Evangelization is a rescue mission

Some year ago, Yves Cardinal Congar, OP, supplied to us an image of the Church as a liferaft for a world that is destined to sink. The world is going to the bottom; we shall be rescued. And having been rescued, having clambered aboard the liferaft, what is the ordinary Christian life? To stay afloat, I suppose, and to help rescue others.

Perhaps that is why a joke posted this morning by Father James Martin, SJ, galls me. The gist is that a bunch of people from various faiths die in a bus crash, and, having arriving in heaven, St. Peter tells each of them to go to various rooms—the muslims to room five, the jews to room four, the protestants to room three, and the athesists to room two—with the direction that they not look in room one. One of them asks God what’s in room one, setting up the the punchline: “Oh, that’s the Catholics; they think that they’re the only ones up here.” I’m all for a good joke, but this isn’t a good joke. This joke is a problem.

The butt of the joke is the precept extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—that there is no salvation outside of the Church. The problem with the joke is that it promotes indifferentism, a heresy that “claim[s] that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained.” Mirari vos, no. 13 (Greg. XVI, 1832). God gives everyone sufficient grace to attain salvation, that is, to be restored to a state of grace by being washed by the blood of the lamb, Christ Jesus, who is the only way by which this can happen. See Jn 14:6. Everyone can; many will. But some won’t, whereafter—well, see CCC ¶ 1035.

Father Steve Flynn commented on Fr. Martin’s video that “[s]alvation through Jesus Christ is open to all and we work to promote peace and harmony.” 1 Precisely so. Salvation through Jesus Christ is open to all. Salvation is offered to all—through Christ. Regardless of whether extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is true, extra Iesum nulla salus is assuredly true, and that is precisely the point of which Fr. Martin’s joke makes light. How wonderfully comforting it might be, how seductively appealing, to believe that there is no Hell, or, at least, that no one will go there! I should imagine that a person who believed that would feel no urgency to convert others, because if everyone gets to one or another room in heaven, religion is simply a question of personal preference, and evangelization becomes nothing more than a pushy attempt to needlessly persuade another person take your preferred route. This is religion as lifestyle choice.

But that is false. Alas, there is a hell. There are people who will go there because I failed them. Evangelization is a rescue mission, and if we don’t realize this, the number of people we fail is going to increase rapidly.

Social justice—you know, once we’ve hauled a person onto the liferaft, it’s good manners to offer them a hot cup of tea and a blanket, but it would be downright odd to offer them the cup of tea first, and decidedly dangerous to start thinking of our raft as a kind of floating canteen, commissioned to do no more than give out cups of tea and blankets to drowning men and women (wherefore my anxiety about the liberal catholics who purport to have made social justice “core to their identity”). If people would rather drown than get aboard, we should certainly still offer them a cup of tea, but that is not our mission. Comforting and ministering are good things, and we ought to do them, but we must realize that we are not sent to comfort but to rescue.


  1. Fr. Flynn cited Nostra ætate, 58 AAS 740 (2d Vat. Co., 1965), but the council could not overrule John 14:6 and, of course, Nostra ætate does not purport to.

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