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Theologian Ilaria Morali Responds

ROME, JAN. 16, 2006 (ZENIT) - If it is enough to seek peace with good will to be saved, of what use is Christianity?

This is the question posed after Benedict XVI's address during the Nov. 30 general audience, in which he spoke about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.

In Part 1 of this interview with us, theologian Ilaria Morali, a professor of theology at the Gregorian University, and a specialist on the topic of grace, explains the Pope's words, and the Church's magisterium on the subject.

Q: The Pope said in that general audience that the salvation of non-Christians is a fact: "There are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the eternal city to which we aspire. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for an authentic redemption." How is this possible?

Morali: According to what I have been able to read in the press or hear on the radio, the Holy Father's words have caused great surprise. It would seem that he said something absolutely new and revolutionary.

Some believe that with these words the Church has admitted at last that it isn't necessary to be a Christian to do good and to obtain salvation; that what matters is to be men of peace regardless of the faith one professes. It is, of course, a very hasty and superficial reading of the Holy Father's words.

To understand this address we must first emphasize three aspects.

The Holy Father made this affirmation in the context of St. Augustine's commentary for this Psalm: For St. Augustine, as for Christians of the first centuries, Babylon was the symbol par excellence of the city of evil, of idolatry. It is the opposite of Jerusalem, which, on the contrary, represents the place of God, the place where Christ's redemption was accomplished.

In Christian tradition the antithesis Babylon-Jerusalem has very many meanings. Essentially, the Pope presents two of them, which are intertwined. According to the earlier meaning, Babylon is the present in which we are prisoners, while Jerusalem is the heavenly goal.

The second meaning is of a different sort: Babylon as the city or area where people live who do not profess the biblical faith. On this level is encased what the Pope sees in St. Augustine as a "surprising and very timely note," the fact that the saint recognized the possibility that also in such a city, where faith in the true God is not cultivated, there can be people who promote peace and goodness.

A second aspect that must be pointed out of the Pope's words is the point of departure, taken from St. Augustine's words. The Pontiff stresses three specific characteristics: In the first place, that the inhabitants of Babylon "have a spark of desire for the unknown," desire for eternity; in the second place, that they harbor "a kind of faith, of hope"; and in the third place that "they have faith in an unknown reality, they do not know Christ or God."

A third and last point refers to these people's fate. The Pope affirms with St. Augustine that "God will not allow them to perish with Babylon, being predestined to be citizens of Jerusalem." But with a very specific condition: "That they be dedicated with a pure conscience to these tasks."

The Pope, as the words of St. Augustine themselves demonstrate, try to remind us of a truth that belongs from the beginning of Christian history to our faith and that profoundly characterizes the Christian conception of salvation.

This truth contains two fundamental principles: The first is that God wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth, as St. Paul says in the Second Letter to Timothy. To know, in this sense, means to adhere, to welcome the Lord in one's life.

The second: Historically, the Gospel has not been able to conquer all hearts, whether because it has not arrived materially in all places on earth, or because, though it has arrived, not all have accepted it.

Q: And, in this context, what is the Christian doctrine of salvation?

Morali: The Christian doctrine of salvation is very clear. To explain it, I would refer to two texts of the magisterium: The first is an address of Pius IX on the occasion of the consistory that took place on December 8, 1854, on the occasion of the solemn proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The Pope said that those who do not know the true religion, when their ignorance is invincible, are not culpable before the eyes of God.

Years later he wanted to take up this teaching again clarifying the meaning of invincible ignorance in the encyclical letter "Quanto Conficiamur Moerore" of 1863. "It is known," he wrote, "that those who observe with zeal the natural law and its precepts engraved by God in the hearts of all men, can attain eternal life if they are willing to obey God and lead a good life."

Pius IX proposed again a conviction consolidated for centuries in Christian theology: There are men and women who, for various reasons, whether because of cultural conditionings, or because of an experience or a negative contact with the Christian faith, are unable to consent to the faith.

Although it might seem that these people consciously reject Christ, one cannot make an unquestionable judgment on this rejection.

Invincible ignorance indicates precisely a condition of lack of knowledge in regard to Christ, the Church, the faith, a lack of knowledge that, for the time being, cannot be overcome with an act of will.

The person is blocked, as though unable to express a "yes" to faith.

As we see every day among our acquaintances, the reasons why many people say no to Christ are many: disappointment, betrayal, poor catechesis, cultural and social conditioning.

Pius IX himself admitted the difficulty of delimiting the cases of invincible ignorance, stating: "Who will arrogate to himself the power to determine the limits of that ignorance according to the character and variety of peoples, of regions, of spirits and of so many other elements?"

Pius IX taught us therefore a great prudence and great respect for those who do not have the gift of faith in Christ.

We are not able to understand altogether the reasons for a rejection of faith, nor can we know with certainty that someone who seems to have no faith, in fact has a very imperfect form of faith.

Q: Given the fact that a Christian is baptized, can he think he is already saved?

Morali: Of course not. Baptism is not an automatic guarantee of salvation. If it were so, the effort to lead a Christian life would be futile. Every Christian must make the effort to merit this salvation with a life of fidelity to God, of charity towards his brothers, of good works. However, no one can be certain of his own salvation, because only God has the power to grant it.

[Part 2 of this interview appears Wednesday]

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