Can One Find Salvation without the Church?
Pray to God in the forest? While travelling as a priest, when one encounters men who do not enjoy the same beliefs, conversation will now and again turn to topics of religion and the Church. In these, one often hears, from men who consider themselves to be Christian, though barely or not at all practicing, the argument that it is not necessary for a man to go to church to find God, because he can pray to Him, for example, while walking in the woods.
Once or twice I have found such conversations rather amusing because they were opened with this argument, through personal initiative by the other party, that is, before anything else was ever said. Obviously, the individual had an urgent need to justify himself. In other words, plain and simple, he had a guilty conscience.
You, dear reader, have probably been confronted with this and similar reasoning on the part of more or less lukewarm Christians (whether modern Catholic or Protestant). The media, too, often uses this argument to draw the conclusion that the Church is fundamentally superfluous. Since the campaign against the Catholic Church is found not only among the Leftists and Liberals, and due to the enormous influence of the media, this opinion is found as a standard repertoire and beloved conversation piece in many strata of the population. There is no need for the Church will all her ceremonies and Masses – for man could, if he wanted to, just as well pray to God in the forest.
Undoubtedly, one can take a walk in the woods and sincerely raise his heart and soul to God and love and praise Him for His love, goodness, mercy, and also for the wonderful works of creation. And pious church-loving Catholic Christians delight in doing so. Who has ever seriously claimed that you cannot pray to God in the forest? (However, one who hardly prays or has more or less forgotten how to pray, usually does not go to the forest to once again learn the art!) The question whether one can pray in the woods or not, is ultimately not the key issue. Actually, it is not part of the discussion at all.
The more important question that still needs to be asked is whether one can essentially know and learn the exact Will of God, as it pertains to oneself as an individual, without the Church (Catholic, of course) as the means ordained by Jesus Christ for salvation. Although one can, as I said, very well pray to God in the forest, we ultimately become aware of the individual beliefs and moral demands of Jesus Christ only by way of the missionary activity of the Catholic Church.
Every child that is educated and instructed in the Faith at a young age does not get his first religious instruction from just anywhere during a lonely walk in the woods, but as a rule from his parents or other family members. In this basic way, through conversation or oral instruction, everything was explained to us, such as the Ten Commandments of God, what they mean to us individually and how we can fulfill this known Will of God in each specific situation. Besides, at that time, in childhood, we were far from venturing out on hikes through the forests for the purpose of becoming a little more enlightened!
And have not the sermons of Catholic priests helped us to a better understanding of our Faith and its particular details? Do we not receive great help in learning to identify the Will of God from these or other similar more intensive religious instructions? Are we not also thankful to this or that good book, which has opened our eyes to the understanding of a particular individual religious truth?
And only then, after all the above has happened and we have both matured in the Faith and grown older, have we learned and understood, even during a walk in the woods, how to raise our souls to God in prayer. Thus, only when the foundations of our Faith are laid in us by means of interpersonal catechesis from better-versed individuals, are we able to find God in the forest, invalidating the argument of those people who believe that praying in the forest suffices, and that one has no need of the Church.
In any case we should not forget the vital point, that it is clearly the teaching of the Catholic Church that we receive through our parents, grandparents and priests, that lays the foundation of Faith in us. How clever and reasonable would it be if these people were to assert that in principle, one could dispense with the foundation and lower floors of a building, and be content with the upper floors? You could ironically add: Good luck with this absurd business!
Such lukewarm Christians who believe that they have no need of the Mass nor Sacraments, need to be reminded that it was Jesus Christ Himself Who instituted1 both the Mass and the Sacraments, and also gave life to the Church.2 If it is so manifestly clear that Jesus instituted, for example, the Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Penance, which the New Testament unmistakably relates, how can one legitimately assume that one can easily do without Mass, Confession and the Church? Likewise, does it please our Mother, when at a family gathering, we choose to pass up her painstakingly-prepared festive meal, and in her presence content ourselves to have some dry bread and a glass of cold water?
A real Christian cannot pick through Christ's words and select arbitrary and purely subjective criteria that he likes. Either one endeavors with a sincere heart to take all the words of Christ seriously and follow them, and consequently accept the Church as a means of salvation founded by Him, or one moves away from the truth and teachings of Christ and despises the Catholic Church, in which Jesus continues to live mystically, and thus, ultimately, despises Christ Himself.
It is apparent, in any case, that the Catholic Church plays a fundamental role, first of all, in conveying knowledge of the Faith, because were it not for the existence of the Church, and were one justified in categorically rejecting her, we would know nothing today about Jesus and His divine love. Although we could then all go honorably into the forest, we would not know, among other things, that one could pray to God there as well – ultimately, we know this thanks to the preaching and religious teachings of the Catholic Church.
