The Big Questions in Salvation Theology

We Catholics are living in a time of doctrinal turmoil and upheaval. I’m not talking about Vatican II. I see nothing controversial or objectionable in Vatican II. The documents of that Council represent an insightful and sound expression of Catholicism and a thoroughly orthodox understanding of Tradition and Scripture. No, I’m referring to a different situation.

The Church today is facing a set of theological questions and controversies. The answer to those questions will have a profound effect on the meaning of Catholicism and the path that the Church will take in the future. We are facing a situation similar to the time leading up to the Council of Trent, in which many theological controversies arose and needed answers. So I intend to offer my readers a set of posts presenting my view of the Big Questions in theology today, questions that I expect successive Popes and the next Ecumenical Council to answer definitively in the not-too-distant future.

In my view, some of the Big Questions can already be answered by applying faithful Roman Catholic theology to past magisterial teachings and to Tradition and Scripture. But these Big Questions still need a definitive and more clearly stated answer from a Pope or Council. So I expect the Popes of the near future to exercise Papal Infallibility frequently. And I expect an Ecumenical Council to be held within the next 20 years or so.

Salvation Theology

There are two Big Questions in salvation theology:

1. What happens to the souls of prenatals, infants, and young children who die without formal baptism?

2. Can someone, who possesses sufficient accurate information about Christianity, be saved without converting? This question applies to non-Christian believers as well as to non-believers (atheists and agnostics).

(1) The first question has been debated in the Church for many centuries. Some conservatives argue that it is already settled doctrine. But the Catechism of the Catholic Church left the question open. And in fact, there is no infallible teaching on the eternal final destination of unbaptized little children (as we might term human persons from conception to the age of reason).

The answer given by St. Thomas Aquinas is not acceptable, that unbaptized little children go to the limbo of Hell, where they have natural happiness. This answer was never adopted by the Magisterium. In fact, subsequent magisterial teachings over the years have made his position progressively less and less tenable. The Councils of Lyons II and Florence, both held after the time of St. Thomas, said that souls who die in “original sin alone” go to Hell to be punished. This infallible teaching would be difficult or impossible to reconcile with the idea of natural happiness in the limbo of Hell. Moreover, Pope Pius IX taught that God does not send anyone to eternal punishment if they are not guilty of deliberate sin. And more recent Popes have taught that we cannot have eternal happiness except in God.

Now there are some followers of St. Thomas today who ignore any magisterial teaching that contradicts an opinion of their favorite Saint. But faithful Catholics cannot hold the same opinion as any Saint or Doctor or Father of the Church, if the Magisterium of the Church has a contrary teaching.

So the development of doctrine on salvation theology over the centuries, including under Pope John Paul II, has made what was formerly the most common theological opinion on this question now untenable. And the CCC went so far as to say that we might hope unbaptized little children reach eternal life in Heaven. So this Big Question awaits a definitive answer from the Magisterium.

The urgency of the answer is occasioned in part by an horrific situation: abortion and abortifacient contraception. Every year over 40 million prenatals are killed by abortion. And this situation has continued for more than 25 years, resulting in over 1 billion deaths of unbaptized little children from abortion. The entire world population did not reach the figure of one billion until the early 19th century. And on top of those deaths, many prenatals — perhaps even a greater number — have been killed by abortifacient contraception in the same time period. Add to those deaths the number of infants and young children who die without formal baptism at a young age, and the question becomes particularly urgent.

Would God send billions of unbaptized little children, who have committed no deliberate sin at all, to Hell or to some version of limbo rather than to Heaven?

My answer, explained and defended at length in my new book, is that all unbaptized little children, who die at that young age, are given a baptism of blood prior to death. So they die in a state of grace, not in a state of original sin alone. They first go to the limbo of Purgatory, to receive the development that they were denied in life and to know and love Christ explicitly, and then they enter eternal life in Heaven.

(2) The other Big Question is whether non-Christians or non-believers can be saved without converting. The Magisterium is actually closer to an answer on this question than on the question of unbaptized little children. Based on Vatican II and the teachings of Pope John Paul II, the answer would seem to be that invincible ignorance can result in a person who refuses to convert, nevertheless obtaining eternal life in Heaven. Jesus himself spoke about invincible ignorance:

{9:41} Jesus said to them: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. Yet now you say, ‘We see.’ So your sin persists.”

Our Lord’s point was that “certain Pharisees” were not excused by invincible ignorance. But this implies that some other persons are so excused. They are blind, meaning they don’t realize that failing to believe or failing to convert is a grave sin. And so they are not guilty of actual mortal sin.

Jesus makes the same point in a parable:

{21:33} Listen to another parable. There was a man, the father of a family, who planted a vineyard, and surrounded it with a hedge, and dug a press in it, and built a tower. And he loaned it out to farmers, and he set out to sojourn abroad.
{21:34} Then, when the time of the fruits drew near, he sent his servants to the farmers, so that they might receive its fruits.
{21:35} And the farmers apprehended his servants; they struck one, and killed another, and stoned yet another.
{21:36} Again, he sent other servants, more than
before; and they treated them similarly.
{21:37} Then, at the very end, he sent his son to them, saying: ‘They will revere my son.’
{21:38} But the farmers, seeing the son, said among themselves: ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and then we will have his inheritance.’
{21:39} And apprehending him, they cast him outside the vineyard, and they killed him.

Some of the Jewish leaders knew that Jesus as “the heir”, and yet they killed him. But again this implies that those who do not know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, are not guilty for their refusal to convert.

But I will add this caveat: the further away a belief system (or the lack thereof) moves from the one true Faith, Catholicism, the more dark and difficult the road to Heaven will be. Believing and practicing Catholics go to Heaven, unless the contradict their own faith by unrepented actual mortal sin. But it is much more difficult for an atheist or agnostic to obtain eternal life, without converting.

For more on these points, see my new book:
Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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2 Responses to The Big Questions in Salvation Theology

  1. John Doe says:

    Concerning salvation for non-Christians and non-believers, it all boils down to the fact of whether there can be an implicit charity that saves. The difficulty I see is that the the Coucil of Trent says that works alone do not save, they only predispose to salvation.

    {5:47} And if you greet only your brothers, what more have you done? Do not even the pagans behave this way?

    • Ron Conte says:

      The grace of justification is always prevenient (operating, not cooperating), even in the case of a Christian catechumenate who dies before formal baptism, receiving a baptism of blood. So even the work of dying for Christ does not save. His work must be done with grace, and this opens the soul to the prevenient act of God.

      An adult who receives formal baptism might prepare over many months, by exterior works in cooperation with interior grace. But when he is baptized, the grace of justification is prevenient.

      That works can be done with an explicit love of neighbor, but also an implicit love of Christ, was taught by Jesus in the parable of the returning King (Mt 25). Those saved did not realize that in loving their neighbor, they were also loving Christ. Those lost did not realize that in rejecting love of neighbor, they were rejecting Christ.

      The good works showing love of neighbor must always be accompanied by an interior full cooperation with grace. But even that interior cooperation with grace is only a preparation for the baptism of desire. Pope Pius XII: “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” (Address to Midwives, n. 21.a.)

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