This is the sad story of a Catholic layman named Juan; a dedicated believer and amateur theologian.
One day, Juan is walking down the street when he meets a Protestant handing out tracts. They get to talking, and Juan is surprised to learn that the Protestant thinks that Catholics aren’t saved. Juan tries to reassure the fellow that Catholics are Christians too—in fact, they are the true Christians who submit to the true Church of Christ. Protestants, to be honest, are the ones who are at a great disadvantage, having neither doctrinal purity nor the pure sacraments; especially the sacrificial Eucharist.
To Juan’s surprise, though, the Protestant rebuffs him. “We can’t both be Christians,” he says. “If what I believe is true, then we’re saved by faith alone, and your gospel of faith and works is no gospel at all. But if what you believe is true, then Pope Boniface VIII was correct when he infallibly said that that no one at all can be saved without being in subjection to the Roman Pontiff. As for your Eucharist, the doctrine of transubstantiation is, quite frankly, an abomination. How can a piece of bread literally become Jesus’s body, to be physically eaten by an entire congregation?”
Juan goes away bemused. He has talked often with his priest, and they’ve discussed Protestantism a few times. The Catholic Church is the one true Church instituted by Christ—so Protestants are missing out on a lot by failing to submit to it. They’re deprived of much true doctrine, and of the proper means of grace in the sacraments. A Protestant communion service is deeply impoverished compared to a Catholic Eucharistic mass. But Protestants still sincerely believe that Jesus is the Son of God who died for their sins; they’re still Christians—and anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. In fact, even Muslims can be saved, or pagans in unevangelized countries, as long as they do their best to seek God with what little light of natural revelation they have.
As for the Eucharist being an abomination—well, you’d expect that from a Protestant! Jesus’s words were spirit and life; how could someone who hadn’t received these through the wonderful gift of the Eucharist understand them?
Thinking about it on his way home, Juan becomes more confident. Sure, that Protestant had rattled him a bit, but what could he know about Catholic teachings, after all? Juan determines to prove him wrong. When he gets home, he fires up his computer and does a search on Pope Boniface VIII. Soon he finds what the Protestant chap looks to have been referring to: a document called Unam Sanctam. By most accounts not an infallible declaration…except for the last line. It reads:
we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Juan stares at this sentence for a long time. It’s hard to imagine a plainer, more explicit, more all-encompassing or hard-nosed statement about salvation. For every human creature, it is absolutely necessary to be subject to the Roman Pontiff in order to obtain salvation. There’s no room for wiggling. It’s not most human creatures; not a bit necessary; not sort of subject. This is in infallible and exclusive statement about how salvation may be appropriated, and it clearly says that no one who is not subject to the Pope can be saved. Was his priest wrong? If Boniface VIII was really speaking infallibly, then Muslims cannot be saved; ignorant pagans cannot be saved; Protestants who reject the authority of Rome cannot be saved (though of course, this statement was made in the 1300s, well before the Reformation). From the looks of things, even Eastern Orthodox Christians can’t be saved—and that can’t be right!
Juan decides to research the matter more deeply. He wants to familiarize himself with all the important Catholic pronouncements in this area, so he looks further afield. He finds that Boniface VIII was by no means aberrant in his conclusions; he seemed to have been reflecting a well-established, historical teaching. Pope Innocent III before him, at the Fourth Lateran Council, had said that “there is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved”; and Eugene IV, after him, had declared most magnificently in Cantate Domino that
The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgiving, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.
Not Jews? Then certainly not Muslims, Juan muses. Not schismatics? Then certainly not Eastern Orthodox Christians. Not heretics? Then certainly not Protestants. And not pagans? Then certainly not the unevangelized. That doesn’t line up with what he has been told at all. But the further he digs, the more statements like this he finds. From Clement of Rome to Augustine to Gregory the Great, and afterwards to Trent, then into the nineteenth century (with Pius IX being particularly vocal about the matter), there is an unbroken tradition of teaching: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—outside of the church there is no salvation! This is Church Tradition. His priest must have been wrong. That Protestant chap was right. The Catholic Church really does teach that only Catholics can be saved.
Juan is prepared to accept this. The Church is infallible; his priest is not. Perhaps he made a mistake. Certainly there isn’t any doubt about the clarity or pedigree of this tradition. He makes a mental note to mention this to his priest the next time they meet; he should know about his mistake.
By this stage Juan has gotten up to the major statements of the twentieth century, and is reading through the principal documents of Vatican II. (He’s a quick reader.) Scanning through Lumen Gentium, his eye catches a statement that just flabbergasts him:
the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. […] 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.
He re-reads this three or four times, but the words don’t change. How can this be? As the Protestant fellow had said, Unam Sanctam, and the whole Catholic Tradition, clearly teaches that no one outside the Catholic Church, no one who does not submit to Rome, can be saved. But Lumen Gentium is saying that not only does a person not have to submit to Rome; not only does he not have to be a Christian by any standard; not only does he not have to claim the same religion as Abraham regardless of how wrong and heretical he is; in fact, he can be a rank pagan and be saved! Either the Church was wrong until Vatican II, which of course it wasn’t…or Vatican II was wrong. They can’t both be right.
Juan is confused, and he decides to sleep on it. The next morning he re-reads Unam Sanctam and Lumen Gentium, hoping that with a fresh start and a fresh eye, he will gain a fresh perspective. Perhaps these two documents really can be reconciled easily. Perhaps he just missed something obvious last night. He was pretty tired after all that reading.
Sadly, the two declarations remain steadfastly opposed. So Juan prints them out, re-reads them over lunch, and then hurries down to his church, conveniently situated a block over. His priest (with whom, of course, he is in frequent consultation so as to avoid error, and so as to submit himself to the proper authority delegated by the Magisterium) ushers him into his office. He’s anxious to help Juan with whatever theological question has arisen this time.
Juan explains his problem. Church Tradition says one thing up until 1964…then it completely changes its mind and contradicts itself!
His priest reads over the pertinent statements which Juan has printed out. He’s read them before, of course, but he wants to refresh his memory. After a moment’s thought, he assures Juan that Vatican II was not in error; that Lumen Gentium and Unam Sanctam are both teaching the truth. Rome has never contradicted itself, and neither has God’s plan of salvation changed in the past six centuries. The problem is not with the documents, but with Juan’s understanding. He rifles through some files, and pulls out a dog-eared collection of papers, stapled together at one corner. “This is Dominus Iesus,” he says, “which clarifies what is meant in Lumen Gentium.” He hands it to Juan, tapping his finger against a section of text marked with a yellow highlighter:
Salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation.
“In other words, salvation is only ever found within the Catholic Church—but that doesn’t mean that everyone who’s saved is visibly or explicitly part of the Church. You can be an implicit member.”
Juan needs to think this over. He thanks his priest, but he goes away still deeply troubled. He knows what Unam Sanctam says. He knows that it’s absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. He can’t understand how a Protestant who explicitly rejects the authority of the Roman Pontiff, and who willingly refuses to be in subjection to him, can be “implicitly” in such subjection all the same. It doesn’t make the least bit of sense. He can understand, perhaps, how someone who doesn’t know about the Pontiff could implicitly be subject to Rome by joining himself to the body of Christ through earnestly seeking God. If such a person did come to learn about Catholicism, he would willingly and gladly subject himself explicitly. But in the case of Protestants and Muslims and Eastern Orthodox and whatnot, they explicitly refuse to be in subjection. So it’s a contradiction in terms to say that they are implicitly subject.
More importantly, Cantate Domino specifically named pagans and schismatics and heretics and Jews as being outside of the Church, and unable to receive salvation. Even if implicit membership is all that’s needed for salvation, all these people are unequivocally said to be unsaved; so they must be excluded from any kind of membership. But that plainly contradicts Lumen Gentium as read through the lens of Dominus Iesus. The answer his priest had given him seemed promising at first, but as he thinks about it on his way home, it becomes increasingly obvious that it isn’t an answer at all. It isn’t possible to reconcile all these declarations.
Juan spends a lot of time researching this. He learns that some Catholics, called Sedevacantists, reject Vatican II because it has contradicted prior teaching. He can sympathize. But Sedevacantists aren’t infallible; and Rome is. So they must have misinterpreted either Vatican II, or the earlier Tradition, or both. He can’t take the word of schismatics over the word of the Magisterium. In fact, he muses, Sedevacantists have done exactly what Protestants do, by exercising their private judgment instead of submitting to Rome. They have presumed to take upon themselves the authority of interpreting Rome’s teachings and deciding what they must mean, instead of letting Rome speak for itself. That’s ironically anti-Catholic, he thinks. He isn’t going to make that mistake.