Read it in the Bible? Today, one often hears the argument (particularly from various Protestants), that it is enough if you read about the life and works of Jesus Christ in the Bible or in the Gospels, and thus discover the precise moral requirements of God – what we morally should or should not do. Accordingly, it becomes unnecessary, not only to become a member of the Church, but also to participate in the various ecclesiastical and liturgical functions; by this, the very basis for the necessity of the existence of the (Catholic) Church is also destroyed. Although at first glance this argument seems to be somewhat plausible, it is flawed at a crucial point. One has to ask the important question, how is it that we even have the Bible or the New Testament. Is it because this Book of books fell from heaven to earth in a finished format? Absolutely not! Jesus sent His apostles and disciples with the order to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all men and baptize them (Matt. 28:19ff). Thus, the Faith was first handed down from generation to generation exclusively in an oral form. And in the course of the next few decades, the apostles, and in part also their disciples, have set down in writing a portion of the (oral) preaching of the Church.
On this topic, St. John the Apostle leaves a characteristically impressive line at the end of his Gospel: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written” (John 21:25). So Saint John (and certainly also the other apostles and evangelists) apparently experienced "many other things" that he did not put on paper, so to speak, or in his Gospel, but that undoubtedly were nevertheless contained in his oral preaching. So if the written Gospel contains only a part of the preaching of Jesus Christ, then it would be really foolish and wrong to want to reflect exclusively on this section of the whole, and to reject Jesus Christ's Catholic Church, which in its combined tradition, which includes the oral traditions from the time of the apostles, is the bearer of a much broader content of the preaching of Jesus Christ!
To this is must be added that the New Testament as we know it has existed in its present form only since the end of the fourth century. Previous to that time there were also a number of other individual so-called "Gospels" and "Apostolic epistles" in circulation, that were not included in the canon of the Holy Scriptures, either because their authorship by one of the apostles was not certain and/or their contents in some way did not match those of Christ and the apostles as had been handed down by tradition through the preaching of the Catholic Church. And this decision, as to which individual writings were inspired by the Holy Ghost and were to be regarded as canonical, was made by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
This is acknowledged even on wikipedia: “Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lectures in Jerusalem, drew up a canon, in the middle of the 4th Century, that contains all the books of the New Testament except the Revelation of John. Athanasius of Alexandria in 367, mentions, in his 39th Easter letter, all the books of the New Testament today, and differs somewhat in the Old Testament from the usual list. In a poem, Gregory Nazianzen lists all the books of today's New Testament, except the Book of Revelation. The third Synod of Carthage, a local synod, which spoke only for the area of North Africa, recognized the canon of 397 (46 books from the Old, 27 from the New Testament) and forbade other Scriptures to be read as inspired text during worship. – 'It is nevertheless astonishing with what accuracy the Church at that time gathered the essential and reliable writings in the canon. There is hardly another Scripture one would like to have included in the canon afterwards.' (Bernhard Lohse: Epochen der Dogmengeschichte. 5. Auflage. Kreuz, Stuttgart/Berlin 1983, ISBN 3-7831-0702-4, S. 37.)”
Therefore, if the faithful in the early Christian centuries did not know any of the writings of the New Testament, and if they later had only a few of these writings or limited access to them, and if they sometimes did not have the ultimate surety as to which Scriptures were inspired and which were not, then this serves as the best historical argument against the one-sided exaggerated argument of the Protestants, that the Bible is an absolute in this respect, and is to be placed above everything else as the only source of knowledge. (By this, Protestants, at the same time deny the need for the Church as such, as well as the need for Her existence.) It is therefore inconsistent and lacking of all sound logic, to swear on the Bible, and at the same time refuse to recognize and admit that the individual Books of the New Testament are quite simply the writings of the Catholic Church.
And does it make sense when on one hand a man indeed affirms the writings of the Catholic Church, but on the other hand says that either basically he has no need of the Church, or in principle has no need of Her as a mediator in the attainment of salvation in Jesus Christ? It is similar to a man who wanted to claim, absurdly, that he did not owe his life to any mother – that the human race would fare much better in principle without any mothers!
Yes, one can read the Bible and learn much about Christ and His teachings from it. But one often has difficulties in understanding this or that passage properly. Nevertheless, all Protestants swear on the Bible. How does one explain that since their defection or falling away from the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, they have oddly split into countless denominations? How could it happen that every Protestant practically interprets the Bible in his own way, if they all know or want to recognize nothing greater than the Bible?
The reason is that they formally adhere to the (dead) letter of the Bible, but at the same time refuse to heed its inner spirit, in which the various authors wrote their individual books. Just as a man does justice to a book only when he conscientiously considers what concrete interpretations unite the particular writer with his work, so one can understand the Scriptures properly only when they are read in view of the specific authors of these individual Scriptures or in the spirit of the Church, who alone can authoritatively explain their meaning.
The problem of Protestantism lies precisely in the fact that practically everyone projects something of his own opinion into it, failing to ask the decisive question as to what the respective apostles and evangelists would say, who were all Catholics and steadfastly held to the Church which was founded by Jesus Christ. In addition to their writings, the apostles and evangelists also explained to their listeners a portion of their knowledge about Christ and His work of redemption by way of oral catechesis, thus explaining exactly how or in what sense their written words should necessarily be understood. And this knowledge is passed on in the Catholic Church from generation to generation – Her living Tradition!
The Church holy? A third objection that is often raised against the Catholic Church as such, is that, in the course of history, so much injustice was committed in Her name, and She can hardly be called "holy." In this context, the Crusades, the witch hunts, the Inquisition, and many other things are recalled.
