Last of four parts.
This series has promised to examine the Catholic Church's view of other religions and Christian faith traditions by looking at St. Paul's exhortation in Ephesians 6:10-17 to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”
Part 3 further identified the components of God's “whole armor”: the indispensable presence and example of Jesus (“gird your loins with truth”); the Scriptures, teachings and sacraments of the Church that He founded (“breastplate of righteousness”); the saving faith in Christ as the Messiah (“shield of faith”); the redemption that Christ won for us on the cross (“helmet of salvation”); and the presence of the Holy Spirit within us (“sword of the Spirit, the word of God”). In short, the Church is the heavenly armory, if you will, that Jesus left behind on earth.
So now we come back to our last question in Part 3: How many pieces of armor do we really need?
We sinful humans too often think we can pick and choose which weapons to carry in their journey through life. We saw this in the famous battle between the apparently defenseless David – who relied entirely on the power of God – and the powerful but arrogant Goliath (1 Samuel 17:27-39). He fell to David's slung stone because he essentially cast aside a piece of his armor! He let down the shield that normally protected his face, believing this small shepherd's boy could not possibly defeat him.
This must be said right away: When it comes to picking and choosing their armor, Catholics are no different than any other human beings throughout time. Adam and Eve were the first to cast aside their spiritual weapons. Our first parents were created in possession of all of God's armor – what the Catholic Church calls “original holiness.” But when they listened to Satan and ate from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” they cast it all aside. They who had been naked but unashamed before God and each other rendered themselves naked against the devil.
God could have left them to the natural consequences of their choice: eternal death. But with the same perfect love that led Him to create humanity in the first place, He set out to teach Adam and Eve and all their children – “the hard way,” since they kept sinning – that they needed His armor and that every piece of it was vital in their battle for spiritual survival. The pages of the Old Testament spell out those hard lessons in the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel.
Finally, when God's time was right, He sent us the perfect Soldier, clad with all the holy armor we could ask for. Through the example of His earthly life, Jesus Christ demonstrated the right way for us to use that armor as we fight against “the devil, the world and our sinful self,” all the way to heaven. By His death, he ensured that our struggle will never be in vain as long as we remain true to Him. And in His resurrection, we behold in His glorified Body the foretaste of the fruits of victory that await us.
But we are stubborn, aren't we? We are no less “stiff-necked” than the ancient Israelites; their story is our story. The Israelites regularly cast aside this and that piece of God's “whole armor” as they knew it through the Law of Moses. The Gentiles had far less armor than the Chosen People were given. And yet many Israelites and even a few Gentiles – those non-Jews who responded to God's Word when presented to them – still reached their goal! They were the “spirits in prison” to whom Jesus preached between His death and resurrection and whom He brought to the reward they had sought all along.
If we are followers of Jesus, we ought to crave all of God's whole armor – and admit that we need every piece of it to survive. Catholics believe they know where to find the heavenly armory that Christ left for us: the Catholic Church.
“Aha!” non-Catholics might say: So you do believe the Catholic Church is the “one true Church”! And thus you believe the rest of us are doomed to hell? Or perhaps that God calls you to turn your weapons against us as so many who purport to speak and act in His Name have done?
It has seemed that way often – all too often – in the post-apostolic history of the Church. But now we need to return to the three pairs of seemingly contradictory statements from Scripture and Catholic teaching quoted in Part 1 of this series. (The precise citations now have been added.)
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“This is the sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic … This Church … subsists [is found most fully] in the Catholic Church ...” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), No. 870; Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), Second Vatican Council, No. 8).
“All those who are justified by faith through Baptism are incorporated into Christ … brothers and sisters in the Lord” (CCC, No. 818; Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), Second Vatican Council, 3, 1).
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Catholics indeed do believe that our complete heavenly arsenal – the Word, the sacraments, the teachings of Christ and His teaching authority passed down to us from the apostles – can be found in the Catholic Church. But though the arsenal is fully stocked and its Commander-in-Chief is perfect, the soldiers who use it are far from perfect!
