The recently deceased Cardinal George Pell wrote a few years ago about his evolving views on the question of how many will be saved. In the 1970’s, he subscribed to a broadly inclusivist view of salvation; as he put it, “I expressed the hope, perhaps expectation, that few would be consigned to hell.”
He was not alone. During the time following the Second Vatican Council (although the trend began before the Council), a movement arose within the Church to downplay any talk of Hell, and specifically to assume (and even affirm) that most people would end up in Heaven. Vatican II itself appears to support this movement by declaring “those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium 16).
While the council’s language leaves open the question of who qualifies under these conditions (what exactly does it mean to “sincerely seek God” if one is not baptized?), the assumption by the majority of theologians, pastors, and laypeople was that most qualify. Thus, all the circles of Hell were swept out, making the pit of eternal fire the destination of only the worst men in history. Essentially, Hell was the home of Hitler, Stalin, and a few others. But definitely not your Hindu neighbor or your fallen-away son-in-law.
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This movement to empty Hell found its primary spokesman and theologian in Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote the (in)famous book, Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?, which argued that it was within the Christian’s purview to hope not only that your neighbor and son-in-law would make it to Heaven, but that in fact everyone would eventually be saved (yes, including Hitler and Stalin).
While some critics wrongly accused von Balthasar of the heresy of apocatastasis—the belief that all will (definitely) be saved—his belief that we can hope for this outcome surely moved the needle of the average Catholic’s view of how many will be saved. After all, if we can reasonably hope that all will be saved, then worst case scenario, surely most will be saved, right?
In recent years Bishop Robert Barron popularized von Balthasar’s teaching, making it more accessible to the Catholic world, and Barron’s own loose evangelization methods (such as saying Christ is the “privileged way” as opposed to the only Way and not encouraging Ben Shapiro, who is Jewish, to convert when given the chance) have only strengthened the assumption among modern Catholics that most will be saved.
Yet in his article from 2020, Cardinal Pell reflects on the consequences of the inclusivist movement within the Church. As he notes, until the 20th century it was assumed by the vast majority of Catholic saints and theologians that most would not be saved; they believed that if one were not a baptized practicing Catholic one would almost definitely not be one day united to God in Heaven (yes, theologians would acknowledge the “loophole” of “baptism of desire,” but until the middle of the 20th century that was assumed to be a very rare occurrence).
During those centuries of an exclusivist view of salvation the Church was driven to missionary work—she tirelessly evangelized the known world from the 1st century to the middle of the 20th. Further, Catholics were more diligent about receiving the Sacrament of Confession regularly, for fear that they would be one of the excluded on that final day.
Yet when the inclusivist viewpoint became predominant in the 1960’s—and was essentially endorsed by Vatican II—missionary work crashed and participation in the Sacrament of Confession dramatically dropped, disappearing into the mists of history. Pell’s question is a fair one: aren’t all these things connected? Pondering its consequences, he came eventually to question the dominant inclusivist viewpoint in the Church.
It’s important to note that the exclusivist vs. inclusivist divide isn’t exactly a theological debate as much as an attitude debate, although one’s attitude can impact his theology. For example, two men, Thomas and Robert, could both believe what the Church teaches about salvation—that there are three “baptisms” (water, blood, desire) that can lead to salvation. But they could have completely different attitudes about the practical application of the teaching.
Thomas could acknowledge that baptism of desire is possible, but assume that anyone who is not a practicing baptized Catholic is in serious (even likely) danger of damnation.
Robert could also recognize baptism of desire, but assume that most, if not all, unbaptized people fall into this category, and so most people will be saved in the end.
Our first assumption might be to think that we’d rather hang out at a party with Robert than with Thomas. But that’s because we picture those who believe Hell might be densely populated as dour, miserable (and miserable to be around) people. Yet consider a saint like Isaac Jogues: he believed many would likely go to Hell, but he was also filled with joy. Considering just about every saint before the 20th century operated under this assumption, we might want to rethink our assumptions about this viewpoint.
Further, don’t you think Thomas and Robert would act very differently, not only about the salvation of others, but also about their own salvation? Their conception of a “loving God” is likely quite different, and this would have significant implications to how they lived. Which, for example, would likely take sin more seriously and thus attend Confession more frequently? Which would be more likely to lead his loved ones to the Church?
Thus, two men with technically the same theology would live their Catholic Faith in radically different ways. And since how we live impacts what we believe, it would not be surprising to find years later that Robert is no longer practicing his faith at all. Why go to the trouble if he’s going to Heaven either way?
So does this mean that Catholics need to assume every non-Catholic (and non-practicing Catholic) is in serious danger of Hell? Dare we fear that most men be damned?
Before I elaborate, let me just acknowledge how discordant this sounds to our modern ears. I myself have always been an inclusivist at heart, even though I think being an exclusivist is the correct Catholic attitude. My natural inclination is to assume a heavenly destination for others, believing that they can’t be so bad that God would send them to Hell for all eternity.
Yet I keep coming back to the fact that this attitude is in the extreme minority when it comes to Catholics over the centuries. In the “democracy of the dead” it loses in a landslide. We have almost 1,960 years of the vast majority of Catholics—including the greatest and smartest and holiest saints and theologians—assuming only few will be saved vs. 60 years of mostly ill-formed Catholics believing the opposite. If I’m honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that my instinctive presuppositions are likely formed far more by modern culture than by the Catholic Faith.
Thus I would argue that Catholics should return to assuming the damnation of non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics. Yes, it’s possible for God to save them, but He gave no indication of how many such people would be saved, and He gave every indication that He wanted us to convert everyone to Catholicism. So our duty isn’t to speculate on the salvation of those outside the visible bounds of the Church, but instead to assume we must do all we can to bring them into those visible boundaries while here on earth.
Again, some might argue that such a “negative” attitude could lead a person to become condemnatory and harsh toward others. But I see it in the opposite fashion. Remember all the saints who had this attitude over the centuries and were filled with joy and love for their neighbors. If you know someone is trapped in a burning building, do you condemn him for being there, or do you do all you can to rescue him? If you have even a drop of compassion, you focus on getting him out of his dangerous situation rather than concern yourself with how he got there in the first place. (And conversely, if you erroneously think he is somehow fire-proof, you will do almost nothing to bring him out of the burning building, thus consigning him to a horrible fate.)
As Catholics we must trust in the justice and mercy of God when it comes to judgement. God will not make any mistakes when it comes to our eternal destination: everyone in Heaven will deserve to be there, and everyone in Hell will also deserve to be there. Whether the proportion of the former is greater or lesser than the proportion of the latter is not up to us. But what is up to us is to do all we can to help our loved ones one day enter into the heavenly joys of union with God. Our Lord has made it clear that Catholicism is the path one should follow to make that happen, and we would do well to not only follow it ourselves, but urged others to do so as well.
Note: I dive deeply into the history of Catholic theology—and attitudes—regarding salvation in my book Deadly Indifference.
[Image: “An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell” by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch]