It’s worth pointing out that this is a serious dogmatic issue, addressed by the major doctrinal office in Rome, and personally authored by its Prefect. The significance would seem to increase in light of the major doctrinal difficulties on the subject since the ambiguities of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium and the widely acknowledged inadequacy of the CDF’s subsequent correctives in Dominus Iesus (2000).
That such a document comes out now is rather curious – not least of all because of the complete radio silence from this Congregation since last summer. Hilary White points out in her article:
“Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, is the Jesuit chosen by Francis to replace the beleaguered Cardinal Muller as prefect of CDF. So far, perhaps the most singular thing we know about him has been his, and under him the CDF’s, absolute silence through the entire furor over Amoris Laetitia, an unprecedented mass-apostasy with bishops, national conferences and even cardinals openly declaring that the Church’s teaching on marriage no longer applies, that same-sex partnerings can be somehow ‘blessed’ by the Church and, most recently, that non-Catholics can receive Holy Communion.”
Thus, the nature of the subject matter (eternal salvation) and the contemporary context (widespread heterodoxy and heteropraxy) would seem to lend a certain gravitas to a letter like this.
Yet even more strangely, the document itself appears so anemic in its content as to rank as an ecclesial non-event.
For instance, it is passing odd that the most significant doctrinal office in the Vatican would issue a document addressing the dogma of human salvation, including a section entitled “Salvation in the Church, Body of Christ,” and then fail to mention Christ’s historical foundation of this Church upon Saint Peter, or its visible cohesion and hierarchical ordering under the Apostles and their successors through time, or the explicit necessity of membership in this Church to attain salvation. Not once in this section (or anywhere else in the Letter) are the terms “Roman,” “Catholic,” “Apostle,” “Peter,” “Papacy,” “Bishop,” or “Hierarchy” even used.
….and issued on the Feast of the Chair of Peter!
In fact, perhaps excepting passing mention of certain sacraments, the Letter offers a view of salvation that would be perfectly amenable to mainline Protestants. Indeed, it’s even at pains to reference one of the most serious ambiguities in Vatican II – a line from Gaudium et Spes which may be read as suggesting the operation of sanctifying grace outside of salvific Christian faith (cf. n. 22).
Now, contrast the disappointingly vague and approaching irrelevant Placuit Deo with a statement from the same Congregation, issued less than 70 years ago:
“[Bishops] must be on guard lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ [from non-Catholics], a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged. …the whole and entire Catholic doctrine is to be presented and explained: by no means is it permitted to pass over in silence or to veil in ambiguous terms the Catholic truth regarding the nature and way of justification, the constitution of the Church, the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and the only true union by the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ.” (Instruction of 1949)
Or a tidy excerpt from the same Congregation, issued in 1864:
“The true Church of Jesus Christ was established by divine authority, and is known by a fourfold mark, which we assert in the Creed must be believed; and each one of these marks so clings to the others that it cannot be separated from them; hence it happens that that Church which truly is, and is called Catholic should at the same time shine with the prerogatives of unity, sanctity, and apostolic succession. Therefore, the Catholic Church alone is conspicuous and perfect in the unity of the whole world and of all nations… No other Church is Catholic except the one which, founded on the one PETER, grows into one body compacted and fitly joined together in the unity of faith and charity.” (Letter, DZ #1685-87)
Or the eminently simple 1908 Catechism:
“The true Church is called Roman, because the four marks of Unity, Sanctity, Catholicity and Apostolicity are found in that Church alone which acknowledges as Head the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St. Peter. …No one can be saved outside the Catholic, Apostolic Roman Church, just as no one could be saved from the flood outside the Ark of Noah, which was a figure of the Church.”*
In conclusion, while we remain deeply grateful to the Congregation for their important work, we humbly request a little more substance in the next doctrinal treatment of so important a subject, borrowing the words of Lactantius (4th century):
“For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.”**