Sunday, June 28, 2009

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

Taking up where we left off in Fr. Harrison's article, “Can an implicit faith be sufficient for salvation,” Fr. Harrison continues with this gem: “Also, the very fact that such blunt affirmations as St. Peter’s are certainly not being made by most Catholic leaders today strongly suggests that the post-Vatican II Church has, at least in practice, moved away from the original apostolic approach.”

Is Fr. Harrison suggesting that the mode in which we should preach to others is independent of circumstances in which we live? Of course the Church has moved away from the “original apostolic approach,” if what is meant by this is that she has ceased to use the same kind of language which was once appropriate to the times, but is not any longer.

He goes on to say that if someone believes in the idea of implicit faith, he will never make the kind of assertion that St. Paul did when talking to his jailor “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” (Acts 16:31) Rather, he says, “you will be far more nuanced and ‘ecumenically correct’, saying something like this: “We Christians believe Jesus is the Savior of all men, and if you become convinced of that, then you should, logically, become a Christian. But if you remain sincerely unconvinced that Jesus is the Messiah, then of course your present Jewish convictions will be accepted by God as saving faith for you. But we believe it will actually be Jesus who saves you, even if you don’t have any conscious and explicit recognition of him as the Savior.”

I had to laugh at this one. The best way to show the absurdity of such a statement is to illustrate it with an example. Suppose I am talking to a pregnant woman whose doctors have told her that she has complications which have a chance of causing her death if she goes through with the pregnancy. Having 10 other children, some of them very young, she has decided that she cannot risk leaving them without anyone to care for them, and so has decided to go through with the abortion. Now, I could say to her completely truthfully the following: “We Catholics believe that abortion is always morally evil, and if you become convinced of that, then you should, logically, not have the abortion. But if you remain sincerely convinced in conscience that you must have this abortion, then of course it would be a sin for you not to have the abortion, since you would be intending to act against God's will. But your action will only be good because you are following what your conscience tells you is God's will, even if you don't realize that in itself the act is evil.”

But it would be absurd to say this, even though it is technically true. The manner in which we speak depends on the end in which we have in mind; in such a situation, I would try and form the woman's conscience, not give her technical distinctions about how her conscience binds her. Likewise, when we evangelize, we speak in the way that will be most likely to have a good effect.

This is precisely why we do not evangelize by telling people that they will go to hell if they do not join the Catholic Church. The most likely effect of that is to turn them away from Catholicism, because they would consider it unreasonable. Nor do we deny those good things and helps to salvation that they may have in their own religion; again for the same reason.

Fr. Harrison then asserts that, “If anything, the N.T. shows an even greater clarity regarding the pre-evangelized state of the gentiles – the pagans. It practically spells out that even though their ignorance of Christ is presently invincible, they will not be saved unless that ‘darkness’ is overcome!”

Let's look at the texts which he claims spell this out.

“to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me”

Christ is speaking to St. Paul here concerning St. Paul's mission to the gentiles. But this does not show the necessity of explicit faith. It is merely expressing the purpose for which St. Paul is being sent to the Gentiles. Merely to say that he is being sent so that the gentiles may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among the faithful is not say that there is no gentile who has not had his sins forgiven.

Furthermore, the state of those who do not know Christ is quite fittingly called a state of darkness when compared with knowing Christ, who says “I am the light of the world.” I quoted the CDF on this in my last post, but I will re-quote them, since they explicitly interpret why St. Paul phrases this the way he does.

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)

Fr. Harrison goes on to say, “Paul asks rhetorically, with anguish, how the pagans can be saved if they don’t receive a preacher. Clearly, his anguish – and the question itself – would really make no sense if Paul held that the existing religious convictions of these gentile peoples can already constitute a disguised or implicit faith in Christ that is sufficient for their salvation.”

He is referring to Romans 10:13-17, where St. Paul says, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Unfortunately, he fails to mention the fact that Paul is NOT saying this as if he is anguished, rather, he is answering the objection that those who have not heard the Gospel cannot be held accountable. Upon concluding the objection he replies “Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ. But I say: Have they not heard? Yes, verily: Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth: and their words unto the ends of the whole world.” St. Paul's response is to quote Psalm 19 “Their sound hath gone forth . . .” This Psalm is referring to the heavens “preaching” God's glory to the whole earth. “The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands. ”(Psalm 19:1) Thus, this passage from St. Paul shows the opposite of what Fr. Harrison what make it out to mean; St. Paul is saying that everyone can “see” Christ in the heavens, and are thus inexcusable for not believing in him. This, however, for many people would have to be in an implicit way, until the gospel has been explicitly preached to them. I dealt with this same passage already here:

Fr. Harrison then goes on to brush off the passage from Romans where St. Paul speaks of the Gentiles “who have not the law” but are justified by following the law written on their hearts. I explained this passage here:

Here I will simply say this much: St. Paul is quite clearly including those gentiles before Christ who did not have the Jewish law, and were justified by following the law written on their hearts. These had an implicit faith in Christ. St. Paul says nothing in his statement which would limit what he says to those who have received the Gospel of Christ. In fact, such an interpretation would destroy the sense of the passage, since St. Paul is making the point that every man is inexcusable, precisely because all have the ability to do what is right and be justified, whether they have received the law or not. Under Fr. Harrison's interpretation, those men who have not received the gospel would be excusable, since they are unable to love God.

