We're used to thinking of the gap between Reformation Christianity and Roman Catholicism as growing smaller.
Vatican II is part of it. And then- sadly- there's intellectually dishonest theological sleight-of-hand like the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between a group of Roman Catholic theologians and representatives of the (allegedly) Lutheran World Federation (which, among other things, both finessed the fact that the words "justification" "grace" and "faith" all have different meanings in Roman Catholic and Lutheran theology, and also failed to take notice of the Council of Trent's Canons on Justification. They- unlike the JDDJ- are binding Catholic dogma- and anathematize all who hold the Lutheran and Pauline doctrine!).
Unfortunately, Pope Francis has just illustrated all too clearly that in fact the gap between Rome and the Reformation is growing, not shrinking- and specifically on the issue of justification! In fact, I will leave it to Roman Catholics to explain why the Pontiff's remarks do not themselves incur Trent's condemnation!
Jesus was very clear on the fact that faith in Him is the only way to heaven:
He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36, NKJV)
I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins. (John 8:24 ESV)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:16, ESV)
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16, ESV)
The apostles agreed. So did most of the Church Fathers. It should be admitted, however, that some of the latter sentimentalized the substance of the Gospel away through such absurdities as the following non sequitur from Justin Martyr:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes [John 1:9]. Those, therefore, who lived according to reason [Greek, logos] were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus, and others like them. . . . Those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason [logos] were wicked men, and enemies of Christ, and murderers of those who did live according to reason [logos], whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason [logos] are Christians. Such as these can be confident and unafraid" (First Apology 46 [A.D. 151])
For Justin, and for some of the Fathers, a Christian was not a believer in or follower of Christ- but one who "lived according to reason!" Biblical warrant for such an odd notion is not merely difficult to find, but impossible. It is just not there.
The seed of a doctrine of salvation different from that of Jesus and the apostles was thus planted in Catholic tradition. But for most of Catholic history, Justin's non-sequitur has not been normative. While marginal figures in Christian history have manipulated individual texts to soften the Christian message to extend the possibility of salvation to unbelievers, the teaching of Jesus and His apostles is clear: salvation is through faith in Jesus, and only through faith in Jesus.
Justifying faith does- indeed, must- produce good works. But it's faith in Jesus that saves, and apart from it there is no basis upon which human beings can be righteous before God. That's the burden of St. Paul's entire theology, as well as the clear teaching of Jesus. The Catholic church has not only historically held the same position, but even went a step too far, restricting salvation to those in some sense belonging or at least connected to its own fellowship- as it logically had to, since it claims that the entire Church Universal subsists in that fellowship!
But attenuated as it was in theory by the illogic of Justin and other Church Fathers who embraced the error that one can be a Christian without believing in Jesus (Karl Rahner and his bizarre notion of the "anonymous Christian" is its classic modern statement) the affirmation at least in principle of the necessity of membership in the Church- of communion with Christ- for salvation, has been historically affirmed by pope after pope.
Pope Boniface VIII wrote in the bull Unam Sanctum:
We are compelled in virtue of our faith to believe and maintain that there is only one holy Catholic Church, and that one is apostolic. This we firmly believe and profess without qualification. Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins, the Spouse in the Canticle proclaiming: 'One is my dove, my perfect one. One is she of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her' (Canticle of Canticles 6:8); which represents the one mystical body whose head is Christ, of Christ indeed, as God. And in this, 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Ephesians 4:5). Certainly Noah had one ark at the time of the flood, prefiguring one Church which perfect to one cubit having one ruler and guide, namely Noah, outside of which we read all living things were destroyed… We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.
Pope Eugene IV wrote in Cantate Domino:
The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the "eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41), unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.
Pope Pelagius II (a name more historically fitting, perhaps, for post-Vatican II popes!) wrote:
Consider the fact that whoever has not been in the peace and unity of the Church cannot have the Lord… Although given over to flames and fires, they burn, or, thrown to wild beasts, they lay down their lives, there will not be (for them) that crown of faith but the punishment of faithlessness… Such a one can be slain, he cannot be crowned… [If] slain outside the Church, he cannot attain the rewards of the Church.
Pope St Gregory the Great wrote in his Moralia:
Now the holy Church universal proclaims that God cannot be truly worshipped saving within herself, asserting that all they that are without her shall never be saved.
Pope Sylvester II wrote in his Confession of Faith:
I believe that in Baptism all sins are forgiven, that one which was committed originally as much as those which are voluntarily committed, and I profess that outside the Catholic Church no one is saved.
Pope Innocent III wrote in his condemnation of the Waldensians:
With our hearts we believe and with our lips we confess but one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside which we believe that no one is saved
Quotations can be adduced from at least ten other popes making the same point. The most recent of these is Pius XII, who died in 1958:
By divine mandate the interpreter and guardian of the Scriptures, and the depository of Sacred Tradition living within her, the Church alone is the entrance to salvation: She alone, by herself, and under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the source of truth.
But Vatican II, with its desire to reach out to the contemporary world, expanded Justin's strange loophole. Paul VI's Nostra Aetate effectively makes what has always been an aberration in Catholic teaching official .
The Catholic Catechism pulls the teeth of the sharp Scriptural divide between believer and unbeliever my making exceptions to the necessity of faith utterly incompatible with the text of Scripture. Father Bernard Blankenhorn sums up the history of deviations from the biblical teaching in this PDF document.
For the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, of whose ministerium I was a member from its founding in 1988 until 1999, this heresy was a given, clearly taught by the standard dogmatics textbook used in its seminaries (Braaten and Jensen's Christian Dogmatics), and embraced by most of its most prominent theologians. In fact, the ELCA actually presented it for a brief time on its official webpage as normative ELCA teaching until the outcry from the laity caused its removal. The ELCA was in error on the doctrine of justification- the doctrine upon which, according to Luther, the Church "stands or falls-" even back in my seminary days in the 'Eighties, however hard it fought to conceal is error in double-talk and rhetorical tap-dancing. And far from reaching a consensus on the doctrine of justification with the Reformation, the Roman church is farther from it- and the Scriptures- in its teaching on that point than it was in the days of Luther.
Then, at least, the absurd notion that one could be a Christian without believing in Jesus was still a quietly held minority opinion.
So when Pope Francis contradicts Jesus and the apostles by suggesting that atheists can be saved, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Saddened, perhaps, but not surprised. And it's really only one more piece of evidence that the divide between those of us who hold the biblical and apostolic faith are in fact even further from the Roman church today than we were at the time of the Reformation.
Pope Francis seems to be a very holy man personally. There is much about him that I appreciate, just as I appreciated the leadership Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI gave all of us in fighting abortion, gay "marriage," and other such modern moral aberrations. But his restatement of the Roman church's deification of conscience- the wholly unbiblical teaching that one cannot sin while following one's conscience (if Hitler thought the Holocaust was an objective good, does that get him off the moral hook as far as God is concerned?) undermines the testimony of John Paul and Benedict and all Christians seeking to call a decadent and morally deteriorated society back to sanity. And Pope Francis's statement about the potential salvation of atheists and agnostics only undermines the evangelistic mission of the true Church Universal, which is not the Roman communion but the sum total of all- whatever their denomination- who trust in Jesus for their salvation.
And nobody else.