It is the common opinion of scholastic theologians that the majority of mankind, (and some even say the majority of Catholics), will be lost. This is the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori and many others, among them the Early Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton tells us that “The common teaching is …a proper theological conclusion which by reason of the authority of a moral unanimity of scholastic theologians, can be received as true Catholic doctrine. It would be at least rash to deny it.” Revs. John A. McHugh O.P and Charles Callan, O.P., in their Moral Theology, a Complete Course, elaborate on the common opinion as follows:
“If the opinion has the support of only one theologian, it may be followed without further investigation if he has received special mention from the Church as an authority and a safe guide. Thus the Holy See has expressly declared that the doctrine of St. Alphonsus may be safely followed by confessors and the approbation given to St. Thomas Aquinas as universal Doctor makes his word more convincing than a contrary argument based on one’s own reasoning” (#669). In this case, both St. Alphonsus and St. Thomas Aquinas teach the following regarding the subject of the saved and the lost:
“Since their eternal happiness, consisting in the vision of God, exceeds the common state of nature, and especially in so far as this is deprived of grace through the corruption of original sin, those who are saved are in the minority. In this especially, however, appears the mercy of God, that He has chosen some for that salvation, from which very many in accordance with the common course and tendency of nature fall short.” — St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church
“Everyone desires to be saved but the greater part is lost… The Elect are much fewer than the damned, for the reprobate are much more numerous than the Elect.” — St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Doctor of the Church
But McHugh and Callan also state: “Of course, this does not mean that these or any other private doctors are infallible in their judgments, or that one should not depart from their teaching in a point where the Church has decided against them or where there is a manifest reason for doing so; it simply means that they are so conspicuous among moralists that one who is in doubt may safely follow them unless the contrary is known to him” (#669).
We know that in those things directly affecting our eternal salvation, the validity of the Sacraments and the good of a third party, the law of charity forbids us to take any risks, as McHugh and Callan teach from the doctrines of the Church. While the common opinion of theologians on the number of the saved and lost does not affect us directly where our eternal salvation is concerned, a lax attitude regarding this truth could easily cause some to delay conversion or omit repentance, and this must be avoided at all costs. For this reason, especially in the perilous times we find ourselves, it is safer to take all the precautions we can, such as St. Alphonsus provides in his Preparation for Death, to increase our love for God, do penance, reform our lives and renew our efforts to avoid all sin. This is the least we owe Our Lord for the Sacrifice He offered for us on the Cross.
While some theologians writing after the turn of the 20th century believed this common opinion had shifted in the opposite direction — meaning that the majority would be saved, not lost — we know why this trend began and where it was heading. It was an invention of the Modernists which culminated in the heresies of ecumenism and religious liberty. In the beginning it did have its valid points, as some, perhaps, may not yet have been in the Modernist employ. But it is not only the Modernists who have misrepresented this teaching. On the one side we have those who present the most rigorous version of this opinion without the necessary examination of the statements made by those supporting it. On the other side are ranged the advocates of the mildest opinion, primarily Modernists or those imbued with Modernist tendencies. The lax state of the Church at the time they were making these rosy predictions in no way justified such optimism. If anything, there was a definite trend to discredit or abandon religion altogether, certainly not to convert to the Catholic faith. Historically the Church was the weakest it had ever been, and from the 1920s on was increasingly surrounded by Her enemies.
One Jesuit advocate of the mildest opinion describes it as a swinging pendulum, at first resting in favor of the stricter view and then later swinging to the opposite side, in favor of the milder opinion. As all devices of this nature, when it comes to rest, it stops halfway between the two unless dialed back altogether by the Holy See. And here is the rub. According to one author supporting the milder opinion, Rev. Nicholas Walsh S.J., “Whether there be few or many that are saved [is] an open question… There is no authoritative decision of the Church or unanimous opinion of her Fathers or theologians: [it is therefore] an open question about which we may speculate as a ‘doubtful law’ (St. Augustine)” (The Saved and the Lost). And Walsh’s work was written in 1908. I do not believe, as indicated above, that we need speculate very far at all in the other direction seeing the development of mankind over the past seven decades. But certain things must be clarified regarding the presentation of the stricter view, and how this view was modified to some extent by the Roman Pontiffs up to 1958.
