I reside in Tennessee, smack dab in the middle of the so-called ” Bible Belt”. I actually live in East Tennessee where only about 2% of the population is Catholic. As you can imagine, I don’t always get a nice reception when I tell people I’m Catholic. The reception can be downright chilly when we discuss salvation.
The Catholic Church teaches that salvation can be found in the Catholic Church alone. This is often misinterpreted as meaning that we believe only those who are baptized, practicing Catholics can get to Heaven. This is not what we mean. As I have stated previously, those non-Catholics who are invincibly ignorant of the truthfulness of the Catholic Faith may still go to Heaven, provided they believed and lived as they understood God’s will, and they remained open to truth. In fact, truth is the key.
I once had a co-worker of mine ask me, “If I can go to Heaven without actually being Catholic, then why should I become Catholic?”
I have heard this question many times. The answer is quite simple. Just refer the questioner to John 4:24. Here we are informed that we are to worship God “in spirit and truth”. In other words, it does not suffice to give an outward appearance of our belief in Christ. For example, going to church on Sunday doesn’t necessarily make you a Christian. Sure, any good Christian will go to church on Sunday (unless one hasa good reason to miss), but such an act is only part of the Christian life. If we stop at simply going to church, we are nothing but pew warmers.
Christianity must be lived. Yet, how can we live what we do not love or understand? The answer is that we can not. We must know Christ on a personal basis. Too many Christians, however, stop there. They think that having a personal relationship with Christ is enough. After all, if we have a personal relationship with Christ, won’t He and the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth?
Christ certainly will guide us into all truth, but He has set up a Church with a hierarchical structure (Mt. 16; 18; Acts 15). We all are guided by the Holy Spirit, but we are all created with different abilities, degrees of abilities, interests, etc. Further, God has created us as unique beings who can not be repeated. Hence, we all have our own roles to play. St. Paul is clear that not everyone plays the same role in the Mystical Body of Christ. Thus, not everyone is called to lead Christ’s Church. Not everyone is given the gifts necessary to be a member of the hierarchy. Only this hierarchy was given Christ’s authority. So only this hierarchy can be authoritative in matters of faith and morals.
Consider this, the New Testament was not unified among all Christians until the late fourth century. The early documents of Christianity (the Church Fathers) indicate that it was the bishops who compiled the New Testament. If the bishops can not ever be infallible, then how can we trust the Bible? Are we really to believe that we have a fallible compilation of infallible books? This is counter-intuitive. If the compilation is fallible, we can not trust the books themselves to be infallible.
This is where truth comes in. If we have no infallible Church, then we can not trust the Bible to be infallible. We can not trust Sacred Tradition to be infallible. Therefore, we can not trust that anything we believe is true. The very divinity of Christ can come into question. You might argue that the Bible clearly teaches Christ’s divinity, but there have been many that have called themselves Christians who interpreted the Bible differently. If we do not believe in the authority of the Church, in fact, then Jesus’ divinity rightly does come into question.
John 4:24 tells us the importance of truth. We must believe what is true. How do we know what is true, however, if we do not have someone to show us what is true? Here you might argue that we have the Holy Spirit to do this. Such an argument has already been defeated. The Holy Spirit does guide us into truth, but it clear that He uses the Church to do this.
Two people can read the same passage, and come to two different interpretations. Are both correct? One person interprets Son of God to mean Jesus is literally God the Son. Another person interprets the same term to mean that Jesus is God’s Son by adoption. A third person then says Son of God is meant purely as a metaphor. These interpretations are all incompatible. They can not all be right.
The Church solves this problem. We must worship God “in spirit and truth “, but we can not do this without God’s aid. God provides us this aid primarily through the Catholic Church. In matters of faith and morals, the Church can not be wrong. It can be no other way.
So, we now have an answer to the question, “If I can get to Heaven without actually being Catholic, then why should I become Catholic?”
First of all, if one knows the Catholic Church is the True Church, and he willfully rejects It, then his salvation is in jeopardy. Second, truth is clearly of the utmost importance. If we really love Jesus Christ, we will want to do and believe everything He tells us. We will want to be a part of the Church He founded.
Yes, we must worship God in spirit and truth. Before we can fulfill this last part, however, we must find where it is this truth is taught. An objective look at the facts will reveal that the Catholic Church is where this truth is taught.
This is by no means the first post where I have addressed this topic. In fact, I had another post on this very recently. Yet, I felt I could approach this topic from a different angle. This is part of the joy of theology. There are so many angles from approach each topic that one can never exhaust a topic. I hope this latest approach has helped.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity