Theologian Ilaria Morali Responds
ROME, 15 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
If it is enough to seek peace with good will to be saved, of what use
This is the question posed after Benedict XVI's address during the
Nov. 30 general audience,
in which he spoke about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.
In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, theologian Ilaria Morali, a
professor of theology at the Gregorian University, and a specialist on
the topic of grace, explains the Pope's words, and the Church's
magisterium on the subject.
Q: The Pope said in that general audience that the salvation of
non-Christians is a fact: "There are people who are committed to peace
and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share
the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the eternal city
to which we aspire. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the
greatest, for the transcendent, for an authentic redemption." How is
Morali: According to what I have been able to read in the press or hear
on the radio, the Holy Father's words have caused great surprise. It
would seem that he said something absolutely new and revolutionary.
Some believe that with these words the Church has admitted at last that
it isn't necessary to be a Christian to do good and to obtain salvation;
that what matters is to be men of peace regardless of the faith one
professes. It is, of course, a very hasty and superficial reading of the
Holy Father's words.
To understand this address we must first emphasize three aspects.
The Holy Father made this affirmation in the context of St. Augustine's
commentary for this Psalm: For St. Augustine, as for Christians of the
first centuries, Babylon was the symbol par excellence of the city of
evil, of idolatry. It is the opposite of Jerusalem, which, on the
contrary, represents the place of God, the place where Christ's
redemption was accomplished.
In Christian tradition the antithesis Babylon-Jerusalem has very many
meanings. Essentially, the Pope presents two of them, which are
intertwined. According to the earlier meaning, Babylon is the present in
which we are prisoners, while Jerusalem is the heavenly goal.
The second meaning is of a different sort: Babylon as the city or area
where people live who do not profess the biblical faith. On this level
is encased what the Pope sees in St. Augustine as a "surprising and very
timely note," the fact that the saint recognized the possibility that
also in such a city, where faith in the true God is not cultivated,
there can be people who promote peace and goodness.
A second aspect that must be pointed out of the Pope's words is the
point of departure, taken from St. Augustine's words. The Pontiff
stresses three specific characteristics: In the first place, that the
inhabitants of Babylon "have a spark of desire for the unknown," desire
for eternity; in the second place, that they harbor "a kind of faith, of
hope"; and in the third place that "they have faith in an unknown
reality, they do not know Christ or God."
A third and last point refers to these people's fate. The Pope affirms
with St. Augustine that "God will not allow them to perish with Babylon,
being predestined to be citizens of Jerusalem." But with a very specific
condition: "That they be dedicated with a pure conscience to these
The Pope, as the words of St. Augustine themselves demonstrate, try to
remind us of a truth that belongs from the beginning of Christian
history to our faith and that profoundly characterizes the Christian
conception of salvation.
This truth contains two fundamental principles: The first is that God
wants all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of truth, as St.
Paul says in the Second Letter to Timothy. To know, in this sense, means
to adhere, to welcome the Lord in one's life.
The second: Historically, the Gospel has not been able to conquer all
hearts, whether because it has not arrived materially in all places on
earth, or because, though it has arrived, not all have accepted it.
Q: And, in this context, what is the Christian doctrine of salvation?
Morali: The Christian doctrine of salvation is very clear. To explain
it, I would refer to two texts of the magisterium: The first is an
address of Pius IX on the occasion of the consistory that took place on
December 8, 1854, on the occasion of the solemn proclamation of the
dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The Pope said that those who do not
know the true religion, when their ignorance is invincible, are not
culpable before the eyes of God.
Years later he wanted to take up this teaching again clarifying the
meaning of invincible ignorance in the encyclical letter "Quanto
Conficiamur Moerore" of 1863. "It is known," he wrote, "that those who
observe with zeal the natural law and its precepts engraved by God in
the hearts of all men, can attain eternal life if they are willing to
obey God and lead a good life."
Pius IX proposed again a conviction consolidated for centuries in
Christian theology: There are men and women who, for various reasons,
whether because of cultural conditionings, or because of an experience
or a negative contact with the Christian faith, are unable to consent to
Although it might seem that these people consciously reject Christ, one
cannot make an unquestionable judgment on this rejection.
Invincible ignorance indicates precisely a condition of lack of
knowledge in regard to Christ, the Church, the faith, a lack of
knowledge that, for the time being, cannot be overcome with an act of
The person is blocked, as though unable to express a "yes" to faith.
As we see every day among our acquaintances, the reasons why many people
say no to Christ are many: disappointment, betrayal, poor catechesis,
cultural and social conditioning.
Pius IX himself admitted the difficulty of delimiting the cases of
invincible ignorance, stating: "Who will arrogate to himself the power
to determine the limits of that ignorance according to the character and
variety of peoples, of regions, of spirits and of so many other
Pius IX taught us therefore a great prudence and great respect for those
who do not have the gift of faith in Christ.
We are not able to understand altogether the reasons for a rejection of
faith, nor can we know with certainty that someone who seems to have no
faith, in fact has a very imperfect form of faith.
Q: Given the fact that a Christian is baptized, can he think he is
Morali: Of course not. Baptism is not an automatic guarantee of
salvation. If it were so, the effort to lead a Christian life would be
futile. Every Christian must make the effort to merit this salvation
with a life of fidelity to God, of charity towards his brothers, of good
works. However, no one can be certain of his own salvation, because only
God has the power to grant it. ZE06011523
Theologian Ilaria Morali Responds
ROME, 16 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
Is faith necessary for salvation?
