One of the themes echoing through the discussions on the synod on synodality is the question, “How can we create safe and welcoming spaces for those who feel excluded from the church?”
A chasm has appeared in the response to this question. Progressives appeal to the need for compassion for those they perceive as excluded victims while conservatives see the question as a toe in the door for the normalization of sinful choices and the excuse to embrace sinners without the need to call for their repentance.
This disagreement is rooted in a deeper divide about the identity and purpose of the church and in an even deeper divide about the condition of the human person.
It seems to me that the call for the church to be more welcoming and to find “safe spaces for those who are excluded” is predicated on a perception and experience of a culture that is already largely Catholic. The Holy Father comes from Argentina–a place where the majority of the population are culturally Catholic. Most of the population are probably baptized and have at least a minimum of understanding of the Catholic religion. At the same time huge numbers of Catholics in Latin America are abandoning the Catholic faith. They have abandoned what they perceive as its corrupt establishment, boring ethos, its moribund liturgies It is understandable then, that the. concern is–“How can we draw them back? How can we win back those who are alienated? How can we make the church welcoming for them?”
This assumption that everyone is Catholic and they simply need to be attracted back to the faith is then extended to become a position universalism or semi-universalism: That is–“Christ died for all therefore all are already redeemed, but clearly multitudes do not belong to the church and have not realized their redemption. How can we make the church welcoming to these people who (if you like) are saved but don’t know they are? How can we welcome them into the church they already belong to (if only they knew it)??
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these are the beliefs and assumptions underlying the ceaseless refrain of “How can we welcome? How can we create safe spaces? How can we open wide the doors of the church?”
Perhaps I may be forgiven for something so basic and theologically unsophisticated as actually referring to the Sacred Scriptures, but the gospel of St John is very clear about the state of humanity. In his conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter the Lord Jesus Christ says:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
“Whoever does not believe stands condemned already”. The default setting for humanity is not that everyone is automatically saved, but the default setting is that all are condemned and that they will perish if they do not believe in God’s only begotten Son” The verdict is that light. came into the world but they loved darkness rather than light.
Therefore, it is quite wrong to assume that everyone is already saved and simply needs to be welcomed.
Yes, everyone needs to be welcomed–welcomed to repent and believe the gospel. Welcomed to become disciples of Christ.
The mission of the church is not to become some sort of club or coffee klatch where everyone receives a hug, some therapy and confidence boosting advice. Excuse me again for quoting the gospel, but Jesus Christ was quite clear about the mission of the church saying to his apostles, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.