To say Christ's Church “subsists” in the Catholic Church is not to say it has been perfectly realized here on earth. The Church is holy, but its members are as imperfect and prone to sin as their fellow human beings. One must wait for heaven to behold the Church in its perfect form.
Also, before taking the battlefield, one must be clear about who one's enemy is. It's undeniable that individual Catholics have too often misunderstood their enemy, to the sorrow of their Lord and too many of His followers. But non-Catholic Christians are definitely not the enemy! If they have been baptized in the name of the Trinity and believe in Christ as their Savior, they are part of the Body of Christ. They are in an “imperfect communion” with the Catholic Church (in the words of Vatican II) – but they are brothers and sisters in Christ nonetheless.
Neither are non-Christian human beings our enemy, as we will see. Our enemy is Satan – a most personal enemy to every human being who has lived or ever will live – along with all his fallen angels and all the imperfections and miseries that have followed humanity since Adam and Eve.
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“If you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
“Outside the Church there is no salvation” (CCC, No. 846).
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If the Church is the Body of Christ, then it has to be true that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” It's true because there is no salvation outside of Christ, who declared: “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). So anyone who makes it to heaven, whether or not they were part of the earthly structure of the Catholic Church in their lifetime, makes it there only because Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all humanity. The most certain way to salvation is the way Paul identifies above: to believe in Christ and all that He did for us. But we mere humans cannot limit God in whom He admits to heaven!
So the Catholic Church does teach that non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved. Whether they will be saved is unknown – but it's unknown even for living Catholics. Why? Because the future course of anyone's journey through life is unknown. Scripture is quite clear that some who believe in Christ at one time reject Him later. As Paul says, they make “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19).
We need God's “whole armor” to survive Satan's onslaught. Certainly non-Catholic Christians retain many pieces of that armor. The Jewish people retain the pieces they received in the the Old Testament. And Vatican II declares that non-Christian religions often reflect “a ray of the Truth which enlightens all men.” That makes sense because their ancestors, like ours, shared the faith of Adam and the faith of Noah (and, in the case of Islam, the faith of Abraham through Ishmael, his son by Hagar the slave). Only atheists can truly be said to have completely thrown away all their armor.
But let's consider our analogy in reverse. If we go into spiritual battle without all the armor, we expose varying amounts of our body to attack. And in the Judeo-Christian world, every faith tradition outside the Catholic Church rejects one or more of the Church's teachings – one or more pieces of the “whole armor” – according to their own judgment. And every piece cast off gives Satan another target.
Can we make it all the way to heaven without suffering mortal wounds to our souls? Yes. But how can Catholics not wish and pray that all Christians – indeed, all human beings – take advantage of every piece of spiritual armor God gives them and give themselves their best chance to make it home?
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“(God) desires for all men to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
“He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).
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Some will endure to the end of the road to heaven. Some will not. But if any of us fails to endure, it's not because God wishes it. God doesn't force us to take His armor or even to keep it on. We have the free will to cast it off – the free will we received when God made us in His “image and likeness.”
We're on the journey to heaven. None of us can see the end – but we know that God wants us to get there. That's why He willingly gave us His “whole armor,” preserved in its fullness in the Catholic Church and personally delivered by His only Son, Jesus Christ, through His life, death and resurrection.
We began this series by quoting Jesus' high-priestly prayer in John 17 that all His people “may be one.” If all believers in Christ would grasp and use all the spiritual weapons He gave us, then His Church indeed would be one. If all humanity would do so, then the world would be one! Knowing human nature, it is sadly unlikely that either will come to pass. Yet this is precisely what God desires.
God tells us this Lent: You have chosen a difficult path. But I forgive you. Take this armor of Mine! Use it! Don't try to do without it – or I won't see you at the end of the journey. Please come home.