Rorate Caeli

Guest Op-Ed - Maturity in the Faith: Avoiding the anonymous Christian theory in evangelization

                                                                                                                                By Veronica A. Arntz

In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that we must grow into the maturity of our faith. We read that members of the Church are given different gifts for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).

These gifts are meant to be used until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles (Ephesians 4:13-14).

There are a few things to note here. First, attaining the full measure of the faith in Christ is not an autonomous process; rather, the Church as a whole is meant to strive for maturity in the faith. Second, as members of the Church, we are designed to attain a fullness of the faith not found in childish understanding. We cannot merely rely on simplistic doctrines or teachings; rather, we must fully embrace Christ’s call to pick up the cross and follow Him, which is a manifest teaching in all the Church’s doctrines. If we embrace the cross of Christ in His teachings and in our lives by attaining the “mature manhood” in Christ, we will be able to avoid those false doctrines, which can easily confuse those who are immature in the faith.

In his Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice homily, given the night before he was elected as Supreme Pontiff, Joseph Ratzinger reflected on the above passage from Ephesians and coined the now-famous phrase, “dictatorship of relativism.” He says the following, “How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking.” He continues, saying that Christians have been “flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.” Modern man lacks direction in his beliefs and philosophy: he is swayed by his passions and by the prevailing culture, such that any truth becomes the “new” and therefore appropriate truth to follow. As Ratzinger concludes, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” Rather than searching for and discovering the truth, modern man (even the Christian man) continues to allow himself to be tossed by the winds of false doctrines—doctrines that increasingly remove him from his true vocation, which is happiness with God.

As I have already hinted, this dictatorship of relativism has influenced Christians, and indeed, has entered into teachings of the Catholic Church. In a particular way, this dictatorship has affected our mode of evangelizing others. Because we are swayed by many and various doctrines and ideas concerning what the Church says or what Christ said, we no longer have the “fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13), which means that we have a greater difficulty in evangelizing others. Furthermore, we have a very different understanding of other Christian religions and even those who do not fully believe in Christ. In a perhaps misdirected attempt to see the good and the truth in all things, we can sometimes be inclined to think that everyone can be saved. As Catholics, we ourselves have been influenced by the dictatorship of relativism: Unconsciously, we think that, if everyone has a little piece of the truth, it is likely that he will be saved, so we do not need to convince him of the Truth, found in the Catholic Church. While it is true that God alone knows who and who will not be saved (regardless of the individual’s faith or lack thereof), we have ultimately departed from a full understanding of Christ’s truth in the way that we evangelize.

In a recent March 2016 interview, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke about this very problem, which is connected with the concept of the “anonymous Christian,” as originally defined by Karl Rahner. Benedict XVI explains Rahner’s understanding: “He sustains that the basic, essential act at the basis of Christian existence, decisive for salvation, is the transcendental structure of consciousness, consists in the opening to the entirely Other, toward unity with God.” In other words, salvation is connected with the consciousness of man: If he is open to the truth, then it is possible for him to be saved. As such, “When a man accepts himself in his essential being, he fulfills the essence of being a Christian without knowing what it is in a conceptual way.” Thus, being human and being Christian are almost the same. Even if he does not know what Christianity is, he has become a Christian in a sense because he knows what it means to be a human being; “every man who accepts himself is a Christian even if he does not know it.” Christianity is reduced to the level of humanity, so that everyone can have the possibility of salvation, no matter what he believes, which is why this view is called the “anonymous Christian” theory, because an individual could be Christian without even knowing it.

With Benedict XVI, we could further say that this idea of the anonymous Christian has also influenced how we view other religions. As Benedict explains, “Even less acceptable is the solution proposed by the pluralistic theories of religion, for which all religions, each in their own way, would be ways of salvation and in this sense, in their effects must be considered equivalent.” In other words, we likewise cannot accept the pluralism of religions, such that all religions are equal in value, and all can be ways to salvation. If we accept the anonymous Christian, we can see how easy it is to accept the idea of religious pluralism. The theory of the anonymous Christian suggests that there is no hierarchy of truths, and no necessity to become a baptized Christian or Catholic. If we take that a step further, the idea of religious pluralism suggests that no one needs to become Catholic to obtain salvation. Any religion will suffice for salvation.

We must pause here and recall that Benedict XVI does not condemn religious freedom, as I have discussed elsewhere. As I discussed in that article, Benedict XVI’s homily at the World Day of Peace in 2011 points to the importance of religious freedom for the human person, for it “expresses what is unique about the human person, for it allows us to direct our personal and social life to God, in whose light the identity, meaning, and purpose of the person is fulfilled” (1). This quotation reminds us that coercion—a truth always upheld by the Church—contradicts the dignity of the human person. The human person has been given the gift of free will by the Creator, and if he is forced to become Catholic, this would not be in accordance with his proper dignity. Because the Catholic faith is ultimately rooted in the love of God, man must be free to choose that love—not forced into it. Nevertheless, this religious freedom must always be united with truth. Benedict explains the following in his ad limina address to the United States bishops in 2012. “When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendental truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.” Thus, if we attempt to separate truth from freedom, we are subject to the winds of the culture; we are ultimately doing a disservice to human dignity. In the end, while Benedict XVI understands that freedom is necessary in choosing a religion, he also unabashedly upholds the need for truth to be connected with freedom.

