For or Against Christ, Wednesday of the 7th Week of Ordinary Time (II), February 23, 2000

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis
Wednesday of Seventh Week, Year II;
Memorial of St. Polycarp
February 23, 2000
Rev 2:8-11; Mk 9:38-40

Throughout the two millenia of Christianity, one of the most often misunderstood issues of theology has been the relationship between salvation and the Church. The ecclesiology of the fathers of the Church — St. Cyprian of Alexandria, Origen, St. Jerome, St. Augustine — all affirmed that extra ecclesia nulla salus, that outside of the Church there is no salvation. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Pope Boniface VIII, Benedict XIV, Pius IX and Pius XII all affirmed this teaching. Pius IX, with those before him, explicitly compared the Church to a second Noah’s ark, saying , “Outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation. This is the only ark of salvation. He who does not enter into it will perish in the flood.”

The teaching itself has always been clear. The problems have come, however, in interpreting and understanding what exactly it means to be inside and outside the Church. Many interpreters throughout the centuries have gotten it wrong and this has led to great confusion. There are two poles on the basis of which misunderstandings have occurred, two expressions of Jesus in the Gospels that seem to be contradictory, and each of which, when considered absolutely and without the other, can lead to error. The first, what we might call the liberal pole, comes from today’s Gospel from St. Mark: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This has led to “loose” ecclesiological interpretations, that, as long as one doesn’t oppose the Church and Christ, he can be saved, just like the man in the Gospel, who although he is not part of the visible band of Christ’s disciples can actually perform miracles in his name. The second pole, what we might call the conservative one, is found in SS. Matthew and Luke: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This has led to strict interpretations, that those who haven’t explicitly united themselves with the visible Church Christ himself founded are against him, and those against Christ both scatter and will be scattered into Hell. How do these two, seemingly opposed, statements of Jesus go together is the crux of possible confusions. And today, in an age of renewed ecumenism, when the relationship between the Church and salvation can be and has been obscured, it would be good for us to figure out how the two go together.

This is not a new problem. The early Church fathers saw the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ statements and needed to explain them. The two fathers I always try to consult in preparing homilies, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine, both tackle the issue, and their insights, I think, are very helpful. St. Augustine says that we have to make an important distinction, that there can be people partially with and partially against the Lord, and that the Lord affirms that we should not reject that which in a person is with the Lord but that we should reject that which in a person is against the Lord. He applies the principle to the heretics of his own day, by saying that the Catholic Church does not condemn the common sacraments among the heretics for in this they are with the Church and not against her; but she does condemn and forbid division and separation, because in this, they are not with the Church and consequently scatter. The Golden Mouth of Constantinople makes essentially the same point, that those who are not against the Lord are at least partially on his side, like different nations fighting a similar adversary, as the man in the Gospel was casting out God’s enemy, the devil, in Jesus’ name.

We can see that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, without perhaps even consciously adverting to these insights of the fathers of the Church, were led by the Holy Spirit to the same conclusion. In Lumen Gentium, the Council fathers made a similar distinction. They taught that those who for no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church but who seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience, can achieve eternal salvation, for they are not against Christ, but are with him to the extent that they know him. These are contrasted with those who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, refuse either to enter it or remain in it. These cannot be saved, because they have consciously chosen in some way against Christ who founded the Church and made it the sacrament of salvation.

The saint we celebrate today lived this distinction. He was both very compassionate to those who were impartially with Christ but wanted to be more fully with Him as well as straightforward and direct in his rejection of those who might by coincidence had some overlap with Christian belief, but who were ultimately rejecting Christ. In his beautiful letter to the Church of Ephesus, St. Polycarp instructed the priests to be merciful and compassionate, bringing back all those who wander in sin and in mind. In the very next paragraph of his letter, however, he instructs them to beware of the antichrist in those who don’t confess the Cross, or who deny the resurrection, or who veer from the word handed down to us from the apostles. St. Ireneus tells the story when St. Polycarp had come here to Rome to meet with Pope St. Anicetus about the date for Easter, the Bishop of Smyrna met the heretic Marcion on the road. Marcion took affront that Polycarp didn’t take the notice of him he expected and asked him, “Don’t you know me?” Polycarp replied, “Yes, I know you: you are the first born of Satan.” Marcion was considered the son of the devil because he was scattering Christ’s flock with his heresies and was against Christ. Polycarp put into effect St. Paul’s instruction to the Christians of Thessalonica, to test everything, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from every form of evil.

Polycarp’s example ultimately inspires us to take this teaching one step further and apply it, not just ecclesiologically, but personally. In Polycarp there was no partial adhesion to Christ, but as we see in the heroic account of his martyrdom that we read this morning in the office of readings, he was all Christ’s, and gave all of himself in life and in his heroic death as an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord. We can examine ourselves to see the extent to which we are with Christ and we are against Christ. Nothing can keep us from Christ and his life, neither death, nor life, nor rulers, nor anything, not even sin unless we let it. Today at this Mass, as we unite ourselves with the sacrifice on the altar like Polycarp united himself with it at the stake, let us ask the Lord to take whatever in us is not yet fully with Him, whatever we’re keeping hidden from him, and nail it to the Cross so that we thereby may be freed to live fully, 100% in Him, and He in us, now and forever.