But then what is he to do? He can’t see a way to reconcile his understanding of the various teaching documents. But he recognizes that he’s fallible; and that he must be understanding them wrongly if they appear to contradict each other. The plain meaning of Lumen Gentium is that non-Catholics can be saved. The plain meaning of Unam Sanctam is that they can’t. But…on what authority is he to decide which interpretation he’s mucked up? He knows that he must have misunderstood at least one of them. Or maybe both. How can he be sure?
After much consideration, Juan is forced to conclude that he simply isn’t able to discern the real meaning of the Church’s teaching documents in this matter. This at least is comforting in its consistency, since the Bible (the “original teaching document”) also plainly appears to teach in Romans that “no one seeks after God; no not one”. But obviously the implication of Lumen Gentium is that some people do sincerely seek after God. This apparent discrepancy just reinforces Juan’s conclusion that Catholic laypeople are not gifted with the ability to discern the real meaning in either Scripture or the Church’s later teaching documents. They just aren’t qualified. They lack some special knowledge which is needed to put everything together. To the layman, the meaning of the words in one document appears to contradict the meaning of the words in another; and the meaning of the words in a third, which are supposed to reconcile the two, don’t make any sense. So to know what Catholicism teaches, he really can’t consult its teaching documents. He has to ask his priest, who can explain them to him. After all, he has received the sacrament of ordination; he has special grace granted for his special office. Surely that explains why things are clearer to him.
Juan has to conclude that Catholic laymen simply do not have the special grace which must be required to fit everything together. Some kind of cypher is needed; a cypher which only the Roman Magisterium, in its priests and bishops and archbishops and, finally, the pope, has access to.
But why would the Magisterium encode their teaching documents in this way, he wonders. After all, they aren’t teaching documents at all if it isn’t possible to learn anything from them. He can’t answer that question, but then it isn’t his place to question the Infallible Church of Christ any more than it’s his place to question Christ himself. So he forces himself to be content with putting down his books, and working with the small doctrinal snippets that he gets from the pulpit every day in Mass (he goes every day because he needs all the grace he can get, and he’s hoping to store up some merit for himself by taking communion more frequently than other Catholics). He knows the major doctrines that he has to believe to be saved. He knows about praying to saints, and about how Mary’s body did not perish, and about transubstantiation, for example. He doesn’t really know anything about his faith except that which can be summarized in brief statements like “Mary was assumed bodily into heaven” or “the host turns into the real body of Christ”. But that seems to be how it must be for the laity, since further doctrinal knowledge is impossible; so he accepts it.
But then he’s pondering these doctrinal soundbites one night, in the hope of at least being a good Catholic by understanding the doctrines which he has been told about; and he starts to see some real problems. He’s meant to believe that, at the consecration, the host turns literally into the body of Christ. Each host miraculously becomes the true body of Jesus himself. This is integral to his faith. If he doesn’t believe this, he isn’t a Catholic. But what does it mean to believe this? He knows that Catholics believe the words, in a semantic sense; they affirm that the proposition “The host becomes the real body of Christ” is true. But that might be no different, he realizes, from affirming that “The law of noncontradiction is false”. Saying it, and saying it’s true, doesn’t actually mean that it’s possible, or that it’s possible to actually believe. It doesn’t mean that it can be true. It just means that someone affirming the proposition doesn’t really understand its content; he just believes its content is true. So if the content is unintelligible or unbelievable, that person isn’t really affirming anything of import whatsoever. He’s just making a fool of himself.
Juan ponders the meaning of the proposition “The host becomes the real body of Christ”. He reads the available literature (though of course it is either not infallible, or not possible to be understood by a layman since he doesn’t have the Magisterial Cypher). He finds that the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the secondary properties of the host (being the appearance of bread of a certain size, shape, taste, etc) remain, but the primary properties (that of being bread) are replaced with the real body of Christ. Put another way, the primary properties of the real body of Christ take on the secondary properties of the host. So there is no connection between the essence of the host, following transubstantiation, and its sensible properties. The essence is actually Jesus’ body; not the host at all. Some kind of illusion is going on. Once it’s consecrated, the host’s secondary properties don’t identify its primary properties at all.
