Vatican: Jews Can Go to Heaven without converting

The Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews has released a new document: The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable. This document suggests that Jews can be saved without converting to Christianity. I agree.

The Church has always taught that faithful Jews, prior to the time of Christ, could be saved and that some were in fact saved. For the dogma expressed in the Creed, “he descended to hell,” has always been understood as including the visit of Christ to the “limbo of the fathers”, where those who died prior to Christ, but in a state of grace, awaited the fulfillment of their salvation. Sacred Scripture teaches this quite clearly:
[1 Peter]
{3:18} For Christ also died once for our sins, the Just One on behalf of the unjust, so that he might offer us to God, having died, certainly, in the flesh, but having been enlivened by the Spirit.
{3:19} And in the Spirit, he preached to those who were in prison, going to those souls
{3:20} who had been unbelieving in past times, while they waited for the patience of God, as in the days of Noah, when the ark was being built. In that ark, a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.

The souls in the limbo of the fathers were like prisoners awaiting release to freedom, to the freedom of eternal life in Heaven. These souls “had been unbelieving in past times”. Certainly, they did not explicitly believe in Christ, with the fullness of Christianity. But they did possess a limited understanding of Him in their hope for the Messiah.

The term “unbelieving” is remarkable, as it indicates that even non-Jews, prior to Christ, could be saved. How would this occur? They would need to enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, or by a baptism of blood. If they committed an actual mortal sin, they would need to repent with perfect contrition, which also can be implicit. So the non-Jew and certainly faithful Jews, had a path of salvation available to them, without explicit belief in Jesus Christ (who had not yet been born).

The document, though, goes a step further, by stating that Jews since the time of Christ can be saved, without explicit acceptance of Christ and Christianity: “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.”

I disagree with the assertion that this unquestionable truth is an unfathomable mystery. Certainly, we can never fully comprehend the mystery of salvation, whereby an infinite perfect God saves us poor fallen sinners, by His mercy and love. But no mystery of God, not the Trinity, not the Incarnation, not the Sacraments, and not salvation itself, is beyond our apprehension: the partial understanding of the human mind, illuminated by grace.

Pope Saint John Paul II has stated that one can be saved by the Church, even if one outwardly rejects the Church:

Pope Saint John Paul II: However, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio [n. 10], the gift of salvation cannot be limited “to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.”

Since Christ brings about salvation through his Mystical Body, which is the Church, the way of salvation is connected essentially with the Church. The axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus” — “outside the Church there is no salvation” — stated by St. Cyprian (Epist. 73, 21; PL 1123 AB), belongs to the Christian tradition. It was included in the Fourth Lateran Council (DS 802), in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII (DS 870) and the Council of Florence (Decretum pro Jacobitis, DS 1351). The axiom means that for those who are not ignorant of the fact that the Church has been established as necessary by God through Jesus Christ, there is an obligation to enter the Church and remain in her in order to attain salvation (cf. LG 14). For those, however, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. RM 10). It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her. It is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church the Savior founded. [All Salvation Comes through Christ]

Jews today, who outwardly reject Christianity, can still be saved. Their rejection of Christianity must be made with a sincere but mistaken conscience. There is an objectively grave moral obligation to accept Christ, if one knows about Christ, and to formally join the Church by baptism with water. However, the objective mortal sin of rejecting Christianity might not be also an actual mortal sin, if the person does not realize that Jesus is the Messiah, and that Christianity is the truest religion.

Of course, an unbaptized person must enter the state of grace by non-formal baptism: by desire or by blood. They can do so by an act of love, as Pope Pius XII taught:

“Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible. An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” [Address to Midwives]

The true love of neighbor is always due to inner cooperation with grace, and always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God. So even an atheist could enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire through the love of neighbor. This love must be true sincere full and selfless, so it is not a trivial requirement. But it also is not such a high requirement that few human persons could be saved. Human persons were created for love. Heaven is the fulfillment of the love of God and neighbor.

A Jew or other non-baptized person, who enters the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire, can fall away from the state of grace by any actual mortal sin. To return to the state of grace, absent the Sacrament of Confession, the person must repent with perfect contrition: sorrow for sin out of love for God and neighbor. But again, the love of neighbor includes the love of God, if only implicitly. So a person who is truly sorry for his grave sins, out of love for his neighbor, is forgiven and returned to the state of grace. Even an atheist can be forgiven from actual mortal sin by this implicit perfect contrition, based on the love of neighbor.

And if the individual never entered the state of grace by any form of baptism, yet he repents from mortal sin with implicit perfect contrition, then he is forgiven and he enters the state of grace for the first time. For perfect contrition necessarily includes a baptism of desire, for anyone who never received, previously, any form of baptism.

In this way, Jews, Muslims, other believers, and non-believers can all possibly be saved, despite knowing about Christianity and deciding not to convert to Christ, or even to belief in God.

However, the easiest path to Heaven is to be a believing and practicing Catholic Christian. And the further away from Catholicism one goes, the more difficult the path of salvation becomes.

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

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