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Misreading of Vatican II dampened missionary zeal, theologian says

Francis X. Rocca - Catholic News Service - Sun, Nov 11th 2012

On the subject of the Second Vatican Council, Ralph Martin is nothing if not an enthusiast.

The theologian, who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit and served as an official expert at the October 2012 world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization, said the "wonderful things" that came out of Vatican II include an "emphasis on the active role of laypeople, the universal call to holiness, the rediscovery of Christian unity and ecumenism, (and) the desire to affirm whatever we can positively about modern culture."

But in at least one crucial area, Martin said, the council's expectations have been gravely disappointed.

Vatican II had as one of its central purposes to "make the church more effective in proclaiming the Gospel to the modern world," he said, yet it ushered in a "remarkable decline in the missionary orders that traditionally have carried out evangelization," along with a "tremendous decline" in observance by Catholics in historically Christian countries.

Martin attributed the loss of Catholic missionary zeal to a widespread misunderstanding of some of Vatican II's most distinctive teachings. As he argues in a new book ("Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization"), many Catholics were confused by the council's laudable emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue into thinking that "maybe it doesn't matter anymore whether people are Christians or not."

The theologian said that many Catholics today have adopted an attitude of "practical universalism," which Martin described as a belief that "broad and wide is the way that leads to heaven, and almost everybody is going that way; but narrow is the gate the leads to hell, and hardly anybody's going that way."

"The problem with this," Martin said, "is it's just the opposite of what Jesus himself tells us" in Matthew 7:14: "How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few."

At first glance, Vatican II may seem to have taught something inconsistent with Jesus' words, since the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ("Lumen Gentium") states that it is possible for people to be saved without hearing the Gospel. Many Catholics have taken this as a license for complacency about evangelization, Martin said: "They make this huge leap from possibility to probability to (presuming) almost everybody" will be saved.

But Martin noted that the council document carefully qualifies its own reassuring message, specifying three conditions for the salvation of non-Christians: "inculpable ignorance, that it's not their own fault that they haven't heard the Gospel"; that "they are seriously seeking God, they want to know who he is and what his will is"; and that "they are living according to the light of their conscience assisted by grace."

The same document warns of the deceptions of the "Evil One" and the danger of "final despair" for those who live without God; and it reaffirms the importance of church missions and of Jesus' command to "preach the Gospel to every creature."

Rectifying misunderstandings in this area is crucial, Martin suggested, not only for reviving efforts to convert non-Catholics, but for the specific goal of the new evangelization: persuading those already baptized and fallen away to take their faith seriously again.

"In our own culture, especially now with the collapse of Christendom, the collapse of Christian culture, many people are just being swept away with secular culture," Martin said, "and are drifting toward the disintegration of human relationships and marriage and family life ... and then the possibility of eternal separation from God."

Evangelization is "not just about enriching people's lives, it's not just about making people happier on this earth," he said. "It's really about the difference between heaven and hell."


Editor's Note: A video interview with Ralph Martin is available at



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