It Didn’t Go Out with Vatican II

My pal Dave is a convert like me. When he first began looking at the Church he often had conversations with confident, relaxed, and well-meaning lay Catholics who would assure him that this and that “went out with Vatican II”.

“How about those doily thingamabobs on women’s heads?” he’d ask.

“Oh, that went out with Vatican II.”


“Oh, that went out with Vatican II.”

“The Immaculate Conception?”

“Oh, that went out with Vatican II.”

“The doctrine of the Trinity?”

“Oh, that went out with Vatican II.”

It was at this point that Dave paused and began to realize that even he, as little as he knew about Catholicism, was reasonably sure that the doctrine of the Trinity had not “gone out with Vatican II” and that he was going to have to look further than hearsay from Catholics catechized by Fr. Groovy and Sr. Issues to find out what was going on.

Many of us have been in a similar position. The “It Went Out With Vatican II” disease causes many Catholics to talk as though the Church before the Council was a completely different animal than the Church after the Council and not a continuation of the same Church. The funny thing, of course, is that both arch-conservative dissenters and arch-liberal dissenters from the Catholic Church talk this way. For the arch-Traditionalist dissenter, the post-conciliar Church is bad because it is no longer the Catholic Church and the goal is to climb into the Wayback Machine and return to the Golden Age. For the arch-Liberal, the post-conciliar Church is supposedly NewChurch or WomynChurch or AmChurch or McChurch: a faboo new Church having nothing whatever to do with that awful old “pre-Vatican II Church”. It is only on the relatively minor matter of whether the old or new Church is good that conservative and liberal dissenters disagree. On the central question of whether there are two Churches, pre- and post-Vatican II, they are in happy agreement. How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!

But if you ask the Church itself, you get a different answer. For it goes on insisting that there is one holy, Catholic and apostolic church, not two.

“Well, yes” say our Progressive and Traditionalist dissenting friends with one voice. “They have to say that for propaganda purposes. But the fact remains it’s really two different Churches before and after the Council. Because before the Council the Church taught ‘extra ecclesia nulla salus’ or ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. However, Vatican II taught that Protestants and other non-Catholics, heck, even non-Christians, could be saved. That is a total reversal and it is wonderful/terrible!” (Here the Progressive and Traditionalist dissenters fall on each other shouting, “It’s terrible! It’s wonderful!” and roll away in the dust, pulling each other’s hair, kicking and scratching.)

Leaving our friends to work out their differences in this productive manner, we Catholics need to stop and think about this common notion, since it is so very common. Did the Church reverse itself at Vatican II and declare that outside the Church there is salvation? Did the Church before Vatican II teach that only Catholics could be saved?

The answer to this riddle is to be found in a mysterious and ancient Catholic book: the New Testament. In that book we find two sayings which have to be held as true and which cannot be explained away.

The first is a saying by Jesus of Nazareth which reflects rather remarkably the “pre-Vatican II” teaching that outside the Church there is no salvation. For Jesus tells us, “He who is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30) in a way that is most disturbingly non-inclusive and more reminiscent of George W. Bush talking to states which sponsor terrorism than of a Rogerian counselor affirming us in our okayness. It’s exactly the sort of sentiment that makes arch-Progressive dissenters squirm and complain about the exclusiveness of the pre-Vatican II Church. And yet, there it is on the lips of Jesus Christ himself. Worse still, there it still is on the lips of the post-Vatican II Church in The Catechism of the Catholic Church which tells us (in a big, large print header no less): 

“Outside the Church there is no salvation”

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

The pre-Vatican II Church doesn’t appear to be as dead as it looked. And indeed, even a cursory examination of this paragraph reveals that it is nothing other than a restatement of… Vatican II (Lumen Gentium, Chapter II, 14)! The Church still teaches–dogmatically!–that “outside the Church there is no salvation”. And it does so for the simple reason stated by Jesus: “He who is not with me is against me.”

“So you say,” grumbles the disgruntled arch-Traditionalist dissenter, “but the Vatican II Church offers with the right hand only to take away with the left. For it immediately turns around in the very next paragraph of the Catechism to write:

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”

“This,” says the arch-Traditionalist dissenter, “basically leaves the door wide open for the indifferentist notion that everybody from everywhere is going to be saved, whether they are members of the Church or not.”

That’s a serious charge and would be a serious argument that the Second Vatican Council was wrong–if it was true. The problem is, neither the Catechism nor Lumen Gentium teach that “everybody from everywhere is going to be saved, whether they are members of the Church or not”. On the contrary, the Church teaches that anybody from anywhere, if he or she is saved, will indeed find (perhaps to their surprise) that they are, in fact, in some form of union with the Catholic Church.

The Church teaches this because of another passage in Scripture, which reads thus:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us. (Mark 9:38-40)

John assumes precisely what our arch-Traditionalist dissenter assumes: if you are not in visible union with the Church–if you are not “following us” (by which he means “following the apostolic college”), then you can’t possibly be under the influence of Jesus Christ. But Jesus corrects him: “He that is not against us is for us.” This saying is the paradoxical complement to his first saying. For it makes the common sense point that, on the one hand, there is no salvation outside the Church, yet, on the other hand, we puny mortals do not know where “outside” is.

Jesus re-emphasizes this point in the parable of the sheep and the goats, which deals specifically with the judgment of “the nations”. Interestingly, the strong suggestion of the parable is that those under judgment, both goat and sheep, are people who have no idea that in their acts of obedience and disobedience to conscience, they were in fact responding to Jesus Christ: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” (Matthew 25:37-39).

In short, the saved sheep speak as non-Christians, as people who just thought they were doing the right thing and had no idea that they were, in fact, acting by the secret grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is because of this that the Church has always insisted on the necessity of being in union with the Church while simultaneously refusing to make any judgment about who is ultimately “outside the Church” and has never had a roll of “anti-saints” who are certainly in Hell to parallel its definite declarations about saints who are in Heaven. In Heaven, there is sufficient light to see who’s there. But at the mysterious periphery of the communion of saints, it’s difficult to see what God is up to, so the Church doesn’t presume to judge. It simply bears in mind the tradition summed up in the Catechism’s paragraph 1257: God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”


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