“Review of Will Many Be Saved?” published in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2012.

Reviewed by Rev. Andrew McLean Cummings, Archdiocese of Baltimore



Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches

and Its Implications for the New Evangelization

by Ralph Martin

[Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012. xvi + 316 pp.]


One might get the impression from recent indications of the Magisterium that the question in this book’s title can be answered with a certain sanguinity. In his encyclical Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI says we may “suppose” that “the great majority of people” will be saved (cf. n. 46). Speaking at a Wednesday audience, Blessed John Paul II had apparently gone further, raising the possibility that all might reach Heaven. The suggestion was deleted, however, from the official text, presumably at the Pontiff’s own request (see General Audience of 28 July 1999 in Insegnamenti, vol. XXII n.2, p.82, and all versions on the Vatican website except English). Leaving aside for a moment attempts to interpret these statements, there can be no doubt that for most Catholics – learned and unlearned alike – the fear of damnation went out with fish on Friday. Into the new culture of optimism steps Dr. Ralph Martin with a daring and powerful new book.


As the second part of his title indicates, the author is not only concerned with discerning the Magisterium’s authentic teaching but with fostering the New Evangelization. As Director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Martin has excellent credentials in this regard. He maintains that “one of the biggest obstacles to evangelization is the belief that all will be saved in their own way” (91), that is, without needing to hear and embrace the Gospel.


It should be noted at once that Ralph Martin fully accepts the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the possibility of salvation for those who do not know Christ. Indeed, the point of his book is to defend the full teaching of the Council, by highlighting a short but important passage that has fallen into oblivion. Aware that his efforts will appear to many as a rejection of Church teaching, Martin has taken the precaution of filling the first five pages of his volume with endorsements from high-ranking prelates and theologians known for orthodoxy.


The place in which the Council Fathers directly addressed the issue of the salvation of non-believers is Lumen gentium 16. There it is affirmed that “those who have not received the Gospel” still have a relationship to the Church. Most closely related is the Jewish people which “remains most dear to God”. Then, recalling St. Paul’s affirmation of God’s universal salvific will, the passage speaks hopefully of Muslims and of all who seek God, even those who may not have “arrived at an explicit knowledge” of him. This key number concludes with two short sentences (in the original Latin), which Martin refers to as “16c”. These two sentences place the preceding affirmations in perspective. We are reminded that saepius (“often” or “very often”) those who do not know the Gospel have “become vain in their reasonings”, “exchanged the truth of God for a lie”, and “are exposed to final despair”. Consequently, “to procure the salvation of all these… the Church fosters the missions with care and attention”.


The first goal of Will Many Be Saved? is simply to remind readers of the existence of these sobering lines. That Lumen gentium 16c has been so generally ignored is an astonishing fact, which Martin brings to light. For instance, he notes that Karl Rahner avoids all mention of 16c, while commenting at length on sections 16a and b. This may come as no surprise, but similar omissions are shown to be nearly ubiquitous. Even the Navarre Bible, according to Martin, cites only 16b in its commentary on the question posed to Jesus in Luke 13:23 with the effect of appearing to rebut the Lord’s stark reply. Indeed, a measure of the disregard into which LG 16c has fallen is the fact that merely highlighting its argument can make one seem out of step with the Church. For some reason, the Council’s recognition of the possibility of salvation for those who have not accepted Christ was soon considered a probability, leading even to the widespread notion that virtually universal salvation is to be presumed. Martin suggests, on the contrary, that 16c was intended by the Council fathers to forestall this very line of thought.


While Martin does not try to prove that an overly optimistic eschatology will hinder evangelization, he does record the drastic rollback of the missionary effort following the Council. He also cites various authors who have called for changes in the theology of mission in light of the cheery new outlook. For the most part, however, Martin simply considers it obvious that if one presumes that most or all will be saved without hearing the Word, then the motivation to preach It diminishes. After all, Lumen gentium 16c clearly indicates (by the word quapropter)  that a major reason for missionary activity derives from the uncertainty of salvation for those lacking the full range of helps provided by the Church. Support for Martin’s stance has now appeared from a significant quarter: the participants in the recent Synod for the New Evangelization, held in Rome. High on the list of propositions which they sent to the Holy Father, one reads: “the Council reminds us, however, that evangelization is necessary for the salvation of all” followed by the complete quotation of the overlooked lines of Lumen gentium 16.


Despite its pastoral relevance, Will Many Be Saved? is primarily a work of dogmatic theology. While making initial observations in Chapter 2, Martin specifies his purpose: “We are trying to determine what precisely the Church is teaching regarding one important question: What are the necessary conditions for and actual limitations on the possibility of non-Christians being saved without coming to explicit faith in Christ and membership in the Catholic Church?” (7). Towards this end, he proceeds in Chapter 3 to trace the doctrinal development which culminated in LG 16, and in Chapter 4 he examines the chief scriptural basis for the passage.


Martin’s review of the development of the Church’s understanding of the necessity of the Church for salvation is concise but well researched. He leads the reader through several stages, beginning with the application of the phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus to schismatic Christians. As the concept was extended to non-Christians, the possibility of salvation for those who came before Christ was always retained. Saints Augustine and Fulgentius of Ruspe provide particularly strict interpretations of the notion: now that Christ has come, faith is necessary, and those who have not heard – regardless of the reason – must fall short of heaven. This position is allied with attempts to grapple with the concept of original sin, leading Martin to include an extensive and enlightening footnote on limbo. While St. Thomas introduces several insights upon which subsequent theologians will build, he himself cannot be considered an optimist on the question. Next, Martin points to the impulse given by the discovery of the New World. In particular, it was recognized that the presentation of the Gospel can be gravely deficient. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was generally accepted that, while faith was necessary for salvation, one needs to be personally culpable of a sin against the faith to be excluded. Martin records how Pius IX first formulated this doctrine as part of the papal magisterium. Reiterated under Pius XII in the famous letter to Fr. Feeney, the same doctrine is found substantially in LG 16 which cites the Feeney letter in a footnote. In light of this gradual development, Martin plausibly concludes that only “huge leaps in logic” (56) can have produced the present day wave of salvation optimism.


Martin’s examination of Sacred Scripture is mainly restricted to the first chapters of the Letter to the Romans, which is the primary reference point for LG 16c. Even this limited look at the Word of God reveals the Council document as a faithful echo of apostolic teaching. Firstly, Martin recounts Paul’s graphic portrayal of the woeful state in which fallen man finds himself, with a tendency to idolatry and slavery to sin. Nonetheless, the letter’s reference to “keeping the law written on the heart” applies even to pagans, according to Martin, and corresponds to the “sincere seeking of God and attempting to do his will as they know it through conscience” of LG 16. Finally, however, Martin argues that Paul, like LG 16c, warns that finding salvation “through some response in faith to the revelation of God in creation or in conscience” (87) is a possibility fraught with hazards. Citing Joseph Fitzmyer, Martin notes that the Gospel is needed to penetrate the darkness in which man finds himself. Indeed, he suggests that a “naïvely optimistic position” (90) on salvation provides evidence of this very darkness.


Chapters 5 and 6, which are respectively dedicated to the views of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, account for almost a hundred pages or nearly half the text. Consequently, it is odd to find that Martin downplays them as an opportunity to “demonstrate the usefulness of a proper understanding of LG 16” (93). In fact, the thorough analysis of the views of these two theologians is fully merited by the fact that observers of all persuasions will agree that they have done more than any other individuals to give life and voice to the culture of salvation optimism. Martin’s treatment is meticulous, including an appendix on the theme. As a critique, it is measured yet effective. Martin shows that attempts to fit universalist aspirations into a Catholic framework produce cracks and bulges in other areas of theology: biblical exegesis, the image of God, and moral theology, for example. The determination of these theologians to resist arguments on all fronts begins to resemble a paranoiac putting off those who would reassure him. Tellingly, Martin quotes Rahner saying that “it is impossible to think that this offer of … grace made to all men … should in general (prescinding from the relatively few exceptions) remain ineffective…” (122). One is reminded of Anthony Flew’s insight about the persistence of atheists in their denial of God: they cannot conceive of any argument that might constitute a reason to reconsider the reality of God’s existence.


One might imagine various possible root causes of this profound resistance to the traditional doctrine of the “two ways”, yet Martin does not take time to speculate. However, the picture does emerge that the optimism of the latter half of the 20th century may be a defensive response to the horrors of its first half. Balthasar identified the figure whose views on this issue most closely resemble his own as Edith Stein, who stood in the very midst of the maelstrom of evil.  Likewise, Martin suggests that “Rahner is attempting to come to grips theologically with the shock of the collapse of Christendom” (110) and other realities that threatened to engender despair in thoughtful people. The irony of such a response to a bad situation is brought out by Martin: “How tragic if the promulgation of a theoretical or practical presumption that almost everyone will be saved actually became the cause of many people being lost” (189).


This explanation, at which Martin just hints, may be of help in understanding the seventh and final chapter of the book: “The Pastoral Strategy of Vatican II: Time for an Adjustment?”. Here the author observes that Vatican II, in spite of the clear message of LG 16c, marked an abrupt end to the linkage of mission and salvation not only among leading theologians, but also in papal documents. While the suggestion of “a need for clarification” (284) of Pope Benedict’s comment cited at the outset of this review has garnered most attention, in fact, Martin is respectfully requesting a much more far-reaching clarification. What accounts for the fact that, unlike LG 16c, no subsequent statement on evangelization, including the Council’s own Ad gentes, Paul VI’s Evangelii nuntiandi and John Paul II’s Redemptoris missio, affirms that the missions are directed to the salvation of souls? Does this signal a development of doctrine or simply a new pastoral strategy? Assuming the latter, Martin calls for a reassessment of that strategy. As anyone familiar with the history of missions in China and India knows, this wouldn’t be the first time that an approach to mission needed rethinking.


Incidentally, the only ecclesiastic cited by Martin who also highlights the importance of recuperating LG 16c is Bishop Thomas Mar Anthonios of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Since this sui iuris Catholic Church has grown from five members to half a million in the last 80 years, its leaders just might know a thing or two about evangelization. So does Ralph Martin, and he deserves a hearing. Will Many Be Saved?, which is both accessible enough for a wide audience and deep enough for academic use, is already in its fourth printing. While there are some minor errors which new editions can remove, the work itself should endure as a classic in the field.