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Noah Zielke wrote:

Hi, guys —

I was wondering what you had to say in response to the fact that Vatican II's proclamations on Ecumenism contradict previous proclamations of the Popes along with the Council of Trent, as is documented in-detail in the following article:

Thank you

Noah Zielke

  { What do you have to say to the fact that Vatican II documents contradict previous proclamations? }

Eric replied:


Your interlocutors's quotes are selective.

For example, he cites Pope Pius IX in support of his view, but even the same pope undermines his point:

Blessed Pope Pius IX, Letter of Indifferentism (August 10, 1863, quoted in Fidelity March 1993):

"The Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well known. Those who obstinately and knowingly reject the authority and definitions of the Church, and persist willfully in remaining separated from the unity of the Church and from the Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter to whom the charge of the vineyard was committed by Christ, those cannot be saved. [But he goes on to say] We know that those who are invincibly ignorant of our holy religion, and who are prepared to obey God, earnestly observing the natural moral law engraven in the hearts of all men by God, can be saved by living an honest and just life with the help of divine light and grace. For God, who clearly discerns the minds and souls, thoughts and habits of all men, will not, in his goodness and mercy, permit anyone to be punished eternally who is not guilty of voluntary sin."

He also writes in Singulari quadem, December 8, 1854:

'For it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God.

Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?

For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains "we shall see God as He is" (1 John 3:2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but, as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is "one God, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5); it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.'

And again:

"Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments."

It is really not too difficult a concept to grasp that those who know the truth and refuse to obey it will be judged differently than those who are ignorant of the truth. Scripture says,

"And that servant who knew his master's will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more."

Luke 12:47–48 (RSV2CE)

Blessed Pope Pius IX is not the only one to teach this.

This is explained by Ludwig Ott in his 1957 book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. While this is not an official expression of Church teaching, it bears witness to pre-Vatican II belief:

"The necessity for belonging to the Church is not merely a necessity of precept (necessitas praecepti), but also a necessity of means (necessitas medii), as the comparison with the Ark, the means of salvation from the biblical flood, plainly shows. The necessity of means is however, not an absolute necessity, but a hypothetical one. In special circumstances, namely, in the case of invincible ignorance or of incapability, actual membership of the Church can be replaced by the desire (votum) for the same. This need not be expressly (explicite) present, but can also be included in the moral readiness faithfully to fulfil the will of God (votum implicitum). In this manner also those who are in fact outside the Catholic Church can achieve salvation."

Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Company, 1957), 312.

The same author goes on to say (speaking again of heretics):

"St. Augustine distinguishes, also not indeed using this terminology, between material and formal heretics. Thus he [regards] material heretics as heretics properly so-called. He seems to estimate their possibility of salvation [than he does of heretics proper, formal heretics)]."

(page 313)

In the early 19th century, well before Vatican II, the idea that one had to be a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church to be saved was condemned by the Holy Office (formerly the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition) by the Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8th, 1949, in condemnation of one, Fr. Leonard Feeney, who espoused this view (and who was excommunicated for his views in 1953):

3866 . . . Among those things which the Church has always proclaimed and never leaves off proclaiming is contained in the infallible proposition by which we are taught that "outside the Church there is no salvation."

3868 Nevertheless, this dogma must be understood in the sense in which the Church itself understands it. For our Savior did not give the contents of the deposit of faith to private judgments, but to the magisterium of the Church. The Church does in fact teach how this most severe precept of Jesus Christ is to be interpreted. For He Himself charged His Apostles to teach all nations to carry out all the things which He had commanded. Moreover, not the least among the commandments of Christ is that by which Christ orders us to be incorporated by baptism into the mystical body of Christ, that is, the Church, and to cling fast to Christ and to His vicar, through whom He governs the Church on earth in a visible manner. Therefore no one will be saved, who knowing the Church to be divinely instituted by Christ, nevertheless refuses to subject himself to the Church or denies obedience to the Roman Pontiff, the vicar of Christ on Earth.

3868 Indeed, Christ did not simply command that all nations should enter the Church, but He also set up the Church as the means of salvation, without which no one is able to enter the kingdom of Heavenly glory.

3869 Concerning the aids given for salvation, which are ordered to the ultimate end by divine institution alone and not by any intrinsic necessity, God in his infinite mercy willed that in certain circumstances the effects necessary for salvation may be obtained when these aids are clung to only by a wish or desire. In the most holy Council of Trent, we see this enunciated in clear words first concerning the sacrament of regeneration and then concerning the sacrament of penance.