More importantly, its primary properties are the real body of Christ. The host is actually the body of Christ. But Juan has a pretty good familiarity with human bodies, and he knows that they are a certain size and constitution; they are a bit under 2 meters tall, comprised of skin and hair and bones and organs and lots of icky stuff that it’s hard to see being particularly beneficial to eat. Yet apparently this is precisely what he is eating. How is this possible, he wonders. Can it be that a man can swallow whole another man? Clearly not. (He is reminded of Nicodemus’ jejune question, “Can a man go back into his mother to be born a second time?” It creates an uneasy feeling in his tummy.) Yet this is what transubstantiation teaches: that swallowing the host is an illusion, and that what is actually happening is that he is swallowing Jesus himself. Brain, blood, heart, icky genitalia and intestines and things…so, in essence—even if not in appearance—he is doing something which is actually physically impossible; not to mention kind of wrong. It isn’t as if Christ is somehow “processed”, like an Essence of Jesus patty. It’s not as if he’s eating just a part of his savior. It’s his whole body. Not only is this physically impossible, but in essence he is actually engaging in cannibalism; it’s just concealed by the illusion of the host.
Other difficult questions arise. When a hundred hosts are consecrated, is each one a separate Jesus? Does that mean that there is no longer a Trinity, but a God comprised of a Father, a Holy Spirit, and a hundred Sons? How can Jesus have a hundred bodies but still be one person? That seems to violate the law of identity. And how can each host be a living Jesus? Does Jesus watch as he is ingested, and goes through the digestive tract of every Catholic who receives him at communion? That’s really unsettling. And if he watches, what eyes does he use, since he appears to be a host? Or maybe he isn’t alive in the hosts; but then, what’s the point of eating a dead Jesus body? Isn’t the importance of the Eucharist in the receiving of the living Savior?
At this stage Juan doesn’t know what to think. It’s obviously better not to even contemplate those doctrines he has been told about by his priest. Not only can he not understand the Catholic teaching documents, but he can’t understand Catholic doctrine in general! He can’t actually believe transubstantiation once he’s considered it carefully, because to believe something requires it be able to be stated in a sensible way that can be grasped by the mind. But it’s not possible to grasp transubstantiation with the mind, because its claims are self-contradictory. One human body can’t wholly contain another; that is just a constraint of the material universe. No doubt God could have created the universe so that matter can occupy the same space as other matter simultaneously; but he didn’t. It’s possible to believe in miracles where natural laws are suspended, but not in miracles where the very properties of the physical universe are contradicted. And not only this, but the whole thing is just grossing him out.
So he can’t believe the pithy soundbite of transubstantiation in any meaningful sense because he can’t interpret it in a non-ridiculous way. Neither can he do any study as an amateur theologian, because he can’t interpret the teaching documents of the Church in a non-ridiculous way; they seem to contradict each other and cannot be reconciled, but he is assured that they do not. He must be missing some kind of cypher which is needed to decode the apparent meaning of the words and reveal their real meaning. So what is he left with? To be a Catholic and be saved he has to at least believe in transubstantiation. He can’t believe it in a considered, propositional sense; so he is left with simply saying that he believes the words “the host becomes the real body of Christ”, and hoping to God that there is some rational, non-ridiculous meaning behind them. He doesn’t know what they mean; he just trusts that there is a meaning. So he is forced into a mindless, meaningless affirmation of doctrinal statements.
By this stage he’s too afraid to even try to interpret what the bodily assumption of Mary is, or any of the other myriad doctrines of which he is vaguely aware. He just mouths the words and takes communion and goes to confession and hopes that by doing so he is somehow saved. In truth, he doesn’t believe anything meaningfully; but he is comforted by some discussions with friends of his in the parish. One of them tells him, “we are not saved by intelligence, but by faith”. Juan supposes this could be right. He doesn’t understand the doctrines, but he has faith that they must be true. If there is any real understanding to be had, it is apparently only accessible to a select few authoritative Catholics. The laity rely on faith: they do what they are told they must do to be saved. Another friend tells him, “salvation requires obedience, not understanding.” That sounds right. The laity are saved by performing certain rituals. They trust in the rituals, and in the authority which instituted them. That’s the extent of their Christian faith.
That must be right. That’s how Roman Catholicism has always been. Peasants can’t be expected to have spiritual insight; they are just simple sheep. They need to be shepherded; told what to do. These things don’t change just because social standards and education have. Juan may work in IT, but to Rome he is still a peasant.