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Is Faith Necessary for Salvation? (Part 2)

Theologian Ilaria Morali Responds

ROME, JAN. 18, 2006 (Zenit) - Is faith necessary for salvation?

Ilaria Morali, a professor of theology at the Gregorian University, and a specialist in the subject of grace, responds to this question in Part 2 of this interview with us.

The interview took place with an eye toward understanding better Benedict XVI's address at the general audience of Nov. 30, during which he spoke about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday on Catholic Online.

Q: Since the Second Vatican Council, what has been the Catholic view of nonbelievers?

Morali: The question offers me the occasion to touch upon one of the aspects the Pope has commented upon regarding the "spark" harbored by those who do not have biblical faith.

Vatican II places among the latter both people belonging to other religions as well as people who are specifically nonbelievers. They are two profoundly different groups, but united by the fact that they do not have the faith of Christ. The former cultivate some form of religious belief; the latter affirm that they do not have faith.

In No. 16 of the dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium," the Council, recalling the principle of the universal saving will of God, affirmed that those who seek God with sincerity, and make an effort under the influence of grace to do his will with works, known by the dictate of conscience, may obtain eternal salvation.

This affirmation reflects indirectly the teaching of Pius IX, but it emphasizes an aspect not considered until now: that of grace. The search for the good, the determination and the will to carry it out are effects of the action of grace.

Moreover, the Council added, almost to stress this principle, "Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life."

According to the Council, no effort can take place "without grace." That means that God is also close to those who do not know him. This same teaching is found in the pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes," where in No. 22 the Council acknowledges that grace works in the hearts of all men of good will.

The people to whom the Holy Father refers are, in a certain sense, the same as those of whom the Council spoke. However, some one might object that the Council, in No. 7 of the decree "Ad Gentes" on missionary activity, underlines the principle of the necessity of faith for salvation, in addition to the need of baptism and of the Church.

It might also be underlined that in this number Vatican II affirms that "those cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it."

According to Catholic doctrine, faith of course, is necessary for salvation. This principle, sanctioned in the Letter to the Hebrews 11:6 has been accepted by the Christian tradition since its beginning. And here, in this context, it is proposed again in a clear way.

Q: And who does not have a complete faith?

Morali: Christian tradition itself acknowledges that not all have received the gift of the fullness of faith and that there can also be very imperfect forms of faith.

In the chapter on faith, the Roman Catechism, which was composed after the Council of Trent, acknowledges that there are different degrees of faith: There are those who have a great faith and others who have a fragile faith.

It takes this teaching from the Gospel, in reference to the many words that Jesus Christ pronounced on the faith of his disciples, of the people with whom he met.

However, we cannot pause on this first part of the Council's reflection proposed in No. 7 of the decree "Ad Gentes" on the necessity of faith, but we must also read what follows: "Though God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please him, yet a necessity lies upon the Church, and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel."

This means that God has his ways to lead men to faith and we certainly cannot penetrate in the inscrutable divine action in the hearts of men. In its complexity, the teaching of "Ad Gentes" helps us to understand two principles.

First, that it is not possible to be saved without faith. As history teaches us, men have certainly existed and will exist who consciously deny God, staining themselves with atrocious faults. They will have to answer before God for having exiled and excluded him from their lives, converting that of others into a hell. It is an inescapable fact that there is no salvation for these.

Second, there are many more people who, even stating that they are not believers, will obtain eternal salvation. These are people who give Christians an extraordinary example of generosity and rectitude. If I accept the conciliar teaching, then, for me, who am a believer, the good that they do is already the effect of grace that works in a hidden way in them and I must pray that this grace will one day give them the possibility of being led to an explicit faith.

Moreover, I must admit that in this invisible work of grace, God leads them to faith in an absolutely mysterious way.

Q: Is it necessary to let grace act on its own in those people in whom it acts in a hidden way?

Morali: That does not mean that, as a Christian, I must not do everything possible so that this grace that acts in a hidden way in these people of good will might attain to fullness, though it might not always achieve this. My witness and my prayer are a support to the divine work, but God has his times and his designs.

Speaking again of the "spark" of which the Pope spoke in his address, I would like to recall an affirmation of Tertullian: "alma naturaliter Christiana" [the soul is naturally Christian]. He said this referring to people who lacked education in the faith, but who experienced inklings of faith.

Tertullian's expression has entered the reflection on faith of those who seem not to have faith, as it reflects the longing, in the depth of every man, to know God.

This longing is inscribed in a person's heart and, as Henri de Lubac would say, is the proof that we are created in the image of God and that this image is as an indelible sign. Man longs for Jesus Christ because he bears the image of God in his heart, and the image of God is Jesus Christ.

Tertullian also says that "fiunt no nascuntur christiani," which means: "Christians are not born, but made." It means that this longing needs to be corresponded by knowledge of God and this knowledge only Jesus Christ can give.

The longing of the heart for fullness is not enough; one must come to this fullness in fact. Thus is understood the importance of the evangelizing work of the Church, called to lead men to that fullness that is realized with baptism and perfected throughout a Christian's life.


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