Article 75 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 839-856 THE CHURCH AND NON-CHRISTIANS
A wonderful family, known to me in my early priesthood, told me the story of painful personal loss as they discerned a very personal presence of God in their lives. This moved them to slowly progress into the Catholic faith. Having had survived the horrors of World War II Germany, this Jewish couple emigrated to the United States, worked hard to the point of opening their own business, bought a home and raised a family. In the late 1970s, shortly after converting to the Catholic faith, extended family and lifelong friends abandoned them because of their decision to become followers of Jesus Christ. Banished from family events, they soon lost their business and eventually had to move into a more humble setting. To my surprise, with so much loss, their response was: “If it meant missing out on the value of our precious Catholic faith, we would not change a thing!” Their words had such a deep impact on me that, to this day, I seldom begin Holy Mass without speaking similar words: As we gather to celebrate “our precious Catholic faith,” let us call to mind our sins …
This section of the Catechism considers those who similarly seek to live faithcentered lives but, unlike the Jewish family that converted to the Catholic faith, most remain outside the Catholic Church. What does the Catechism say about such people? In the words of the Catechism: “Those who have not yet received the Gospel are (still) related to the People of God in various ways” (ccc 839). Among them, the Jews and Moslems are given special mention.
Regarding the Jewish people, the Catechism explains: when we, “the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant” painstakingly examine the mystery of the Church, we soon discover our “link with the Jewish People” who were “the first to hear the Word of God” (ccc 839). The Catechism teaches: “the Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant” (ccc 839).
Historically, to the Jewish people “belong
the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ” (ccc 839). Looking to the future, the Jewish People of the Old Covenant and ourselves, the New People of God, “tend towards similar goals … one awaits the return of the Messiah who died and rose from the dead … the other awaits the coming of a Messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time” (ccc 840).
Regarding the Muslim people, the Catechism teaches that, like us, they “acknowledge the Creator, … profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, human-ity’s judge on the last day” (ccc 841).
Some may assume from such passages that the Church has turned its back on the important work of proclaiming the fullness of the Gospel message. How can there be common teachings shared by Catholics and non-Catholics? How is that Catholics, Jews and Muslims share certain ideas?
On the positive side, the Catechism tells us: “The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all people to be saved” (ccc 843). To say it another way, as the document on the Church in the Second Vatican Council points out, “the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as a preparation for the Gospel” (Lumen Gentium 16).
On the other hand, the Catechism states that other religions, “deceived by the Evil One, … have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator,” (ccc 844). The remedy, according to the Catechism, is the Catholic Church. It explains further: God “the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son’s Church. The Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation… She is that bark which in the full sail of the Lord’s cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates
safely in this world” (ccc 845).
In short, prior to the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council, it was commonplace and acceptable to say: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Stated more positively, the current Catechism states, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (ccc 846).
The final few paragraphs treat the discrepancy between the Church’s “obligation and sacred right to evangelize” (ccc 848) and “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church” (ccc 847). The Catechism teaches, basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, “that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation” (ccc 846). Quoting from Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Catechism continues by stating that those who know “that the Catholic Church was founded …by God through Christ (and) refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” cannot be saved (ccc 846). Briefly stated, the task before the Church is to establish “respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel” (ccc 856). Quoting from the Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church ( Ad Gentes), the Catechism explains that we can profit from this dialogue by learning to appreciate better “those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples, and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God” (ccc 856). How many ways have you discovered a secret presence of God in your life?
Father Hillier serves as Assistant Chancellor in the Diocese of Metuchen and oversees the Office for Persons with Disabilities