This book would not be complete without at least a quick indication of the historical accidents which have brought about inadequate and even inaccurate teachings about the Church's necessity for salvation in some sections of the popular Catholic literature of our day. It is quite evident to anyone who is well acquainted with popular Catholic writing during the past century that this dogma has been misunderstood and misinterpreted more extensively and more profoundly during this period than any other portion of Catholic teaching. Even today, after the appearance of the Mystici Corporis Christi, the Suprema haec sacra, and the Humani generis, we still sometimes encounter objectionable interpretations of this doctrine.
Most of the faulty explanations of this dogma stem from a lamentably inadequate notion of the Church itself. During the past century there have been a good many Catholic writers who could never seem to realize the complete truth of the doctrine that the visible Roman Catholic Church is actually the same thing as the Mystical body of Christ and the supernatural kingdom of God on earth. The lesson taught in the Mystici Corporis Christi and reiterated in the Humani generis was badly needed in the world of Catholic letters.
Now, it is quite apparent to any student of the history of sacred theology that there is no other section of the Catholic doctrine in which such widespread and profound misunderstanding occurred. There has been no such fairly widespread misinterpretation of revealed truth within, for instance, the confines of the treatises on the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation. The fact that such a condition was possible on this particular subject, within the theological treatise on God's Church, certainly requires explanation. And the reason for this condition is quite manifest in the history or the treatise de ecclesia.
In the first place, it must be remembered that the theological treatise on the Church was one of the last sections of dogmatic theology to take scientific form. Scholastic theology has been studied intensively since the twelfth century. For all intents and purposes, the treatises which have been investigated and written up most perfectly were those contained in Peter the Lombard's Libri sententiarum and later in St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa theologica.
In the old scholastic arrangement of ecclesiastical studies there was at least as much about the Church in Gratian's Decretum as there was in the Four Books of Sentences or in the Summa theologica. And, under these old conditions, the nearest thing to a scholastic treatise on the Church was to be found incorporated into some occasional writing, like Moneta of Cremona's controversial work against the Waldensians and the Cathari or the Commentary on the Apostles' Creed by St. Thomas. The De regimini christiano by James of Viterbo came out at the very beginning of the fourteenth century. It was a complete book, but it was essentially and primarily polemical in purpose.
It was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that the first well-developed treatise on the Church in scholastic literature appeared. This was the famous Summa de ecclesia, written by the Dominican Cardinal John de Turrecremata. It too had a controversial objective, but it attained its purpose by means of a thorough scholastic study of what God has revealed about the nature and the characteristics of His kingdom on earth.
The Summa de ecclesia has always been a rare book. It was last published in Venice in 1561. It was never commented and explained in the way the Four Books of Sentences and the Summa theologica have been. If it had been used as a source book for a genuine study and development of the scholastic treatise on the Church, the history of this treatise would certainly have been different.
Actually the Summa de ecclesia was never used as it might have been and should have been because of the historical accident of the Reformation. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the theologians of the Catholic Church became engaged in the most serious controversy that has ever centered around the treatise de ecclesia. The Protestant writers defended the thesis that the true and genuine supernatural kingdom of God on earth was not an organized society at all, but merely the sum-total of all the good men and women in this world. They classified their own religious organizations, those of the Lutherans, the Calvinists and the like, as merely voluntary societies which could be helpful to people who were already within the ecclesia through membership in what they called the "invisible Church." The Catholic writers who first opposed the Protestant polemicists successfully defended the revealed truth that God, in His wisdom and mercy, has actually constituted the one and only true ecclesia of the New Testament as an organized society, the religious unit which is described in the Acts of the Apostles and which exists now as the Roman Catholic Church. But these first Catholic champions of the truth in the controversy against the Protestant authors were primarily polemicists themselves. Their works were not, and did not claim to be, anything like complete or adequate treatises on the true Church. They merely set out to unmask the errors defended by their opponents. They did not explain those points on which there was no controversy whatsoever. Perhaps the best examples of this procedure are to be found in Michael Vehe's Assertio sacrorum quorundam axiomatum, John Eck's Enchiridion locorum communium, and especially in Peter Soto's Assertio catholicae fidei circa articulos confessionis nomine illustrissimi Ducis Wirtenbergensis oblatae per legatos eius Concilio Tridentino.
It is a matter of fact that the Protestant writers were perfectly convinced that there is no salvation attainable outside the true Church of God on earth. Hence there was no need for the Catholic theologians to dispute them on this particular point. And, since the writings of these Catholic theologians were directed at that time primarily and essentially to the Refutation of the Protestant position, the dogma on the necessity of the Church for the attainment of salvation was not treated at all extensively in these writings.
The next generation of Catholic theologians who wrote about the Church included some of the most brilliant men God has ever given to the study of sacred theology. Among them were such figures as Thomas Stapleton, John Wiggers, Melchior Cano, Francis Suarez, St. Robert Bellarmine, Gregory of Valencia, Dominic Banez, Adam Tanner, and Francis Sylvius. Some writers of the first generation of Counter-Reformation theologians had recently begun to organize the content of this Catholic controversial teaching. The Louvain teachers John Driedo and James Latomus were pre-eminent in this group. The men of the second generation developed and explained what these earlier writers had set forth.
Some of these second generation writers, like Stapleton, organized their teachings into monographs. Others, like Cano, St. Robert and Sylvius, incorporated them into more or less extensive summaries of Catholic controversy. Wiggers and Banez and others, however, inserted this controversial theology de ecclesia into their scholastic commentaries on St. Thomas' Summa theologica. This tactic was destined to have immense repercussions in the history of the scholastic treatise de ecclesia.