3870 The same can be said about the Church, since she herself is a general aid to salvation. Thus for a person to obtain eternal salvation, it is not always demanded that he really be incorporated as a member of the Church, but it is at least required that he adhere to it by wish and desire. It is proper that this wish not always be explicit, as happens with catechumens. On the contrary, when man labors under invincible ignorance God also accepts an implicit wish, called by this name, because it is found in that good disposition of the soul by which man wishes to conform his will to the will of God.

3871 These things are clearly taught in Pius XII's encyclical letter on the mystical body of Jesus Christ. In this letter the Supreme Pontiff distinguishes clearly between those who are really incorporated as members of the Church, and those who adhere to the Church by wish alone. . . . "Among the members of the Church those alone must be numbered who have received the washing of regeneration and profess the true faith, and have neither separated themselves miserably from the structure of the Body nor, on account of a most serious crime, have been severed from it by legitimate authority." Near the end of the same encyclical letter, inviting to unity with a most loving spirit those who do not belong to the structure of the Catholic Church, he remembers those "who by an ignorant desire or wish may be ordered towards the Mystical Body of the Redeemer," whom he excludes not at all from eternal salvation, although he asserts that in such a state they are tossed about from every side, "and cannot be sure of their own eternal salvation . . . for they lack so many and so great heavenly gifts and aids, of which one may have the benefit only in the Catholic Church."

3872 With these wise words he reproves as much those who exclude from eternal salvation all who adhere to the Church by an implicit wish only, as those who falsely claim that men can be saved in every religion equally. Nor must it be thought that any wish whatsoever of entering the Church suffices for the salvation of man. For it is required that a wish, by which someone is ordered toward the Church, be formed in perfect charity; nor can an implicit wish have effect unless a man has supernatural faith.

He cites Leo XIII, but Leo also says:

"What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?" A man of this sort will incur a much heavier rebuke from Christ the Judge than those who are, unfortunately, ignorant of the Christian faith and its teaching: they, unlike the former, who believes one thing and practices another, have some excuse or at least are less blameworthy, because they lack the light of the Gospel.

Magnae Dei Matris #19; Carlen, Claudia, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), p. 292

The sinner offends [this] his Benefactor, abusing His gifts; and taking advantage of His goodness becomes more hardened in sin day by day. Again, since He is the Spirit of Truth, whosoever faileth by weakness or ignorance may perhaps have some excuse before Almighty God; but he who resists the truth through malice and turns away from it, sins most grievously against the Holy Ghost.

Leo XIII, Divinum illud munus #10; Carlen, Claudia, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1878–1903 (Ypsilanti, MI: Pierian Press, 1990), p. 415.

Blessed Pope Pius IX, Quanto conficiamur moerore #7; Carlen, Claudia, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1740–1878 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), p. 370.

Some of these quotes lack context. For example, the greater context of one of the quotes from Gregory XVI goes:

'Now We consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care. With the admonition of the apostle that "there is one God, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5) may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. They should consider the testimony of Christ Himself that "those who are not with Christ are against Him," (Luke 11:23) and that they disperse unhappily who do not gather with Him. Therefore "without a doubt, they will perish forever, unless they hold the Catholic faith whole and inviolate."

[18] Let them hear Jerome who, while the Church was torn into three parts by schism, tells us that whenever someone tried to persuade him to join his group he always exclaimed: "He who is for the See of Peter is for me." [19] A schismatic flatters himself falsely if he asserts that he, too, has been washed in the waters of regeneration. Indeed Augustine would reply to such a man: "The branch has the same form when it has been cut off from the vine; but of what profit for it is the form, if it does not live from the root?"' [20]

(Mirari vos #13; Carlen, Claudia, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1740–1878 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), pp. 237–38)

What Pope Gregory is refuting here is indifferentism, which is the idea that one's religion doesn't matter, not the idea that it is possible for those who have never heard the Gospel to be saved, which is clearly a completely different concept.

The idea that those who are not formal members of the Church can be saved, goes back to the earliest years of the Church; it's called Baptism of Desire. It has developed over time but the essence is the same.

It's helpful to note that the Church only regards those as heretics who know the truth and obstinately persist in refusing to submit to it. Canon law says:

"Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith."

(Canon 751; Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), p. 247)

Someone who is invincibly ignorant (i.e. through no fault of his own) of the truth cannot be a heretic.

You may be interested in a book, Salvation Outside the Church:

I hope that this helps.


Mike replied:

Dear Noah,

I just wanted to clarify a small portion of Eric's fine answer.

