During the heyday of Rob Bell’s Love Wins book the talk of universalism was everywhere. Was hell real? Was anyone really there and, if so, how long would they stay there? Since I travel in predominantly protestant circles I never heard anyone bring up the teaching of Vatican II as voice in the conversation. Indeed, had someone brought it up I would have said that I think the Catholic Church is very open to the universalist position. I would have cited Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” as my evidence.
Ralph Martin, in his new book Will Many Be Saved?, focuses on the teaching of Vatican II regarding those who have not heard and the fate of the lost. Martin actually notes that the current mindset among Catholics has drifted in the direction of universalism. He writes,
“Catholics who have not read a single theological essay have heard the substance of this ‘consensus’ and experienced the pervasiveness of this ‘shift.’ This has contributed to the general atmosphere of universalism that pervades the mindset of many Catholics today.” (132)
Martin argues quite persuasively that the documents of Vatican II are decidedly against universalism. With regard to Rahner, Vatican II can only be used for support, Martin says, “when the complete text is ignored (along with the New Testament texts and empirical evidence that he admits are relevant but doesn’t himself confront.)” (107)
In a powerful paragraph Martin cites John Henry Newman,
“It seems that Rahner in his overall theological work on this topic has reached the point that Newman says we can never legitimately reach—where the words of the gospel have become reversed—and the many headed towards destruction have now become the few, and the few headed to salvation have no become the many; where the ‘strive (agonize) to enter’ of Jesus’ urgent exhortation has now become the ‘accept yourself, follow your conscience’ of Rahner. It does not seem that this is a place that we can afford to stay as a Church; out of loyalty to the inspired Word of God, and out of concern for the salvation of the ‘many.’ (126)
Part of the problem with Rahner’s view which he admitted later in life is that he did not take sufficiently into account the reality of sin. (127) But Rahner is not the only Catholic who has pushed the Church towards universalism. The other figure is Hans Urs von Balthasar. Like Rahner, Martin devotes an entire chapter to the teaching of Balthasar and his “hope” that all will be saved. The driving factor for Balthasar is “his belief that for contemporary man belief in a God who sends people to hell is incompatible with an image of that God as Love, and therefore contributes to widespread unbelief.” (136) While Balthasar may grant the possibility of hell his reasoning grants that God’s love and the “power of Christ’s redemptive acts to overwhelm or even ‘outwit’ human freedom.” (136) Hence, love wins. As Joseph White wrote concerning Balthasar “a world in which hell exists is a world in which the love of God has failed.” (184) Martin’s quote of Roch Kereszty I think would equally apply to Rob Bell,
“Does his understanding allow for a definitive free refusal of God’s love on the part of any human being? He repeatedly insists on this possibility, but the inner consistency of his thought does not seem to admit it. . . . My reservation regarding his position comes from the suspicion that the logic of his thought leads not just to hope, but to a (consciously denied but logically inescapable) certainty for the salvation of all.” (168)
And Martin’s own assessment of Balthasar has parallels to Bell as well.
“When Balthasar either directly argues for universalism or simply asks questions challenging the traditional understanding but nevertheless making his sympathies clear and his own answer implicit, he, in my judgment, departs from the content of revelation and the mainstream theological tradition of the Church in a way that undermines the call to holiness and evangelization and is pastorally damaging.” (178)
The pastoral implications of universalism are graphically brought out by Martin who notes that the post-Vatican II emphasis on missions had a sharp decline or was radically redefined.
“Where a climate of universalism began to gain sway in the Church after the Vatican II Council, the missionary effort of the Church virtually collapsed. Mission in many places became redefined as primarily directed to improving the structures of life in this world, or even helping people to be better adherents of their own non-Christian religions. The number of missionaries and missionary orders devoted to drawing others to conversion to Christ drastically collapsed.” (187)
Martin appreciates Balthasar’s concern for preserving a good image of God but astutely notes that “[a]ttempts to correct a particular distorted image of God can unfortunately, end up creating a distortion in the opposite direction.” (189, Emphasis mine.)
But Martin’s book is not just a sustained critique of Rahner and Balthasar. The first few chapters are devoted to a close look at the Vatican II documents, noting where the universalists have ignored significant portions of the document in order to support their position. There is also a full chapter devoted to Scriptural foundations of the Vatican II document known as Lumen gentium 16.
I was deeply impressed with this book and Martin’s argument. It is an important book which deserves to be read widely by both Catholics and Protestants. The issues are important because the eternal destinies of people are at stake as Martin so eloquently concludes,
“[V]ast numbers of people within and without the Church do not appear to be seeking God and trying to do his will, following the light of their consciences, but are rather exchanging the truth of God for a lie, suppressing the truth, and living in rebellion and immorality, needing desperately to be invited to faith and repentance in order to be saved.” (202)
Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin is from Eerdmans Publishing. It is a paperback with 332 pages and sells for $24.00.
Ralph Martin, S.T.D., is the Director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, President of Renewal Ministries, and a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.