Because of the torrent of aggressive accusations made in certain circles regarding the Catholic Church as such, one would probably develop a really guilty conscience for being Catholic, and this reckoning actually appears to be working in many. This certainly contributes to the fact that so many nominal Catholics give the impression that they are ashamed of their Church affiliation. Is this not due to the readiness of so many "popes", "bishops" and "priests" of the Conciliar Church, always and everywhere to apologize for the wrongs of the Catholics (without addressing the not inconsiderable injustices of their partners in the so-called "interreligious dialogue")?
If we take into consideration the number alone of the terrible consequences of war for the common people and that only in the course of the last 1-2 decades, of those who at present possess a political "global police" and hold a kind of confederate supreme moral authority (U.S., Israel, Great Britain, France, etc.) instigated through obvious lies and malicious trickery, in the name of democracy, freedom and human rights (as it is pathetically called by the media), one would now expect the same people who bring Catholicism into connection with wickedness of all kinds, in general principle, to also subject the democratic system to such harsh criticism. For there are indeed at least as many crimes committed in the name of "democracy" and the so-called "freedom" and "human rights", as in the name of Catholicism!
No, say the same critics of the Church, those are all crimes of people who, though they consider themselves to be advocates of democracy, they unfortunately do not act according to the correct principles. Please do not blame democracy itself – it is still great in itself and contains the solution for most of the political and social conflicts on our earth.
Well, following the same principle, please do not put the blame on the Catholic Church for every injustice which Her individual members (having their own accountability) may possibly commit. Apart from all this, whether or not all the allegations brought against the Catholic Church by the liberal establishment would actually withstand an objective and unbigoted historical review, the question must first be asked or the distinction made, on the one hand, what Christ and Catholicism teach, and on the other hand, how the individual human being, because of free will and moral weakness, responds to this call – whether he chooses to live according to the moral code of Christ or not.
The Catholic Church is made up of men. It is well-known that man is not a morally perfect being, but because of his moral weakness is liable to errors and commits sins. "Sin", according to the Catholic understanding, explicitly means the transgression, the non-observance of the commandments of God or of the Church. Thus, it is not surprising that unfortunately the members of the Catholic Church sin, and thereby sometimes even give others grave scandal. Christ explicitly and strongly warned us, not to give reason for scandal or to be an “occasion of sin” to our fellow human beings" (cf. Matt. 18:6-11).
Thus, due to overall experience, we will probably continue to have to assume that the people who profess to be members of the Catholic Church will make mistakes and commit sins. (This will also hold true, then, about the most vocal "democrats" and "human rights advocates," etc.) And just as, for example, the fact that the apostle Judas miserably betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver and the Apostle Peter denied Christ three times, did not rob the apostleship established by Jesus of its deeper meaning, so also the Catholic Church as such, does not ultimately lose Her God-given raison d'etre by the sin of Her members here on earth.
We must not forget that the Catholic Church is not simply the sum of all its individual members, but was founded by Jesus Christ as an organization to give to men, after His own ascension, the grace of His redemption, supernatural union with God, and eternal life. When, for example, a child is baptized, not only is original sin washed away, but grace is also poured in. It now becomes a child of God, a new creation in God. In Confirmation, the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost are planted in the soul, so that through cooperation with the undeserved grace of God, we can bring to fruition all the virtues of the life-giving Holy Ghost and then rejoice in them.
Any earnest priest has probably already become aware of how unworthy he is to absolve the people from their sins in the name of the Triune God. He himself is also morally inept. But nevertheless, in the Sacrament of Penance, a repentant sinner undergoes a real and true reconciliation with God, which can be achieved in no other way. The effect of this and every other sacrament is in no way diminished by the fact that the particular minister himself is anything but perfect.
The holiness of the Church is also manifested and revealed by Her priests, who, corresponding with the express mandate of Christ, celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, changing bread and wine into the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Jesus Christ at the consecration. In this way, every devout participator at Mass shares in the heavenly liturgy, which takes place continuously in the eternity of heaven and in which Christ enters "now in the presence of God for us" (cf. Heb. 9:24), and he also receives an effective share in the atonement which Christ wrought on the cross for our salvation.
And when one considers the words of Jesus: "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day" (John 6:55), how can one not see what a sublime mission the Church has received from Her Founder, what grace-bestowing occupations She should pursue! (The same holds true for the other sacraments.)
Yes, the church is that salvific institution that, regardless of the sinfulness of its members, brings the grace (healing the manifold wounds of the soul) of the loving and compassionate God to this God-forsaken world. As long as She, the Church, exists and pursues Her mission, she fulfills to a certain extent the role of Christ living on in our midst and spreading His blessings over us. In this, the Church is like a mother who both gives life to her children and then continues to sustain them by her loving care and devotion.
1 Luke 22,19: “And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me.”; Mt. 28,19: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them ...”; John 20,22f.: “When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.”
2 For example, Jesus to the Apostles in Luke 10,16: “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.”
Fr. Eugen Rissling
Translated by a Marian Sister; original can be found here