Of course, at that time no real place had been found in the actual organization of the Summa theologica for a tractatus de ecclesia. Wiggers, Banez, Gregory of Valencia, and Tanner, however, attempted to make a place by inserting this treatise as a kind of appendix after the matter treated by St. Thomas in the first question of his Secunda secundae. In every case, however, the material thus incorporated into a commentary on the Summa, a work of the highest order in the field of speculative scholastic theology, was the same essentially controversial material which polemicists like St. Robert Bellarmine and Francis Sylvius had included in their Controversiae. It was, in other words, the development of the teaching which had been contained in the works of the original Counter-reformation theologians who had, for all intents and purposes, limited themselves to the point of Catholic doctrine which had been directly opposed by the Protestant heresiarchs. No one of these writings has anything like an adequate treatment of the dogma that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.
The tradition which had been epitomized and perfected in Turrecremata's Summa de ecclesia had given special attention to this dogma. After all, the necessity for the attainment of salvation is one of the basic characteristics of God's supernatural kingdom on earth. Turrecremata gave adequate attention to it, just as he gave adequate attention to the task of explaining the characteristics of the true Church by describing the titles applied to this social unit and to its members in Scripture and in divine apostolic tradition.
In the works of the great Counter-Reformation theologians, however, the dogma is mentioned primarily with reference to the teaching that neither catechumens nor excommunicated persons are members of the true Church. Theologians like Stapleton and St. Robert, who were the first to use the terminology which was to become classical, take cognizance of the dogma when they consider objections to their own teaching. St. Robert taught rightly that a catechumen is not a member of the Church. He likewise upheld the Catholic truth that a catechumen can be saved if he should die before he has the opportunity to receive the sacrament of baptism. Looking at the dogma that no one can be saved outside the Church as an objection urged against his own teaching, St. Robert, following the example of Thomas Stapleton, asserts that the dogma means that a man cannot be saved if he is not within the Church either in reality as a member, or in voto as one who desires or intends to become a member. [Cf. St. Robert, De ecclesia militante, c. 3; Stapleton, Principiorum fidei doctrinalium demonstration methodica (Paris, 1579), p. 314.]
Such, following the example of Stapleton and of St. Robert, was the procedure of all the classical ecclesiologists of the Counter-Reformation period. And, despite the fact that neither Stapleton nor St. Robert produced textbooks of scholastic theology, their approach to the dogma of the Church's necessity for salvation and their very terminology entered into the fabric of these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts of scholastic theology. These commentaries developed, through "Courses" like those produced by John of St. Thomas, the Salmanticences, Tournely and Billuart, into the nineteenth- and twentieth-century manuals of dogmatic theology. The tractatus de ecclesia in these modern manuals was basically the kind of thing which had been inserted into the commentaries of Wiggers, Banez, and Tanner. And, in these modern manuals, the treatment of the dogma that there is no one saved outside the Church is of the sort to be found in the works of St. Robert and of Sylvius, and not of the type found in Turrecremata's Summa de ecclesia.
That in itself has been highly unfortunate for the well-being of the scholastic theology about the Church. The teaching that a man could be in the Church only in intention or desire and not as a member and still attain eternal salvation "within" this society is, of course, tremendously important. It is a part of Catholic doctrine about the nature of God's ecclesia. But the learning of this section of Catholic truth in no way makes up for neglect of the equally important doctrine that the Church is essentially, as actually instituted by God Himself, the vehicle and, as it were, the terminus of the process of salvation. Because the modern manuals took the tradition of Stapleton and of St. Robert to the exclusion of that of Turrecremata, they were doctrinally impoverished by an inadequate explanation of the dogma.
The modern writers whose aberrations were reproved in the Singulari quadam and more recently in the Humani generis had available to them in their contemporary manuals of sacred theology a highly inadequate exposition of the dogma. All of the attention was focused, in these manuals, on bringing out the fact that membership in the Church was not necessary with the necessity of means for the attainment of eternal life. There was almost nothing in them to show how the Church itself, by its very institution, belongs in the scheme of salvation.
This impoverishment of the tractatus de ecclesia as a result of the historical accident of the controversy against the Protestants was not by any means the only, or even the most serious, blow dealt to the explanation of the dogma of the necessity of the Church in the literature of scholastic theology. One of the most tragic, yet in some ways comical, stories recounted in the history of theology has to do with a highly important misunderstanding of the teaching set forth by St. Robert himself in the most important of his writings, the book De ecclesia militante. This misunderstanding had most unfortunate consequences in the teaching about the necessity of the Church for the attainment of salvation.
St. Robert's De ecclesia militante is essentially devoted to the defense of one thesis: the truth that God's true and only ecclesia of the New Testament is an organized and visible social unit. This thesis is presented in the second chapter of the book, and all the rest of the work is devoted to a detailed and classically effective demonstration of this truth. It will be impossible to understand how St. Robert's teaching was misinterpreted without a knowledge of what he actually said in that second chapter.
The first part of this chapter "On the Definition of the Church" is devoted to the description and the refutation of the various theories evolved by heretics to explain the composition of the true Church militant of the New Testament. St. Robert deals with five of these theories, and then sets forth his own teaching, which is true Catholic doctrine. This is the pertinent section of the second chapter.