Ilaria Morali, a professor of theology at the Gregorian University, and
a specialist in the subject of grace, responds to this question in Part
2 of this interview with ZENIT.
The interview took place with an eye toward understanding better
Benedict XVI's address at the general audience of Nov. 30, during which
he spoke about the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Sunday.
Q: Since the Second Vatican Council, what has been the Catholic view of
Morali: The question offers me the occasion to touch upon one of the
aspects the Pope has commented upon regarding the "spark" harbored by
those who do not have biblical faith.
Vatican II places among the latter both people belonging to other
religions as well as people who are specifically nonbelievers. They are
two profoundly different groups, but united by the fact that they do not
have the faith of Christ. The former cultivate some form of religious
belief; the latter affirm that they do not have faith.
In No. 16 of the dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium," the Council,
recalling the principle of the universal saving will of God, affirmed
that those who seek God with sincerity, and make an effort under the
influence of grace to do his will with works, known by the dictate of
conscience, may obtain eternal salvation.
This affirmation reflects indirectly the teaching of Pius IX, but it
emphasizes an aspect not considered until now: that of grace. The search
for the good, the determination and the will to carry it out are effects
of the action of grace.
Moreover, the Council added, almost to stress this principle, "Nor does
Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who,
without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit
knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life."
According to the Council, no effort can take place "without grace." That
means that God is also close to those who do not know him. This same
teaching is found in the pastoral constitution "Gaudium et Spes," where
in No. 22 the Council acknowledges that grace works in the hearts of all
men of good will.
The people to whom the Holy Father refers are, in a certain sense, the
same as those of whom the Council spoke. However, some one might object
that the Council, in No. 7 of the decree "Ad Gentes" on missionary
activity, underlines the principle of the necessity of faith for
salvation, in addition to the need of baptism and of the Church.
It might also be underlined that in this number Vatican II affirms that
"those cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ
founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter
into it, or to persevere in it."
According to Catholic doctrine, faith of course, is necessary for
salvation. This principle, sanctioned in the Letter to the Hebrews 11:6
has been accepted by the Christian tradition since its beginning. And
here, in this context, it is proposed again in a clear way.
Q: And who does not have a complete faith?
Morali: Christian tradition itself acknowledges that not all have
received the gift of the fullness of faith and that there can also be
very imperfect forms of faith.
In the chapter on faith, the Roman Catechism, which was composed after
the Council of Trent, acknowledges that there are different degrees of
faith: There are those who have a great faith and others who have a
It takes this teaching from the Gospel, in reference to the many words
that Jesus Christ pronounced on the faith of his disciples, of the
people with whom he met.
However, we cannot pause on this first part of the Council's reflection
proposed in No. 7 of the decree "Ad Gentes" on the necessity of faith,
but we must also read what follows: "Though God in ways known to himself
can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith
without which it is impossible to please him, yet a necessity lies upon
the Church, and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel."
This means that God has his ways to lead men to faith and we certainly
cannot penetrate in the inscrutable divine action in the hearts of men.
In its complexity, the teaching of "Ad Gentes" helps us to understand
First, that it is not possible to be saved without faith. As history
teaches us, men have certainly existed and will exist who consciously
deny God, staining themselves with atrocious faults. They will have to
answer before God for having exiled and excluded him from their lives,
converting that of others into a hell. It is an inescapable fact that
there is no salvation for these.
Second, there are many more people who, even stating that they are not
believers, will obtain eternal salvation. These are people who give
Christians an extraordinary example of generosity and rectitude. If I
accept the conciliar teaching, then, for me, who am a believer, the good
that they do is already the effect of grace that works in a hidden way
in them and I must pray that this grace will one day give them the
possibility of being led to an explicit faith.
Moreover, I must admit that in this invisible work of grace, God leads
them to faith in an absolutely mysterious way.
Q: Is it necessary to let grace act on its own in those people in whom
it acts in a hidden way?
Morali: That does not mean that, as a Christian, I must not do
everything possible so that this grace that acts in a hidden way in
these people of good will might attain to fullness, though it might not
always achieve this. My witness and my prayer are a support to the
divine work, but God has his times and his designs.
Speaking again of the "spark" of which the Pope spoke in his address, I
would like to recall an affirmation of Tertullian: "alma naturaliter
Christiana" [the soul is naturally Christian]. He said this referring to
people who lacked education in the faith, but who experienced inklings
Tertullian's expression has entered the reflection on faith of those who
seem not to have faith, as it reflects the longing, in the depth of
every man, to know God.
This longing is inscribed in a person's heart and, as Henri de Lubac
would say, is the proof that we are created in the image of God and that
this image is as an indelible sign. Man longs for Jesus Christ because
he bears the image of God in his heart, and the image of God is Jesus
Tertullian also says that "fiunt non nascuntur christiani," which means:
"Christians are not born, but made." It means that this longing needs to
be corresponded by knowledge of God and this knowledge only Jesus Christ
The longing of the heart for fullness is not enough; one must come to
this fullness in fact. Thus is understood the importance of the
evangelizing work of the Church, called to lead men to that fullness
that is realized with baptism and perfected throughout a Christian's