He said:
In the early 19th century, well before Vatican II, the idea that one had to be a card-carrying member of the Catholic Church to be saved was condemned by the Holy Office (formerly the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition) by the Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8th, 1949, in condemnation of one Fr. Leonard Feeney who espoused this view (and who was excommunicated for his views in 1953) . . .

As I said in an earlier reply back in November 2000:

Two objective facts must be made known to anyone familiar with the Father Feeney case:

  1. Father Leonard was not excommunicated for doctrinal reasons, but for discipline
    or lack of obedience
    , like Archbishop Lefebvre.

  2. Before passing away to his particular judgment, Father Feeney was
    [exonerated|vindicated] by Rome.

    These two points usually don't get mentioned when this matter is talked about.

At the time, the newspapers were confusing the issue, so Rome requested that Father Leonard go to Rome to explain his views.

Sadly, he did not. When Peter calls from Rome, we should listen and act!

That said, I personally think this was an important time in the Church. It was a period where the Church could clarify Her Teachings on this very important doctrine of the Church.

If you wish to understand it more, read my whole section dedicated to this teaching.

I apologize for the poor catechesis you received in the Church. It's a big problem today.

Just my two cents!

I hope this helps,


Noah replied:

Hi, Eric —

Thank you for your response.

I do think that the quotations you gave at least establish that invincible ignorance was a Church doctrine from the 17th century onwards.

I don't think that it addressed any of the contradictions between Vatican II and the Council of Trent. Trent has so many anathemas pronounced on Protestants that Vatican II's Unitatis Redintegratio just seems downright silly.

I would be very interested to know your perspective, specifically in regards to that topic.

Thanks again,


Eric replied:

Hey Noah,

Sure, I'd be happy to.

First, I would recommend you read this enlightening but brief article about what anathema means in the Catholic Church.

Anathemas, as the article says, were directed towards Catholics, not Protestants who were baptized outside of the Catholic Church. You can see, I hope, the difference between someone who belongs to the Catholic Church and rebels against it, versus someone who has never been a member and perhaps whose family hasn't belonged to the Catholic Church for generations. The situation during Trent, when thousands of Catholics were contumaciously embracing heresy, is very different than today where people have lived in heterodoxy for generations completely oblivious to the truth. Historical context matters.

Trent is still in force insofar as those doctrines it anathematizes are still errors but, because the Catholic Church does not employ the ceremonial anathema anymore, no one is subject to receiving it. And, as I pointed out earlier and as articulated in the above article, even when anathemas were happening, you had to be first called to account, warned, and corrected several times, then obstinately refuse to believe a critical dogma of the faith, then you had to be specifically excommunicated, by name, by a bishop.

A further aspect of anathemas is that the concept of judging someone condemned to eternal fire (as the formula went) is essentially different from saying, for example, We condemn him to eternal fire. What the Catholic Church is doing is juridically making an observation — a formal judgment — based on the evidence that person has manifested. It is not, so to speak, controlling their eternal destiny.

For example, I might say I judge that man to be about six feet tall. That doesn't mean I'm making him 6 feet tall. I am just using the evidence I have to draw a conclusion. To say that we believe anathemas actually condemn someone to Hell is a straw man argument.

Consequently, the idea that millions of people born into Protestant churches are thereby automatically anathematized, regarded as heretics, and condemned to Hell is just a laughable error.

As for Unitatis Redintegratio and Trent, think of them as a carrot and a stick; two sides of the same coin. There is a tension, but not a contradiction. Back in the Tridentine days, the Church was on the defensive and focused on neutralizing an imminent threat using whatever weapons it could. Whole nations were abandoning the Church and embracing heresy. The Church had to take a firm stance.

Today, hundreds of years later, things have calmed down, and cooler heads prevail. Protestantism is here to stay, and no one is under the illusion that masses of people will become Catholic if we go around issuing anathemas all the time, whatever truth they contain. Excoriating people as heretics is going to accomplish zilch in today's world. The Fathers of Vatican II — for better or for worse — decided on a new tack, that it's easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. So mostly it's a change in style and approach, not so much in substance. Lumen Gentium still says:

14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

Catholic Church, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium," #14 in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011)

Your interlocutor delights in casting aspersions on Catholic documents and finding so-called contradictions. It is plain to me that, if he is not being disingenuous, at the very least, he lacks the knowledge and possibly the good will to read documents in their historical context and respect the nuances of the text. Even the Bible has verses that require work to reconcile; in one place Jesus says he who is not with me is against me (Luke 11:23), and in another he says he who is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40). It's very easy to contrive contradictions in a sufficient large corpus of documents.

If you have specific citations from Unitatis Redintegratio that you want to work through with me, I'd be happy to do that.


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