209. “God has many ways to save.” Cardinal Cantalamessa and Roman Catholic Universalism

Like every Christmas season, the tradition of the “advent sermons,” whereby the preacher of the Papal household addresses the Pope and the community working in the Vatican, was repeated this past December when Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a capuchin, preached three sermons. This preaching role is important because it is officially appointed by the reigning Pope and assigned to a priest whose task is to preach to the community working and living in the Vatican (Pope included) on special liturgical festivities. More generally, the Vatican preacher contributes to setting the standard of Roman Catholic homiletics even beyond the little community of the recipients and is looked upon as a “model” for good Roman Catholic preaching. For these reasons, it is always useful to have an eye on what he says and how he says it.

In 2022, the first Advent sermon (5 December) had the theological virtue of faith at its center and was followed by one sermon on hope and charity, i.e. the three theological virtues. With faith being the general heading, one of the focuses of the cardinal’s sermon was the breadth and scope of salvation. The Italian edition of the Vatican News website effectively summed it up with the headline “God has many ways to save.” In a nutshell, according to the cardinal, all human beings will be saved by Christ, with or without faith in Christ.

This is how Cantalamessa presents the issue:

If faith that saves is faith in Christ, what to think of all those who have no chance of believing in him? We live in a pluralistic society, even religiously. Our theologies – Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant alike – developed in a world where practically only Christianity existed. It was, however, aware of the existence of other religions, but they were considered false from the start, or were not taken into consideration at all.

After acknowledging the traditional position of the church(es) whereby salvation is given to those who “believe” in Christ and therefore do manifest a personal commitment to Him, the cardinal goes on by saying:

Today this is no longer the case. For some time there has been a dialogue between religions, based on mutual respect and recognition of the values present in each of them … With this recognition, the conviction has taken ground that even people outside the Church can be saved.

Notice that he brings with him an argument stemming from the “development” of doctrine and practice due to the adaptation to time and culture. “Today this is no longer the case”: not because Scripture has changed but because “dialogue” has introduced a new perception of religions that has led to a revision of the traditional view. A new conviction has emerged and become mainstream in post-Vatican II and ecumenical theology, i.e., “even people outside the Church can be saved.”

The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such a “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditions even outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?

How does this updated theology work in salvation? Here is how Cantalamessa explains it:

God has far more ways to save than we can think of. He has established “channels” of his grace, but he has not bound himself to them… It is one thing to affirm the universal need of Christ for salvation and another thing to affirm the universal necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

Translated in more simple language, this means that it is always Christ who saves, but believing in Christ is not necessary for salvation. All people (believers and non-believers) are saved, even those who do not believe in Christ. Faith in Christ is important but not necessary for salvation. Christ saves us all, with or without faith in Him.

Is it superfluous, then, to continue proclaiming the Gospel to every creature? – then asks the Cardinal.

Far from it! It is the reason that must change, not the fact. We must continue to proclaim Christ; not so much for a negative reason – otherwise, the world will be condemned – as for a positive reason: for the infinite gift that Jesus represents for every human being.

According to the cardinal, the gospel is only a positive message and contains no judgment against anyone. There is no condemnation for sinners, no reprobation. God’s judgment is no more. God’s mercy has swallowed it. The gospel only has “positive” reasons. We (the whole of humanity) are all already saved by Christ with or without faith in Christ. If how we are saved changes, the Christian mission changes too. Evangelizing today means “dialogue” with other religions always assuming the universal salvation of all in the presence or absence of faith in Jesus Christ.

The cardinal is neither the first nor the only to support this Roman Catholic account of the universalist re-interpretation of the gospel. Sadly, he is in good company; his position is the mainstream, present-day Roman Catholic view. It has its background in Vatican II texts (for example, Lumen Gentium 16) and Pope Francis (for example, the apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, 2013 and his latest encyclical All Brothers). It is the position of present-day Rome which believes that the church, as the sacrament of salvation, includes (willy-nilly) the whole of humanity and that Christ saves us all, whether someone believes in Him or not. The Roman Catholic gospel used to be compromised by its rejection of the biblical truth that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone. Now, it is further compromised by its universalism whereby all will be saved by Christ, with or without faith in Him.

Cardinal Cantalamessa’s sermon has provided further clarification on what “salvation” and “faith” mean for the present-day Roman Catholic Church. They are biblical terms that are reinterpreted in such a way that their biblical meaning is reshaped to fit the Roman Catholic version of universalism. This is another instance of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals using the same words but meaning very different things.

The whole of Roman Catholicism is “developing” towards becoming less “Roman” (hierarchical, top-down, doctrinaire) and more “Catholic” (embracing, inclusive, universalist). The Roman Catholic gospel was flawed when it had a more “Roman” focus and it continues to be so with the new “Catholic” emphasis, though the accents are put differently.

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208. The End of the Tridentine Paradigm (or Where Is the Roman Catholic Church Going)?

