The Reformers never accused the medieval church of embracing outright Pelagianism, but of that subtler form of works-righteousness that invokes grace as no more than assistance for our attainment of God’s favor. Maybe Protestants don’t get that because this is essentially the same tendency at work in many mainline and evangelical churches.
In his Wednesday Mass homily this week [May 22, 2013], Pope Francis attracted considerable media attention. According to reports, the message drew on Mark 9:40, where Jesus says, “He who is not against us is for us.” Like the disciples, we can be intolerant of the good that others can do—even atheists. Because we’re all created in God’s image, there is still a possibility of doing good. So far, nothing particularly controversial in terms of classical Christian teaching. The most ardent evangelical would affirm that although our works are so corrupted by sin that they cannot justify us before God, they can help our neighbors.
However, the pontiff added, “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!…We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Reports from major outlets, including the Huffington Post, express astonishment at the pope’s comments. What is this strange new teaching? Of course, it’s not new at all. It has been an emphasis ever since the Second Vatican Council, where the previously shunned speculations of Karl Rahner, S. J., became official teaching. There is no way to reconcile the previous councils and papal pronouncements depriving non-Roman Catholics of salvation with the idea of the “anonymous Christian.” Nevertheless, there it is. Not the development of dogma, as Cardinal Newman formulated, but the flat contradiction of dogma.
Before Vatican II, the standard teaching was that ordinarily no one can be saved who does not submit to the magisterium and papal authority in particular. Especially in trouble were those who had been reared Roman Catholic and yet explicitly rejected the pope’s headship. Although they were consigned to everlasting punishment by papal decrees, the Protestant Reformers never applied the same rule to their Roman Catholic opponents. Calvin even said that although Rome has excommunicated itself according to the criterion of Galatians 1:8-9, “There is a true church among her.”
What has changed? We keep hearing from Protestants that, given the Vatican II reforms, if Luther and Calvin were alive today they’d renew their Roman Catholic membership cards. I doubt it. Not even the craziness of contemporary Protestantism could push them to make that move against a Scripture-bound conscience.
What has changed is that Rome has carried its incipient Semi-Pelagianism to its logical conclusion.
Another article on the question of the nature of salvation by faith: “Is Faith in Christ Optional or an Operating Premise for Salvation?” by Robert A. J. Gagnon.