In a recent interview, Pope Benedict discusses contemporary viewpoints on God’s justice and mercy. Of special note is what he describes as “a deep double crisis” in the Church today.
Modern missionary activity, since the sixteenth century in particular, depended heavily on the idea that people will probably not be saved unless they hear the Gospel and receive it in faith. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Church had come to a deeper appreciation of the possibility that people can be saved even if they do not know Christ or his Church. As the Second Vatican Council put it, “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
True as this doctrine is, it has led, in Benedict’s estimation, to a depreciation of missionary activity, a neglect of the “Great Commission” that Jesus left his disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19).
This neglect of evangelization has led in turn to the second aspect of the crisis, viz., a depreciation of Christianity on the part of Christians themselves. Benedict puts it this way: “the obligatory nature of the faith and its way of life began to seem uncertain and problematic. If there are those who can save themselves in other ways, it is not clear, in the final analysis, why the Christian himself is bound by the requirements of the Christian faith and its morals.”
There’s a certain logic to this progression, but in the end it makes no sense. It is as if the Christian were to say to himself, “God is so loving as to make it possible for people to be saved even in extraordinary circumstances; therefore, I myself will neglect the access to God that God has given me in the liturgy and the whole life of the Church, (again) because God is so loving . . .” Shouldn’t a new recognition of the depth of God’s love lead us to cling to him all the more in the places we know for certain he may be found? Shouldn’t we find love attractive?
Though it should not be exaggerated, there is a real sense in which if we do not wish to live in the Church, we do not wish to live in heaven. The reason is that God has made the life of heaven available to us in the Church. Heaven is a supremely intimate life with him, and in the Church we begin to participate in this life. Sure, there are difficulties in ecclesial life—getting to Mass, learning to pray, growing in virtue, letting go of vice, giving up certain goods—but in all of this God is purifying us. To put it another way, he is enlarging our hearts, making us less inadequate receptacles for his own beatitude. And this beatitude is available to us not only in heaven but even now in the Church.
Image: Wengen, Pope Benedict XVI