist or agnostic – can reach eternal life.” By Christianity, he means to include an explicit profession of faith in Christ. (If one reads the council of Florence strictly, I'm not sure why one should include Christians, but I will let that pass)

Fr. Harrison then goes on to see what conclusions he can draw about “extra Christianismum nulla salus” (ECNS) from Sacred Scripture. He makes the claim that the overall impression that the New Testament gives one is that ECNS underlies everything, while admitting that it is not stated explicitly anywhere. He gives us a twofold reason for this overall impression:

1) “First, when we talk about “belief” in something or someone, we nearly always mean explicit, conscious belief unless otherwise stated, or unless the discussion happens to be precisely about the “implicit” vs. “explicit” problem.”


2) “Secondly, Scripture insinuates or suggests by what it omits, not only by what it says. And the silence of the N.T. seems rather eloquent on this point. When, for instance, Jesus bluntly asserts, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6), without immediately adding (as most modern commentators would do) that this doesn’t necessarily mean an explicit belief in himself is always required, the impression is left that it always is required.”

I have already refuted these objections in my posts on Sacred Scripture, but I will re-iterate the reason that these kinds of arguments fail. One simple question is enough to refute these arguments. Did the apostles intend all these statements about the necessity of belief in Christ to apply to those in the New Testament alone, or also to those in the Old? Nobody with a modicum of knowledge of the Church's teaching on this matter will say that they intended to exclude those in the Old Testament from the necessity of being saved by faith in Christ. Therefore, it follows that one cannot take statements like these to exclude the possibility of salvation by implicit faith in Christ, since many men in the Old Testament were saved without an explicit knowledge of Christ.

Did they come to the Father by anyone other than Christ? Or were they saved in any other name than Jesus? If not, then one cannot assert that these quotations are asserting a necessity for explicit faith in the new testament, which was not there in the old. The same thing holds true for the quotation from John 17:3 that Fr. Harrison gives. The fact is, even though it is true that the apostles themselves were principally thinking about explicit faith in Christ when they say things like “there is no other name by which someone can be saved,” nevertheless, this does not mean that they are excluding implicit faith, since this statement applies to men of the Old Testament.

He then continues on to say that “And if we read through Acts of the Apostles and the N.T. letters, the constant impression we naturally receive is that the preaching of the Gospel to those who do not yet “know” Jesus is urgently necessary in order for them to be saved. Once the assumption is widely diffused that untold numbers of Jews, pagans and unbelievers out there are already in the state of grace by virtue of their “implicit faith”, and so are heading straight for heaven, then that sense of urgency in spreading the Gospel is inevitably weakened very seriously.”

Fr. Harrison assumes that if the apostles thought that some people could be saved by implicit faith, then they would not have preached the Gospel so urgently. This shows a misunderstanding of the Church's teaching. Regardless of whether some non-catholics can be saved by implicit faith, the need to preach the gospel is indeed an urgent one. This has been constantly re-iterated by the Church, and is still done so today. I plan to devote a number of posts to how the doctrine “no salvation outside the church” and salvation by implicit faith relate to the Church's missionary duty, so I will not directly confront this position here, but will merely show that the present day Church still teaches this urgency to preach the Gospel today, while at the same time holding that some people can be saved by implicit faith.

“In the name of the whole Church, I sense an urgent duty to repeat this cry of St. Paul. From the beginning of my Pontificate I have chosen to travel to the ends of the earth in order to show this missionary concern. My direct contact with peoples who do not know Christ has convinced me even more of the urgency of missionary activity, a subject to which I am devoting the present encyclical.” (Redemptoris Missio, N.1)

“In the present state of affairs, out of which there is arising a new situation for mankind, the Church, being the salt of the earth and the light of the world (cf. Matt. 5:13-14), is more urgently called upon to save and renew every creature, that all things may be restored in Christ and all men may constitute one family in Him and one people of God. ” (Ad Gentes, N.1)

“Thus one understands the urgency of Christ’s invitation to evangelization . . . At the present time, with so many people in the world living in different types of desert, above all, in the “desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life”, Pope Benedict XVI has recalled to the world that “the Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” (Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization, CDF)

It is clear that the Church now speaks with the same urgency that she did before, while nevertheless at the same time saying that some can be saved by implicit faith in Christ. Thus, one cannot argue that the strong language used in the scriptures regarding the need for the Gospel implies the absolute necessity for explicit faith for salvation. In anticipation of my posts on this matter, I give one quotation:

Although non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in “ways known to him,” the Church cannot fail to recognize that such persons are lacking a tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us. Indeed “there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him.” The revelation of the fundamental truths about God, about the human person and the world, is a great good for every human person, while living in darkness without the truths about ultimate questions is an evil and is often at the root of suffering and slavery which can at times be grievous. This is why Saint Paul does not hesitate to describe conversion to the Christian faith as liberation “from the power of darkness” and entrance into “the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins.” (Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization, CDF)

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