Returning now to the concept of evangelization, we see that the great evangelizers of the past fully understood the need for truth. As Benedict explained in his March 2016 interview, “In the second half of the last century it has been fully affirmed the understanding that God cannot let go to perdition all the unbaptized and that even a purely natural happiness for them does not represent a real answer to the question of human existence.” This firm belief compelled the great missionaries to instruct and baptize all individuals. Without the hindrance of the idea that some individuals might be saved because of their overall inclination toward the good, the missionaries knew that they must take seriously our Lord’s command to baptize all nations. As an example, we can look to St. Isaac Jogues, one of the great evangelizers of the New World, who persevered in the sanctification and salvation of souls. Sent to preach to the Hurons and enduring captivity under the Iroquois, St. Isaac’s perseverance manifests itself in all his actions, humble though they may be. Franҫois Roustang, SJ, comments, “To be sure, he learned the Iroquois language during his captivity, but any other Jesuit in his place would have done the same” (Franҫois Roustang, SJ, Jesuit Missionaries to North America: Spiritual Writings and Biographical Sketches, Ignatius Press, 2006, p. 207). St. Isaac was concerned only with the presentation and manifestation of the Catholic truth so that he might convert the souls of the Iroquois. While still immersing himself in the culture through learning the Iroquois language, his actions constantly proved the Catholic faith against the Iroquois culture, revealing an “apostolic impatience” in the fight for souls (Ibid.).

In a letter written from Ontario to his mother, we read, “Can we think the life of man better employed in any other labor than this good work? What can I say? Would not all the labors of a thousand men be well rewarded in the conversion of one single soul to Jesus Christ?” (Ibid., 229). Even if he could only save one soul for Christ, St. Isaac saw this as a great victory for the Lord’s work. A letter written to his provincial about his captivity under the Iroquois reveals his ultimate commitment to saving souls. Although he knew he could have escaped at any time, he writes:

I had decided that with the help of God’s grace, I would live and die on the Cross, to which our Lord had affixed me with himself. Indeed, if I should leave, who would console the French prisoners or absolve anyone who wished the sacrament of penance?...Who would regenerate the children with the holy waters of baptism and see to the salvation of the dying adults and see to the instruction of those who were still in good health? (Ibid., 290-291).

Despite the many sufferings and difficulties that he both witnessed and experienced, St. Isaac’s commitment to souls knew no boundaries. Indeed, he risked and eventually lost his life as he converted souls to the Catholic faith.

What do we frequently find today with our evangelization? Do we find the same missionary zeal manifest in St. Isaac Jogues? Instead of zeal and passion for preaching the truth to others, we discover instead the tendency to mask the truth, for the fear of imposing on individual consciences. As Benedict XVI firmly explains, “If it is true that the great missionaries of the 16th century were still convinced that those who are not baptized are forever lost—and this explains their missionary commitment—in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council that conviction was finally abandoned.” As I have already mentioned, if there is no real concept of a true faith that will save an individual from perdition, then what is the purpose of evangelizing? If all individuals can be saved based upon their good works, their intention to discover their good, or their desire to follow some vague notion of God, then why should we proclaim the Catholic Church’s teachings as true and redemptive? Benedict notes a further problem arising from this belief: “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. If faith and salvation are no longer interdependent, faith itself becomes unmotivated.” Thus, even for those who are already baptized and partially convinced of Christ’s truths, they may ultimately wonder if there is any connection to their own lives because there are other means of redemption.

To return to Ratzinger’s Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice homily, he gives us an exhortation about our own faith, in contrast to the reign of relativism prevalent in our culture.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is faith—only faith—that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

In other words, the Church has a different end than that of relativism; the Church is not supposed to be marked by relativistic truth. Rather, the Church’s goal ultimately lies in Jesus Christ, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). He is the one who guides our faith and guides the way that we evangelize others. Certainly, the Father gave man free will so that he might choose to follow Him; He does not coerce anyone into a relationship with Him. Nevertheless, that does not prevent us, as members of the Body of Christ, to present the eternal truths of Christ in a real and powerful way. 

We cannot assume the salvation of another simply because he or she is a Protestant-Christian or striving to live a good life. No: We ourselves must be firmly convinced of the truths of the Catholic Church and present them as truly salvific. This faithful presentation will show that we ourselves have an adult faith—this indeed is Christ’s message of truth and love.