It was the historian Paolo Prodi (1932-2016) who coined the expression “Tridentine paradigm” to indicate the set of identity markers that emerged from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and which shaped the Catholic Church for centuries, at least until the second half of the 20th century. In one of his most famous books, Il paradigma tridentino (2010), Prodi explored the self-understanding of the institutional church of Rome which, in the wake of and in response to the “threat” of the Protestant Reformation, closed hierarchical and pyramidal ranks up to the primacy of the Pope. The church consolidated its sacramental system, regimented the church in rigorous canonical forms and parochial territories, and disciplined folk devotions and the control of consciences. It relaunched its mission to counter the spread of the Reformation and to anticipate the Protestant states in an attempt to arrive first in countries not yet “evangelized.” It promoted models of holiness to involve the laity emotionally and inspired artists to celebrate the new vitality of the church of Rome in a memorable form.

The Tridentine paradigm produced the Roman Catechism of Pius V (1566) as a dogmatic synthesis of the Catholic faith to which Catholics scrupulously had to abide, the controversial theology of Robert Bellarmine to support anti-Protestant apologetic action, and the great baroque creations by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (like the majestic colonnade of St. Peter’s) to represent the church as the winner over its adversaries and new patron of artists and intellectuals.

The Tridentine paradigm has withstood the challenge of the Protestant Reformation and more. With the same paradigm, Rome also faced a second push coming from the modern world: that of the Enlightenment (on the cultural side) and the French Revolution (on the political side) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the same set of institutional, sacramental, and hierarchical markers that emerged from the Council of Trent, Rome defended itself from the attack of modernity and counterattacked. With the dogmas of the immaculate conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870), which are children of the Tridentine paradigm, Rome elevated Mariology and the papacy to identity markers of modern Roman Catholicism. With Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), Rome condemned the modern world, just as the Council of Trent had anathematized Protestants. With the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), Leo XIII elevated Thomism to a system of Catholic thought against all the drifts of modern culture.

The Tridentine paradigm exalted the church of Rome and condemned its enemies. It established who was in and who was out. It defined Roman Catholic doctrine and rejected “Protestant” and “Modernist” heresies. It solidified Roman Catholic teaching and consolidated practices. It authorized controlled forms of pluralism but within the compact structure of the central organization. According to the Tridentine paradigm, it was clear who Catholics were, what they believed, how they were expected to behave, and how the church functioned.

Then, the world changed, and Roman Catholicism changed with it. The Tridentine paradigm gradually eroded with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), not in a frontal and direct way, but following the path of “development” and “aggiornamento” that Vatican II promoted. Of course, Rome does not make any U-turns or swerves sharply. Trent is still there, and the dogmatic and institutional structures of the Tridentine paradigm are standing. The Roman Catholic Church has begun to see its limits, wishing to overcome them by embracing a new posture in the world. Even if Paul VI immediately saw the risks of abandoning it, John Paul II tried to make the Tridentine paradigm elastic by extending it to the universal church. Benedict XVI coined the expression “reform-in-continuity” to try to explain the Catholic dynamic of change without breaking with the past.

The pope who seems to perceive the Tridentine paradigm in negative terms is Pope Francis. His invectives against “clericalism” are directed at Roman Catholic people and practices nourished by the Tridentine spirit. The typical distinctions of the Tridentine paradigm are rendered fluid and are progressively dissolved: clergy/laity, man/woman, Catholic/non-Catholic, heterosexual/homosexual, married/divorced, etc. If the Tridentine paradigm distinguished and selected things and people, Francis wants to unite everything and everyone. The first paradigm separated Roman Catholicism from the rest; this pope wants to mix everything. The first worked with the pair white/black, inside/outside, faithful/infidel. Francis sees the world in different shades of gray and welcomes everyone into the “field hospital” that is the church.

The “synodal” church dear to Francis seems to overturn the traditional pyramidal structure. The direction of the church is determined by the “holy people of God” made up of migrants, the marginalized, the poor, the laity, and people in irregular life situations. Before there were heretics, pagans, and excommunicated, now we are “all brothers.” It is no longer the center that drives, but the peripheries. It is not sin, judgment, and salvation that occupy the discourse of the church, but its message today touches on themes such as peace, human rights, and the environment. The church no longer wants to present itself as a “magistra” (teacher) but only as a “mater” (mother).

With its calls for the extension of the priesthood to women and the blessing of same-sex couples, the German “synodal path” is effectively striking the Tridentine paradigm. The first results of the “synodal process” in European dioceses are attacks on the Tridentine paradigm. It is true that there are conservative circles (in the USA in particular) who claim the Tridentine paradigm and would like to revive it. However, the point is that Roman Catholicism globally is at a crossroads. Has the Tridentine paradigm reached the end of its journey? If so, what will be the face of Roman Catholicism tomorrow? Neither the Tridentine paradigm nor the various synodal paths dear to Pope Francis indicate an evangelical turning point in the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome was and remains distant from the claims of the biblical gospel.

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