The feast of St. Francis Xavier is at the same time highly joyful and a cause of sadness, at least for me. To recall the great missionary efforts of this saintly son of St. Ignatius has to be a cause of great joy for anyone who loves the Church. But it can also be a cause of great sadness when we compare those efforts with the steep decline of missionary activity since Vatican II. While the numbers of baptized Catholics has been growing, globally, little of this has anything to do with missionaries coming from Europe or the American continents. Indeed more missionary vocations are coming from some mission countries of Africa than anywhere in the West.
The divine office for today is quite interesting in that it recalls the letter St. Francis Xavier wrote to his confrères back in Paris seriously chiding them for their lack of zeal and charity that keeps them from joining him in the Jesuit missions. Of course, St. Francis was not demeaning the Jesuit educational apostolate, but he knew well that many young Jesuits were what we today would call “permanent students” who had no such vocation. Not all Jesuits then or today have the great natural abilities to follow such a vocation, but with zeal and charity they all can have a possible vocation to the missions. I don’t know how many responded at that time to Francis’ challenge, but in the next few centuries the Jesuits established tremendous missionary activity around the globe. That activity has also greatly diminished following Vatican II. How did this happen?
Obviously, there is no simple answer to this question, and we can be sure that the great secularization of the West has a lot to do with it. But I think there’s more involved. When Francis wrote to his confreres, he said that because of their lack of charity souls would be lost, “What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!” Quite a challenge! One can hardly imagine these words coming out of the mouth of most Jesuits ordained since the Council. I can hear many of them now pitying poor Francis for his ignorance on this matter. What has caused this change in missionary attitude?
I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think about this change in the following perspective. Whether the Jesuit academic world responded to Francis at the time, I believe it certainly responded, in its own way, in the 20th century. The single most important theologian in the Jesuit order in the 20th century, and by general recognition the single most important theologian advising the European contingent of bishops at Vatican II was the same man, Karl Rahner, S.J. One of his essays had a great impact in his day, and that was his teaching on Anonymous Christianity. It is, like many of Rahner’s doctrines, not all that easy to understand, but, in the end that really doesn’t matter because all such teaching ultimately becomes popularized. The popular reading of this doctrine is that there are many, many people in this world who, while not baptized, nonetheless are still Christians implicitly, in their hearts, and it’s this implicit Christianity that saves them. Since grace is everywhere, one must assume that vast numbers of people who are never evangelized still are saved as Christians by virtue of their moral uprightness or religious fervor, whatever their religion.
There are lots of problems and assumptions implicit in this doctrine, but it seems to me the most obvious problem is that it certainly will undercut missionary activity if taken seriously. Why would one make a serious choice to give up one’s life and culture and family to go into the missions to find all these implicit Christians and covert them to explicit Christians, especially if we assume that most of them will get to heaven even if they remain implicit Christians? I don’t believe that last assumption is necessarily found in Rahner’s explicit teaching, but again it doesn’t make a lot of difference if its popular understanding is precisely that.
Moreover, the doctrine of the Anonymous Christian came into prominence just when the ancient doctrine of universal salvation was taking hold again. Even Karl Barth was caught up in this new universalism, and Barth’s ex-Jesuit friend, Hans Urs Von Balthasar had his own take on this doctrine, that Christians were bound to hope that all men from Adam to the last man will be saved. Again, whatever nuances von Balthasar had to make to keep his doctrine of hope orthodox, the popularization of his theory brings it much closer to Origenism than von Balthasar himself was. [There is an irony here in the fact that the two theologians would never have dreamed that their writings on these matters could be combined popularly, since Balthasar strongly rejected Rahner’s theory.
At any rate, these two popularized doctrines seem to me to be at the root of the crisis in missionary activity after Vatican II. The modern tendency toward universalism, even among Catholics, and whatever its sources, was given an explanatory theory as to how this universal salvation takes place by the doctrine of the anonymous Christian. Everyone, or most everyone, is saved because in their heart of hearts everyone is an anonymous, implicit Christian, and that’s enough to be saved.
It’s interesting to contrast the decline in Catholic missionary activity from the Church in the West with the success of Muslim conversions around the world and the dynamic missionary activity of the new Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists. Muslims believe that unless you have an explicit faith in God and an explicit adherence to the teaching of Mohammed and the Koran, you will not be among the blessed in heaven. Likewise, the nonmainstream evangelicals believe that you have to have an explicit faith in Jesus Christ to be saved, and they are converting a lot of Catholics in South America and turning it into a Protestant continent by their missionary zeal. This intense universal missionary activity is something quite new in the Protestant world. On the other hand, there are very few missionary vocations coming out of South America in the Catholic Church.
To accept a kind of Catholic universalism conjoined with the explanation of an anonymous Christianity, ultimately leads to the conclusion that the salvation of most people is accomplished in a totally hidden way simply by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even von Balthasar’s new theory of hope leads in this direction, because there’s no way to ground that hope other than in the conviction that the interior grace of the Holy Spirit works just as well without sacramental signs of the Catholic Church. If across human history the vast majority of human beings are actually saved without the sacraments, then what is the ultimate significance and unique power of the sacraments as external signs and causes of salvation? In short, why do we need them, and further, why do we even need the church as a visible institution? I think the people of the European countries who no longer send missionaries are answering that last question. They are abandoning the Church as a visible institution in droves. If all men are likely to be saved without the incarnational realities of sacrament and Church, then why bother?