My dear brothers and sister in Christ
Grace and Peace in God, our Father through the good shepherd, Christ, in the power of the Spirit. I give thanks to God always for calling me to this ministry of presence with you. A few weeks ago, I was invited into one of our Religious Ed classrooms to answer questions from the students. I started off talking to them all about Holy Orders and then just answered general questions. After I had completed the closing prayer and thought we would all leave, one little girl said she had one more question. She said that, while driving with her mom, sometimes she sees a sign that says, “No salvation outside of Christ” and she and her mom both think that’s bad because it makes it seem like people in other religions are going to hell. I sat there for a second and tried to think of a one sentence, very short answer to her comment/question and just had to give up. I told her that I’d have to come back and talk about that some other time because it’s such a tough question to understand.
On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, we are confronted with this very question. The first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles tells of Peter’s speech to the Jewish leadership called the Sanhedrin. This same group had condemned Jesus and now they’re getting an ear full from Peter. At one point, Peter said of Jesus, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” This seems to clearly state to what the sign says that the mother and daughter find so offensive. But, then we hear the gospel today and Jesus seems to leave the door open to dialogue on the subject. He says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead…” These seem like contradictory statements. Either only Christians will be in heaven or there are others that Jesus is leading to be with him in eternity. So, who is right?
Nine years ago, the Vatican released a controversial document entitled Dominus Jesus that, I believe can help us resolve this tension. It says, “It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God.
Bearing in mind this article of faith, theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God's salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation...The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: ‘the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source’. The content of this participated mediation should be explored more deeply, but must remain always consistent with the principle of Christ's unique mediation: ‘Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ's own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his’. Hence, those solutions that propose a salvific action of God beyond the unique mediation of Christ would be contrary to Christian and Catholic faith.”
In other words, we do not believe that all other religions aside from Christianity are evil. But, we do believe that, if those religions have hope for salvation, it is because of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension. How do we work this out? Some theologians have put forward the notion of anonymous christianity. This means that, even though other people in other religions believe they aren’t Christian, they really are. It’s just that Christ is working anonymously in them to the extent that Christ, who is love, is working in them. I prefer to listen to Christ’s words. I sort of cropped off the end of the quote from earlier. He actually said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” In other words, Christ is working to bring us together but it will only be when we are gathered together in the one fold, in heaven. As we continue to celebrate the joy-filled hope of resurrection during this Easter season, let us also continue to pray that Christ’s death and resurrection may lead to greater unity among all people who believe in God.