It is easy to see how infidels, pagans, Jews, apostates, heretics and schismatics, who have comprised the majority of mankind since the Reformation and all but occupy the entire field now, were not able to save their souls unless they converted and did penance. St. Alphonsus and St. Jerome tell us deathbed conversions are rare, so this would need to have been evident before their actual death. Somehow at the moment of their death, it is hoped that at least some of these individuals and lapsed Catholics professed sorrow for their sins and asked forgiveness. Can we confidently believe the majority of Catholics are saved? That may have been true in the past, and here we speak only of those Catholics who showed every sign of fulfilling their religious duties and obeying the 10 Commandments and laws of the Church.
But it became doubtful beginning sometime in the 20th century, when churches began emptying in Europe and even some locations in the U.S. With the advent of Vatican 2, many did abandon the false church, but many also remained. And among those who left, few ever realized Traditionalists and the Orthodox/Uniates were not Catholic either. Even if they suspected it, they remained in their churches simply because it fell within their comfort zone, they wanted to avoid ridicule from friends and family and/or they failed to investigate proofs that would have convinced them they could not remain in these groups. This is called affected ignorance, and it cannot pass for invincible ignorance if a modest amount of effort made could uncover the truth.
So could it be said that most Catholics living today might be saved? The question is — how many can truthfully even call themselves Catholic with any real claim to the name as regards Church membership? Not very many, as proofs presented in recent blog posts have shown. None of us can be certain of our salvation, but at least those trying their best to observe the laws and teachings of the Church, regardless of what it may cost them, can hope God accepts their sacrifice in union with His Passion and that of His Church. So what modifications, per those mentioned above by McHugh and Callan, might we make to the presentation of this doctrine today? Has the Church decided anything new, or is there a manifest reason for believing differently where the presentation of this teaching is concerned?
To begin with, the Doctors, Fathers and theologians cited in support of the stricter opinion do not all quite say what those quoting them claim. They tell us the elect are much fewer than the damned, those who are saved are in the minority and in comparison to the reprobate, those who are saved are much fewer. They speak of the majority of men, the greater part of men, a great number of Christians who are damned, the elect as a minority, and then some speak of the saved as “the fewest of the few.” Those adhering to the strictest view, that only a very few are saved, are not generally numbered among the Doctors, Fathers and theologians, with one or two exceptions according to the quotes available on this subject (see these quotes at http://catholicismhastheanswer.com/quotes-on-the-fewness-of-the-saved/)
That a minority of the faithful are saved and only a few are saved, which is deduced from various commentaries on Scripture texts, is scarcely the same thing, yet are mentioned in the same breath. This even though not all Scripture commentators agree on the stricter interpretation of the texts used to support this opinion. Preachers of the past wishing to frighten those hardened in their sins and those actually wishing to intimidate and subjugate their followers employ “few are saved” texts when dealing with this subject to good effect. Some Traditionalist sects have employed it to justify a demand for severe penance and voluntary humiliation. Many souls have forever been turned away from the true faith by the practices of these sects.
The fact that this is still an open question never officially decided by the popes limits Catholics to the allowance of the less strict opinion if the error of tutiorism is to be avoided. This is one of the errors belonging to the Jansenist heresy condemned by the Church. One may insist others must observe the safer teaching advanced in the common opinion but cannot insist anyone observe the safest teaching, i.e., that only a few are saved. McHugh and Callan write: “[Tutiorism] errs when it teaches we are… obliged always to follow the safer or safest course… There are cases when we are obliged (because some law requires it) to follow a safer course“ and this would include “something essential for the salvation of ourselves or others” (#678a). It does not seem that the question of whether few or many are saved is essential to our salvation, although it indirectly pertains to it. That the majority of mankind will be saved is contrary to the common opinion of theologians and is the less safe opinion, and we cannot embrace it when great doctors such as St. Thomas and St. Alphonsus, among other Fathers and Doctors, teach it.
But we are not obliged to adhere to what some would hold as the safest opinion, that only a few will be saved. This is not the common opinion of Fathers, Doctors and theologians but only the opinion of a few, some of them not theologians, or only mystics or holy seers whose visions and revelations we are not obliged to believe at all. And it is usually based on the texts of Scripture characterizing the few grapes left on the vine, the few grains of wheat sifted from the chaff, and other bible texts, which not all commentators interpret strictly or apply in the same way. No one can teach or believe what those advocating the common opinion didn’t actually say.
St. Alphonsus and others say the few saved is in contrast to the many lost, not that they are to be considered by themselves as such. They do not set a number to those in the minority. Severely limiting that number would invite to the table another Jansenist heresy, that of the “petite eglise” or little church, which insinuated by its rigoristic penitential practices that scarcely anyone who did not follow their lead would be found in heaven. As Rev. Ronald Knox wrote: “Its adherents forgot, after all, to believe in grace” (Enthusiasm, pgs. 212-213, 1950).
Then there are the teachings of Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII that grant some leeway to those invincibly ignorant and those not able to resort to the ordinary means of salvation. The popes and those theologians commenting on their teachings specifically forbid the faithful to exclude the grant of grace to those outside the Church by a merciful act from God. Msgr. J.C. Fenton wrote in his work The Catholic Church and Salvation, 1958:
“When the Unam sanctam teaches us that there can be no remission of sins outside the Catholic Church, it is telling us, actually, that it is impossible to obtain the life of sanctifying grace or to live that life outside this supernatural kingdom of God. It is bringing out the divinely revealed truth that, by God’s own institution, the life of sanctifying grace is to be possessed and derived from Our Lord by those who are united with Him, abiding in Him, in His Mystical Body, which is the Catholic Church.
“In the light of Catholic doctrine, however, it is both certain and obvious that actual graces are really offered to and received by men who are definitely ‘outside the Church,’ in the sense in which this expression is employed in the ecclesiastical documents which state the dogma or the Church’s necessity for the attainment of eternal salvation. As a matter of fact, the proposition that “no grace is granted outside the Church (extra ecclesia nullar conceited gratia) is one of the theses condemned explicitly by Pope Clement XI in his dogmatic constitution Unigenitus, issued September 8, 1713, and directed against the teachings of Pasquier Quesnel (DZ 1379).” So in making his statement, Fenton explains, Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam only refers to the ordinary means of salvation. What Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII taught regards the extraordinary and not the ordinary means of salvation. This is what those holding the Feeneyite heresy argue in endless circles about, claiming that what Pope Pius XII taught contradicted the necessity of Church membership for salvation, when it simply qualified the true nature of that membership.
Pope Pius IX, however, had already cleared up any confusion in his encyclicals on the topic.
“Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume to establish limits to the divine mercy, which is infinite. Far be it from Us to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsels and judgments of God, which are “a great deep,” and which human thought can never penetrate. Certainly we must hold it as of faith that no one can be saved outside the apostolic Roman Church, that this is the only Ark of salvation, and that the one who does not enter it is going to perish in the deluge. But, nevertheless, we must likewise hold it as certain that those who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if that [ignorance] be invincible, will never be charged with any guilt on this account before the eyes of the Lord. Now, who is there who would arrogate to himself the power to indicate the extent of such [invincible] ignorance according to the nature and the variety of peoples, regions, talents, and so many other things? For really when, loosed from these bodily bonds, we see God as He is, we shall certainly understand with what intimate and beautiful a connection the divine mercy and justice are joined together. But, while we live on earth, weighed down by this mortal body that darkens the mind, let us hold most firmly, from Catholic doctrine, that there is one God, one faith, one baptism. It is wrong to push our inquiries further than this… For the rest, as the cause of charity demands, let us pour forth continual prayers to God that all nations everywhere may be converted to Christ. And let us do all in our power to bring about the common salvation of men, for the hand of the Lord is not shortened and the gifts of heavenly grace will never be lacking to those who sincerely wish and pray to be comforted in this light” (Singulari Quadam).
And in this same pope’s Quanto conficiamur moerore we find the following:
“…Those who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion, and who, carefully observing the natural law and its precepts which God has inscribed in the hearts of all, and who, being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, through the working of the divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God, who clearly sees, inspects, and knows the minds, the intentions, the thoughts, and the habits of all, will, by reason of His goodness and kindness never allow anyone who has not the guilt of willful sin to be punished by eternal sufferings.”
Then Pope Pius XII, in his Mystici Corporis Christi, elaborated further on this teaching.
“As you know very well. Venerable Brethren, from the beginning of Our Pontificate, We have entrusted even those who do not belong to the visible structure (compagem) of the Catholic Church to the heavenly protection and direction, solemnly asserting that, following the example of the Good Shepherd, We wanted nothing more than that they should have life and have it more abundantly. [We] most affectionately invite each and every one of them [those who are not members of the Church] to co-operate generously and willingly with the inward impulses of divine grace and to take care to extricate themselves from that condition in which they cannot be secure about their own eternal salvation. For even though they may be directed towards the Redeemer’s Mystical Body by a sort of unconscious desire and intention (ctiamsi inscio quodam desiderio ac voto ad mysticum Redemptoris Corpus ordinentur), they still lack so many and such great heavenly helps and aids that can be enjoyed only in the Catholic Church.”
Fenton comments: “In the Mystici Corporis Christi Pope Pius XII asserts true Catholic doctrine by teaching that a non-member of the Church who is within the Church only in the sense that he has an unconscious or implicit desire of entering it as a member can possess the supernatural life of sanctifying grace.
“The Suprema haec sacra [written in 1950 to refute the Feeneyite heresy] then brings out the fact that, in the merciful designs of God’s providence, such realities as the Church itself and the sacraments of baptism and penance can, under certain circumstances, bring about the effects which they are meant to produce as means necessary for the attainment of eternal salvation when a man possesses them only in the sense that he desires or intends or wills to have or to use them. Obviously the text cannot be understood unless we realize what the “certain circumstances” mentioned in the text really are. Basic among these circumstances is the genuine impossibility of receiving the sacraments of baptism or of penance or of entering the Church as a member [or readmitted to it in the absence of any means to abjure heresy – Ed.]. It is quite clear that if it is possible for a man to be baptized, to go to confession and to receive sacramental absolution, or really to become a member of the true Church, the man for whom this is possible will not attain to eternal salvation unless he actually avails himself of these means. But, on the other hand, should the actual employment of these means be genuinely impossible, then the man can attain to eternal life by a will or desire to employ them.”
“The Suprema haec sacra states explicitly that it is possible for a man to be saved if he has only an implicit desire of entering the Catholic Church. Thus it teaches that a man can attain the Beatific Vision without having had any definite and explicit knowledge of the Catholic Church during the course of his lifetime in this world… The Mystici Corporis reproved both the error of those who teach the impossibility of salvation for those who have only an implicit desire of entering the Church, and the false doctrine of those who claim that men may find salvation equally in every religion. No desire to enter the Church can be effective for salvation unless it is enlightened by supernatural faith and animated or motivated by perfect charity” (The Catholic Church and Salvation, 1958). Yet Pope Pius XII made no determination whatsoever of the number of those saved in this manner, although he indicated that they still lacked many helps to assure their eternal salvation.
So it is not just those who are invincibly ignorant that this teaching was meant for; it is almost as though Pope Pius XII was anticipating the very situation in which we find ourselves today. For his teaching provides a way to restore Church membership lost by attending Traditionalist, Novus Ordo or Protestant services when no hierarchy is available to abjure the those wishing to return to the Church. If certain individuals who possess only an implicit desire can expect to be saved, and the Church condemns those who teach otherwise, does She not also censor those who would deny this grace to Catholics actively seeking it in an explicit manner? Stay-at-home Catholics are validly baptized. They make use of all the “many and great heavenly helps” Pope Pius XII mentions in an explicit manner to aid them in achieving forgiveness for their sins and to merit the fruits of their Spiritual Communions. What right, then have Traditionalists to ridicule them and condemn their efforts as unCatholic, to even number them among the lost? And how do these teachings of Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII regarding God’s mercy change the face of the teachings on the salvation of the fewer number of men, even Catholics? Pope Pius IX addresses this issue in Singulari Quadam:
“When, loosed from these bodily bonds, we see God as He is, we shall certainly understand with what intimate and beautiful a connection the divine mercy and justice are joined together. But, while we live on earth, weighed down by this mortal body that darkens the mind, let us hold most firmly, from Catholic doctrine, that there is one God, one faith, one baptism. It is wrong to push our inquiries further than this…”
I could be mistaken, but in a backhanded way, Pope Pius IX seems to have answered the question of who is saved and who is lost. He taught that we have no business questioning the workings of God’s mercy and we should not do so. In other words, opinions on this subject do not really matter today because God alone knows to whom He will extend His Divine Mercy and who deserves the rod of His justice. It is not for men to speculate who, or how many, are the objects of that mercy either today or in the past. We should rejoice in the fact that what Pope Pius XII taught has made it possible to appeal to God’s mercy in these dreadful times, and it should compel us to do all in our power to make ourselves worthy of it.
Certainly we cannot blithely decree with the Protestants and the Novus Ordo sect that all men may merrily avail themselves of that mercy indiscriminately, for this is not what Popes Pius IX and Pius XII taught. God dispenses His mercy and grace as He pleases, not to all but in accordance with His will. Nor should we be affrighted by those who would have us believe heaven is almost impossible to attain, for this is not what the Church teaches either. Who will merit heaven is a great secret obviously meant to be revealed only to those who are fortunate enough to behold the Beatific Vision. Rather than concern ourselves with these controversies, we would do well to spend our time instead doing all in our power to save our own souls and pray unceasingly that those we love, and indeed all who are of good will, save theirs as well.