Fr. Harrison then goes on to address the passage from Hebrews 11:6, which he claims cannot be

taken as the requirement for supernatural faith, because the verse is, “embedded in a whole chapter of Hebrews that speaks exclusively of holy men who lived and died in pre-Christian, and in many cases (vv. 4-22) pre-Mosaic, times. Therefore, especially in view of the rest of the N.T. witness, v. 6 can by no means be taken as serious biblical evidence that this very limited knowledge of God can still be sufficient to constitute the supernatural (theological) virtue of faith, now that Christ has finally come in the flesh”

Incidentally, according to Fr. Harrison's mode of arguing, that “Scripture insinuates or suggests by what it omits, not only by what it says” he should say that since Scripture does not explicitly say that something more is required now that Christ has come, it is insinuated that faith consists in the knowledge of God and that he is a rewarder of the just.

In any case, there are a number of responses to this. First, Hebrews is talking about what faith is, and looking to the ancients for examples. Fr. Harrison's claim is essentially that what the Fathers had DOES NOT COUNT AS FAITH under the new dispensation. If this is true, then why are we looking to them as examples, without distinguishing between what was required, and what is required. Why does Hebrews go back and forth between our faith and theirs as if they are the same? “Now, faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not. For by this the ancients obtained a testimony. By faith we understand that the world was framed by the word of God: that from invisible things visible things might be made. By faith Abel offered to God a sacrifice . . .”

Furthermore, if, as Fr. Harrison asserts, after Pentecost supernatural faith must include explicit faith in Christ, what happens to those just gentiles living through Pentecost, who have faith in God? Does their supernatural faith get “downgraded” to natural faith at the moment of Pentecost? Of course, this could not happen without them losing Charity, and thus committing a mortal sin. The other possibility is that all these just gentiles receive an explicit revelation from God at the very moment of Pentecost. This, however, is refuted by the example of Cornelius, who did not immediately receive a revelation.

In the end, Fr. Harrison brings no compelling witness from Scripture. No language in Scripture denies the possibility of salvation by implicit faith, nor does it even imply it, as Fr. Harrison claims. I want to re-iterate the point I made at the beginning. Since Fr. Harrison accepts implicit faith as a valid means of salvation in the Old Testament, if he wishes to claim that a statement about salvation that is made in the New Testament carries a requirement of explicit faith, he must make clear that this statement is not intended to hold true for the Old Testament. Statements like “there is no salvation in any other name,” simply do not meet the requirement, since they apply to the Old Testament as well as to the New.

In the next part of Father Harrison's article, he deals with the tradition from the time of the apostles until the 16th century. Fr. Harrison makes the claim that none of the Fathers held that one could be saved by implicit faith. This is simply speaking false; there are many clear places in the Fathers where they say this. I have already shown a number of places:

The one quote that Fr. Harrison looks at (although he relegates it to a footnote) is that of St. Justin Martyr, which he says is “an ambiguous statement.” Here is the text:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the reason in which all mankind partakes [John 1:9] . Those, therefore, who lived according to reason were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them. . . . Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason, whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason are Christians.” (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology)

What is Father Harrison's response to this text? “These last words could be taken to mean that some “who live now” may still be living “according to reason” without yet knowing Christ; but they are also entirely compatible with Justin’s holding, like all the subsequent Fathers, that after Christ’s coming only those who know and accept his Gospel are given the grace to live “according to reason”, that is, righteously in God’s sight.”

So, Fr. Harrison explains this interpreting St. Justin as saying that unless you explicitly believe in Christ, you cannot live according to reason. In other words, he is calling all those people who inculpably do not know of Christ “wicked men,” “enemies of Christ,” and “murderers of those who did live according to reason.” The absurdity of this is evident.

I will pass over the rest of Fr. Harrison's comments about the Fathers, since I do not have the time to refute every one of his misinterpretations. He then makes this claim about those after the Fathers:

“. . . the medieval theologians, led by St. Thomas Aquinas, were all unanimously insistent that an explicit faith in Christ has been universally necessary for salvation ever since the New Law of grace was revealed in the first century A.D.”

This is quite misleading. As I proved here:

St. Thomas holds that one can be justified by implicit faith in Christ. It is true that he also holds that God will grant to such people explicit faith before they die, but since they are already justified, this is not an essential necessity, but would be an ordination of God's providence. St. Alphonsus and others hold a similar position. I intend to do more posts on the medieval theologians at some point, but for now the example of St. Thomas will suffice.

Fr. Harrison notes that, beginning in the 15th century, a number of theologians took up the position that implicit faith could suffice for justification, but that before death such people would receive an explicit knowledge of the Christian faith. However, as I noted in the last paragraph, this was not really a new position, and St. Thomas himself had held it.

