Dr. Ralph Martin, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, has written an important book titled Will Many Be Saved? The text received a good deal of attention at the recent synod on the New Evangelization, and its opening pages are filled with endorsements from some of the leading figures in the Church today.I have not read this book by Martin. I have read another book by him called The Fulfillment of All Desire. In that he goes much further that just saying that our evangelism might be impacted. He says the great mystics all had as a foundation for their contemplation a strong realization of the reality of heaven and hell. That the difference between heaven and hell is so huge that it makes the difference between earthly pains and earthly pleasures not worth considering. That our choices can mean the difference between heaven and hell for us or for the people in our lives.
Dr. Martin's argument is straightforward enough: the attitude, much in evidence in the years following Vatican II, that virtually everyone will go to Heaven has drastically undercut the Church's evangelical efforts.
Why then, if salvation is guaranteed to virtually everyone, would Catholics be filled with a passion to propagate the faith around the world with any urgency? Therefore, if the New Evangelization is to get off the ground, we have to recover a vivid sense of the reality of Hell, the possibility, even likelihood, of eternal damnation for the many who do not come to a lively faith in Christ.
You could view this as a Christian's personal, internal evangelization. The giving over of our hearts and minds to the truth of Christ. The reality of hell is an important reason why we should not be slothful in this matter. Think about the choice someone makes about whether or not to go to mass on Sunday. Among the people I know the decision to stop going has been spiritual death. The church confirms this by saying not attending mass has the potential of costing your eternal soul, that it is gravely evil. But if hell is empty that crushes that doctrine like it crushes so many others. So why get out of bed on Sunday morning?
The universalist perspective received a further boost in the 20th century, especially through the work of two of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the time, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Rahner held that every human being is endowed with what he termed a "supernatural existential," which is to say, a fundamental orientation toward God. This spiritual potentiality is fully realized through explicit faith in Christ, but it can be realized to varying degrees even in those non-Christians who follow their consciences sincerely.The key word here is "even." Faith in Christ is the basis for salvation. It can be implicit or explicit. Implicit faith is weaker and therefore less likely to save. The trouble comes when you flatten everything. If you assume 100% salvation then all the distinctions disappear. You go from almost everything having a potential salvific impact to nothing having any impact. If you grow in your faith your chance of persevering to the end is increased. If you fall into sin your chance decreases. Then universalism comes along with a big "Never mind!"
The supernatural existential makes of everyone -- to use Rahner's controversial phrase -- an "anonymous Christian" and provides the basis for hoping that universal salvation is possible. Basing his argument on the sheer extravagance of God's saving act in Christ, Balthasar taught as well that we may reasonably hope that all people will be brought to Heaven.This is just sentimentalism. We can't find anything in revelation that comes close so we just appeal to God's niceness. God is nice. I am nice. So God must agree with me. Hell is an offensive doctrine. God finds it offensive. If we are thinking like God we should find it offensive to. But that does not make it false.
A good part of Balthasar's argument is grounded in the Church's liturgy, which demands that we pray for the salvation of all. If we knew that Hell was indeed a crowded place, this type of prayer would be senseless.
Now the heart of Martin's book is a detailed study and critique of the theories of Rahner and Balthasar, and space prevents me from even sketching his complex argument. I will mention only one dimension of it, namely his analysis of Lumen Gentium paragraph 16. Both Balthasar and Rahner -- as well as their myriad disciples -- found justification in the first part of that paragraph, wherein the Vatican II fathers do indeed teach that non-Christians, even non-believers, can be saved as long as they "try in their actions to do God's will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience."He does not even make a counter argument here. This passage of Lumen Gentium is not alone. Much of Catholic teaching is reduced to utter nonsense by universalism.
However, Martin points out that the defenders of universal salvation have, almost without exception, overlooked the next section of that paragraph, in which the Council Fathers say these decidedly less comforting words: "But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the world rather than the Creator. Hence to procure the salvation of all these, the Church takes zealous care to foster the missions." A fair reading of the entire paragraph, therefore, would seem to yield the following: the unevangelized can be saved, but often (at saepius), they do not meet the requirements for salvation. They will, then, be damned without hearing the announcement of the Gospel and coming to an active faith.
So who has it right in regard to this absolutely crucial question? Even as I deeply appreciate Martin's scholarship and fully acknowledge that he scores important points against both Balthasar and Rahner, I found his central argument undermined by one of his own footnotes. In a note buried on page 284 of his text, Martin cites some "remarks" of Pope Benedict XVI that have contributed, in his judgment, to confusion on the point in question. He is referring to observations in sections 45-47 of the Pope's 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, which can be summarized as follows. There are a relative handful of truly wicked people in whom the love of God and neighbor has been totally extinguished through sin, and there are a relative handful of people whose lives are utterly pure, completely given over to the demands of love.
Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in deathThe key word there is "if." So he is not assuming the people he is talking about all end up in heaven. He is focusing on the different forms salvation can take. He is not saying everyone who is not as bad as Hitler is saved. He is saying that
Those latter few will proceed, upon death, directly to Heaven, and those former few will, upon death, enter the state that the Church calls Hell. But the Pope concludes that "the great majority of people" who, though sinners, still retain a fundamental ordering to God, can and will be brought to Heaven after the necessary purification of Purgatory. Martin knows that the Pope stands athwart the position that he has taken throughout his study, for he says casually enough, "The argument of this book would suggest a need for clarification."Who is the Pope opposing. He seems to say hell is not empty. I don't think he says anything about numbers but to the extent he does he says there are some in hell. That falsifies universalism.
Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of who or how many will be saved, but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn't to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as "remarks" that require "clarification" is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI's teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.This is just so stupid I am amazed Fr Barron would ever say such a thing. When a pope writes and encyclical for the expressed purpose of clearly defining the church's teaching on an issue like contraception or female ordination or whatever, then you have acknowledge God is shepherding His church through this man and obey. Spe Salvi is a reflection on hope. It is not in the same universe as Humanae Vitae. People can try and twist and squeeze it to imply he is teaching universalism. It just does not say that. It certainly does not bind the consciences of all Catholics the way a document like Humanae Vitae does.
It seems to me that Pope Benedict's position -- affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there -- is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.The pope does not seriously question that. Jesus actually ducks questions about numbers and hell. He talks about a wide road and a narrow road but the emphasis is always on your own salvation and not on the relative population density. I think the best approach is to assume it all matters. Don't assume anyone, including yourself, is going to heaven regardless. Don't assume anyone, including yourself, is going to hell regardless.
Fr Barron seems to bounce around here about whether he is talking about fewer people in hell than many think or nobody at all in hell. The difference between those two is massive. One is an optimistic speculation about numbers that might lead some to presumption but it otherwise harmless. The other turns Catholicism and really all of human existence into an exercise that will eventually become meaningless as we all enter heaven. That is the one we need to clearly distance ourselves from. Von Balthasar failed to do that. That is a shame because his career is more and more defined by that error.