Everybody talkin’ bout heaven ain’t getting’ there,
— I Got Shoes, spiritual
At first it seems like incredible intolerance. Reflection reveals it’s nothing more than a space problem. I refer to Pope Benedict’s latest pronouncement.
In what seemed like yet another foray into the World of Complete Insensitivity, Pope Benedict XVI took aim at all the religions in the world, thus showing himself to be a man who was in his prejudices nothing if not ecumenical. Until his latest pronouncement his comments had led to the conclusion that he was not big on Muslims but there was nothing to suggest he harbored any animosity towards the rest of the world’s religions.
The first revelation of his Papal animus towards Muslims occurred in 2006 when Pope Benedict organized a conference to correct the actions of his predecessor, John Paul II, who had used the occasion of the 2000 Millenium celebration to ask “pardon” for the Crusades. At the conference, the Italian historian, Roberto de Mattei, said the Crusades were a “response to the Muslim invasion of Christian lands and the Muslim devastation of the Holy Places.” The Crusaders, said he, were “martyrs” who “sacrificed their lives for the faith”. At a time when tensions were already running high between Christians and Muslims, the timing of the conference seemed awkward.
In a lecture delivered a few months later, the Pope quoted the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, who wrote that Mohammad had brought things “only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” “Violence” said the Pope, “is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” He was comfortable saying that since the conference on the Crusades laid to rest any thought that the Crusades were an attempt to “spread by the sword the faith [they] preached.” Had the events described occurred in reverse order, his comments would have seemed absurd since until the conference everyone, including John Paul II, believed that the Crusades had been an attempt to spread the faith by the sword.
April 20, 2007, was the day the International Theological Commission said there were “serious” grounds to hope that unbaptized children might get into heaven. If the report lives up to its promise, billions of infants who over the millennia have not been baptized and have, therefore, been in limbo, will now be heading off to heaven. And that brings us to the present flap.
On July 10 Pope Benedict made the startling statement that there are defects in all religions that are not part of the one he runs. (The pronouncement about “defects” was made just a few days before it was disclosed that the Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles was paying $660 million to settle sexual abuse lawsuits against members of its clergy for conduct that seemed defective.) The document says if it’s salvation you’re after, the only way you’ll get it is through the Roman Catholic Church. His comments related back to a 2000 document drafted by a group he then headed entitled “Dominus Iesus.” It said, among other things, that the Church is “necessary for salvation.” Although recognizing that for those who are not formally part of the Church “salvation is accessible by virtue of a grace,” the document goes on to say that it would be “contrary to the faith to consider the church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions seen as complementary to the Church or substantially equivalent to her, even if these are said to be converging with the Church toward the eschatological kingdom of God.”
To the non-theologian the new document is a touch confusing, and may have confused Benedict, since it says the “separated churches and Communities, though [suffering]. . . from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.” That would seem to suggest that contrary to news reports these other folk may still get to heaven, although it’s not clear how.
Be that as it may, this is not a theological treatise and I would suggest that the reasons for saying those not members of the Church may be denied salvation have nothing to do with theology but everything to do with heavenly over-crowding thanks to the advent of the unbaptized infants. It is clear that if heaven becomes overcrowded (as is much of the world from which its denizens come), heaven and the Church (the means by which one gets to heaven) will lose much of their appeal. The Pope is simply being, as the vernacular has it, proactive, to make sure it remains a nice place for his flock. Non-Catholics should not take offense. There’s nothing personal about it.