Augustine and Ratzinger on Faith and Salvation

Augustine, arguing against the view that when Christ descended to Hell, he brought salvation (or preached for the first time) to those who died without having the opportunity to know Him, appears to argue that this view, or in general the view that those who die without faith in Christ may be united to him in death, would make faith in Christ useless or worse than useless:

Those who hold this opinion do not consider that the same excuse is available for all those who have, even after Christ’s resurrection, departed this life before the gospel came to them…. But if we accept this opinion, according to which we are warranted in supposing that men who did not believe while they were in life can in hell believe in Christ… [if] it be alleged that in hell those only believe to no purpose and in vain who refused to accept here on earth the gospel preached to them, but that believing will profit those who never despised a gospel which they never had it in their power to hear another still more absurd consequence is involved, namely, that forasmuch as all men shall certainly die, and ought to come to hell wholly free from the guilt of having despised the gospel; since otherwise it can be of no use to them to believe it when they come there, the gospel ought not to be preached on earth, a sentiment not less foolish than profane. (Augustine, Epistle 194, Ch. 4)

Again, arguing for the impossibility of salvation without faith and baptism, he says:

God is not so unjust as to defraud righteous persons of the reward of righteousness, [Augustine may be here speaking in the person of his opponent] because there has not been announced to them the mystery of Christ’s divinity and humanity, which was manifested in the flesh…. before the actual preaching of the gospel reaches the ends of all the earth… what must human nature do, or what has it done — for it had either not heard that all this was to take place, or has not yet learned that it was accomplished — but believe in God who made heaven and earth, by whom also it perceived by nature that it had been itself created, and lead a right life, and thus accomplish His will, uninstructed with any faith in the death and resurrection of Christ? Well, if this could have been done, or can still be done, then for my part I have to say what the apostle said in regard to the law: "Then Christ died in vain." … If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God’s most righteous wrath — in a word, from punishment — except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ. (Augustine, The Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and On the Baptism of Infants, book 3, ch. 2)

I would like to set these texts in comparison with two statements by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

What troubles us is no longer whether and how 'others' will be saved. Through our belief in divine mercy, we now know for certain that they can be saved; but how this can happen is something we trustfully leave to God…. To be a Christian does not mean… to find salvation placed more easily within one's grasp. But it does mean an invitation to greater generosity of heart, to volunteer the service which Jesus Christ gives to all men of all times. We could even say that to be a Christian means above all 'to be for others'… To secure the salvation of all men, the Church has no need to be exteriorly identified with all men. (Ratzinger, "The Church's Mission in the World," in Rethinking the Church, pp. 48, 52, 53, translated from La Fine della Chiesa come Società perfetta, 1968)

We cannot start to set limits on God’s behalf; the very heart of the faith has been lost to anyone who supposes that it is only worthwhile, if it is, so to say, made worthwhile by the damnation of others. Such a way of thinking, which finds the punishment of other people necessary, springs from not having inwardly accepted the faith; from loving only oneself and not God the Creator, to whom his creatures belong. That way of thinking would be like the attitude of those people who could not bear the workers who came last being paid a denarius like the rest; like the attitude of people who feel properly rewarded only if others have received less. This would be the attitude of the son who stayed at home, who could not bear the reconciling kindness of his father. It would be a hardening of our hearts, in which it would become clear that we were only looking out for ourselves and not looking for God; in which it would be clear that we did not love our faith, but merely bore it like a burden. . . . It is a basic element of the biblical message that the Lord died for all—being jealous of salvation is not Christian (Ratzinger, God Is Near Us:The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003], 35–36).

Cardinal Ratzinger surely does not intend to affirm that St. Augustine lost "the very heart of the faith", but may intend to make a criticism of certain elements in St. Augustine, and likely intends to reject a certain way of interpreting or using Augustine and his teachings on grace.

3 thoughts on “Augustine and Ratzinger on Faith and Salvation”

  1. From the first passage, it sounds as if St. Augustine is committing a (by now) classic fallacy. That is, he seems to be saying that if one can be saved without knowing the Gospel, and if knowing the Gospel imposes certain obligations on a person, then it is better not to know it. But of course it does not follow that it would be easier to be saved without knowing the Gospel. Nor would it necessarily follow, even if this were true, that one ought not to preach the Gospel (since one might theoretically be obliged to preach it even if it would make salvation more difficult for someone).

  2. Do you think Ratzinger really means to say that salvation is not more within the Christian's grasp than if he were not Christian? That doesn't seem consonant with others things he wrote.

    1. I don't know whether or not at that early time (I forgot to date the first quotation, which is from 1968) he held it as probable that ultimately just as high a percentage of non-Christians as Christians are saved–of course if he opined that all men would ultimately be saved then it would be the same percentage. It is possible that he thought so, but in any case I don't think it's his principal point there.

      First, I think he quite deliberately employs the adverb "more easily," rather than something like "more surely", though I don't have the Italian text to see if it would clarify. The greater context, which I left out to save space, supports that:

      We can now understand the meaning of the Church in history. The Church is a sharing in the substitutive service of Jesus Christ. To become a Christian means to give up an egotistic existence, a mean way of living only for oneself; and to begin living a life for others. This shows that the substitutive service and agape definitively mark out one and the same road, the Christian Pasch, the passing over from the old man to the new. Amidst the troubles of our times this introspective view affords a new directive for the Christian conscience. The full service of being explicitly within the Church is not fulfilled by all but for all. Thanks to these services humanity is alive. In one sense then, the Christian mission is rather like the call given to Simon of Cyrene: to help the Lord to carry his redeeming cross. To be a Christian does not mean to lead a more comfortable life, or to find salvation placed more easily within one's grasp. But it does mean an invitation to greater generosity of heart, to volunteer the service which Jesus Christ gives to all men of all times.

      He seems more to be saying that becoming a Christian doesn't permit one to "get by with doing less," on account of, say, the grace of the Sacraments, but is a call to do more.

      Secondly, I suspect with the expression "does not mean" (assuming it's an accurate translation) he is intending to say that the principal motive for being a Christian should not (or cannot?) be to decrease the probability of oneself being damned and increase the probability of oneself being saved, but should be to follow Christ in giving oneself for his sake and for others. I believe he maintains this position or something like it fairly consistently, along with Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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