Fr. Harrison then has this interesting passage criticizing the view of Fr. Rahner:

“S.J. Rahner requires absolutely no particular explicit belief-content at all, since he claims that not only pantheists, polytheists and agnostics, but even outright atheists, can have ‘implicit faith’ in Jesus Christ. According to Rahner, the sincere atheist fulfils the Gospel’s faith requirement for salvation provided only that he “accepts a moral demand from his conscience as absolutely valid for him and embraces it as such in a free act of affirmation” Never mind what one’s conscience tells one to do, it seems. Are we to suppose that the Aztec priest ripping out human hearts on the altar of the serpent God, the Hindu insisting on burning alive his friend’s widow, and the suicide bomber screaming praises to Allah as he rams a jet plane into a skyscraper – that all these ever-so-sincere chaps are really just expressing the divine gift of Christian faith – each in his own . . . highly creative way? That “straight and narrow” path which our Lord says leads to salvation – adding that “few there be that find it” – now seems to have been wondrously transmuted into a broad and smooth highway that just about everyone will find. ”

This passage seems to exhibit a bad misunderstanding, both of the binding force of conscience, and what exactly Rahner means.

In regard to conscience, surely Fr. Harrison would not say that one must act against one's conscience; to do this is a sin by definition, since it means that one is intentionally doing something that one believes to be evil. It is a position generally accepted by moral theologians that one's conscience is always binding, even where the person is culpable for the bad formation of his own conscience. This is the opinion of St. Thomas, and most Catholic theologians follow him.

That said, this is not to say that people can do whatever they want, and get away with it. We are obliged to form our conscience, and to neglect this is a sin. Furthermore, in the case where someone culpably neglects to form his conscience, even when his conscience tells him to do evil, since he knows that he neglected to form his conscience, if he considered the matter, he would be able to go and seek the truth on the matter before following his conscience.

Rahner, of course, is referring to those people who are invincibly ignorant, and who are not culpable for having a badly formed conscience. Fr. Harrison tries to make this look ridiculous with his examples, by choosing examples in which it is very unlikely that someone could be inculpable. The reason for this is that, since God implanted the natural law in our hearts, actions that go directly against this law tend to also go against our conscience, and to give us more reason for suspecting that we need to form our conscience.

Fr. Harrison then goes on to criticize at some length the idea that someone could be externally a devout Muslim or Jew, but really be “an implicit Christian.” This does not seem to really be relevant to the discussion; no absurdities arise from this concept. Given that earlier Fr. Harrison granted, along with St. Justin Martyr, that pagans or Jews before Christ could be “implicit Christians,” while being explicitly Jews or pagans, I fail to see what the problem is.

To be continued . . .


  1. You are doing an important work here and I hope you get many readers. The witness of Paul during his missionary work was different too in this sense: Christianity was a clean slate at the time and now we have centuries of sinful Church behaviour that acts like baggage working against the very gospel we are preaching. Take China. France was our representative there in the 19th century and was also helping the Vatican mid century in Europe preserve its land at least in the city of Rome for awhile before losing that also along with the papal states in general. France simultaneously was helping the Church open up China but by force of arms also and was helping England secure its opium trade simultaneously in the same military action in the treaty of 1862 which opened every province of China to missionaries and secured the opium trade into China by England via India in the same treaty.
    St. Paul did not have to preach to people who had been abused by an imperialism that was not denounced by the Church which Church was gaining by the Second Opium War as to her missionaries being granted access and the right to buy property while her representative, France, was also aiding the drug trade into China by England who was using it to stem the loss of silver to China in paying for its exports which England loved.
    In short Paul like Christ was preaching the gospel sans bad baggage. No such luck for the modern Church. That is why our theologians seem woefully ignorant of and isolated from history as having a bearing on this issue in general. Christ had said to the Jews that they would have no sin had He not said AND DID things which they had never seen: words plus His acts of Love within His miracles. Words were not enough for His generation to be held liable...they also had His actions.
    China has our words but our history of bad actions against her country in the person of France and in the privileges secured by France for converts in law disputes which turned people like the Boxers against Chinese Catholics.

  2. PS Just to give another example of how theology tries to operate in ignorance of history which bears on it, the letter to China of Pope Benedict of about a year ago whether written by Benedict or by someone deputed to write it for him spoke of how the Church does not wish to overthrow governments but to have a place in rational discussion. All of which sounds nice...but...we have George Weigel's "Witness to Hope" stating that the revolution in the Phillipines was partly John Paul's revolution (it was really Cardinal Sin's who took to the radio and urged Catholics to protect Enrile who was revolting against Marcos) and we had Weigel giving detail of the cooperation of the US intelligence with John Paul as to Poland which many of our writers hail as the overthrow of communism there by John Paul.
    In light of all of which, Benedict's letter looks like it is fibbing like many other formal letters in international affairs when it notes that the Church does not want to overthrow governments.