Ad Gentes on the Salvation of non-Christians

The early schema of Vatican II on missionary activity said: "The Church is the universal means of salvation instituted by Christ… therefore, although the Church has always held that men who, not due to their own fault, do not know Christ, can be saved if they obey the dictates of their conscience, it is the will of God for them to be justified and saved through the Faith and the Sacraments, and so evangelization also today retains supreme importance" (Emphasis added).

This draft was revised to mention God's grace and the necessity of Faith even for those men, but continued to refer to this as traditional doctrine of the Church: "The Church has indeed always held and does hold that men who, by the help of God's grace, obey the dictates of their conscience, can, though with more difficulty, arrive at the Faith without which it is impossible to please God, even if they have not heard the Gospel; at the same time, however, it held and holds that it is the will of God for all to be justified and saved through the Faith that arises from the Church's preaching and through the Church's Sacraments…"

The final decree removes the reference to obeying one's conscience, and says that "God, by ways known to him," can lead men to the faith (no longer capitalized) without which it is impossible to please him. It also drops the claim that the Church has always held this.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger some years later affirmed something very similar to what was stated in the first drafts of Vatican II's decree on missionary activity: "It is an ancient, traditional teaching of the Church that every men is called to salvation and can in fact be saved by sincerely obeying the dictates of his own conscience, even if he is not a visible member of the Catholic Church. This teaching that (I repeat) was already peacefully accepted, was however excessively emphasized in the years following the Councils, supported by theories like that of "anonymous christianity" (Rapporto sulla fede, my translation).

Is it true that the Church has always held that all men, even those who have not heard the Gospel, can be saved through God's grace and call made known to them through their conscience? Or was this dropped from the text of Ad Gentes because this is really a radically new teaching, beginning only with Pope Pius IX?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *