I’ve encountered various responses to the Catholic position on Protestant “heretics.” Are Protestants who deny key dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church their “brothers in Christ”? Or, are they “separated brethren”? Are they “outside the church and in need of salvation”? Below I’d like to outline three positions I’ve come across from Roman Catholics. Now, each of these positions differs, and they’ve all been given to me by Roman Catholics.
1. The Presuppositional/ fideism Answer: Blissful Ignorance Of The “Truth”
Some have simply told me the only way I could be deemed a “lost”heretic doomed to eternal hell was if I knew the Roman Catholic Church was the true church- and still I denied her truth. But since I remain convinced the Roman Catholic Church does not teach the truth and is a false church, i'm not a doomed heretic, but rather, “seperated brethren.” Since I don’t believe the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, my ignorance saves me.
I admit, it is a “clever” response, and has always facinated me because it is an example of Roman Catholic presuppositional apologetics. In presupositional apologetics, one admits upfront that all arguments begin with unproven truth claims. At some point way back in every argument, something is stated that is “faith” claim, but is presented as a “fact” claim.
The argument above assumes beforehand that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church. In other words, it is a beginning faith in an unproven truth claim, rather than the result of reason and evidence proving it as a truth claim. I doubt Catholics who have used this line of reasoning with me have ever realized they’re doing Presuppositional Catholic apologetics! There really is only one way to respond: by presenting evidence and reason that the faith placed in this presuppositional claim is faulty. One has to argue that the evidence of history and reason do not best fit the inital presupositonal claim. Of course, the Catholic laymen using this argument may simply resort to fideism. That is, evidence and facts don’t really matter: “I’m going to believe what I want to believe…don’t confuse me with the facts.”
Perhaps this approach is simply the uniformed opinion of Catholic laymen. Or, perhaps this is the next phase of development in the understanding of the salvation of those who are not in fellowship with Rome.
2. There Really Is “No Salvation Outside The Church”- A Classical Apologetics Approach (Traditionalist)
I don’t think the presuppositional approach has always been the Catholic position, and most Catholics champion the “facts” that their church is steeped in the “facts of history”. For instance, I picked up a 1938 copy of Fathers Rumble and Carty’s “Radio Replies” (vol. 1): 1538 Questions and Answers on Catholicism And Protestantism [St. Paul: Radio Replies Press]. The book claims to be “Invaluable for the uninformed Catholic- the educated and uneducated lapsed Catholic and prospective Convert.” Lets take a look at question #536.
536. Do you maintain that one is obliged to join your infallible, one, holy, catholic, apostolic, end indefectible Church, if he wishes to be saved?
If a man realizes that the Catholic Church is the true Church, he must join it if he wishes to save his soul. That is the normal law. But if he does not realize this obligation, is true to his conscience, even though it be erroneous, and dies repenting of any violations of his conscience, he will get to Heaven. In such a case, it would not have been his fault that he was a non-Catholic and God makes every allowance for good faith.
Elsewhere Rumble and Carty point out, “…[R]emember the conditions of salvation for a Protestant. If he has never suspected his obligation to join the Catholic Church, it is possible for him to be saved. But it is necessary to become a Catholic or be lost if one has the claims of the Catholic Church sufficiently put before him.” Now Carty and Rumble are saying that if one has been presented with the “claims of the Catholic Church” and rejects them, one may be lost. Rumble and Carty want one to look at the evidence for Roman Catholicism and then make a decision on whether or not to believe it. If one rejects it, one is probably doomed to hell.
3. Hybrid Presuppositionalism: Modern Ecumenical Catholicism:
Apolonio Latar commented on this blog recently, “Why do we call Protestants separated brothers? Because they are baptized and hence, in Christ in some way. Are they heretics? Materially, yes. Formally, I don't know--it depends on the person.”
Latar notes that I need to be baptized, and echoes the Catholic Catechism: “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter." Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.”
In this third position, denial of Catholic dogma is an “imperfect communion with the Catholic Church”. Similar to the presuppositional/fideistic position, it begins with the presupposition that the Catholic Church teaches the “truth,” and denials of any of its dogmas is simply “imperfection.” So, my good fortune from this perspective is that I’m probably not doomed to hell, as long as I don’t in some way, become a formal heretic, and of course, I need to be baptized.
If Latar is right, the possibility exists that I, as a Protestant, could become a “formal” heretic. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes though “…a born Catholic may allow himself to drift into whirls of anti-Catholic thought from which no doctrinal authority can rescue him, and where his mind becomes incrusted with convictions, or considerations sufficiently powerful to overlay his Catholic conscience. It is not for man, but for Him who searcheth the reins and heart, to sit in judgment on the guilt which attaches to an heretical conscience.” For Latar’s position to have coherence, Protestants must be defined as “born Catholics”.