Pope Boniface VIII - Not a Nice Person Really

Pope Boniface VIII – Not a Nice Person Really

I received an email with this question:

In brief, I am wondering how you can reconcile Pope Boniface VIII’s dogmatic definition in Unam Sanctam (“…we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”) with Lumen Gentium’s clear affirmation that salvation is possible for those who are ignorant of the need to be in communion with the Pope and thus never join the Roman Catholic Church.

I am familiar with the usual replies to this question (everyone who is saved really is “in the Church” in some sense, there’s only a difference in emphasis on mitigating factors, the discovery of the New World prompted the Church to reflect on this doctrine and articulate the already implicit idea of baptism of desire, etc.), but the thing which I find problematic with all of them is that none of them actually deals with the wording of Boniface’s definition. He categorically, and without qualification, excludes the possibility of any person being saved who is not in communion with the Pope. John Henry Newman and Ronald Knox both argued that the wording of a dogmatic definition is of the very essence of the definition. Therefore, how can modern Roman Catholics maintain that Boniface’s magisterial teaching agrees with Vatican II when affirming Vatican II involves saying that the wording of Boniface’s statement is incorrect? If a dogmatic definition can have wording which implies something that is actually false, then infallibility would seem to be a meaningless fiction.

This is the sort of nit-picking in which I used to indulge before I became a Catholic.

Now I have increasingly little time for it. This is not, I think because I am impatient and arrogant (although I cannot deny these faults generally) but because the longer I am a Catholic the more I am inclined to take the big picture and realize that if I can’t figure something out the problem is that I am not seeing the greater expanse. There is something about Catholicism that encourages a broad perspective. Something about Protestantism that demands a narrowing of the mind, an exclusion of truth, a denial rather than an affirmation.

I suggested to my correspondent that the subjection to the Roman Pontiff which Boniface VIII demanded would be fulfilled as each soul came to the gate of heaven. If the pious tradition is correct that Peter is the keeper of the keys and he opens the gate to all the saved, then each one of the saved would at that point have the opportunity to subject themselves to the Roman Pontiff. At that point they could kiss the pope’s toe.

I realize however, that such an eschatological and mystical answer would not be satisfactory to those who require intellectual precision in this life rather than spiritual submission in the next.

I made the comment, I admit, somewhat facetiously, but on pondering further it does not actually seem too far off the mark.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Bob the Baptist or Bob the Buddhist, follow the light as best they can. Let us suppose that every chance they had to come closer to Christ and his beauty, truth and goodness they did so. Catholic theology allows that (through baptism of desire) and God’s abundant grace and mercy, they may be saved.

So let us suppose that they do get to purgatory and continue their purification. Surely part of that purification will be to enter into the fullness of God’s beauty, truth and goodness.

Part of the beauty, truth and goodness it to experience with joy and wonder the marvelous way God has used St Peter and his successors in the economy of salvation.

Let us suppose therefore that the person, as he continued to experience the fullness of God’s beauty, truth and goodness bowed in humble gratitude and wonder at this particular aspect of God’s providential plan. Then Boniface VIII is right that part of the soul’s salvation is to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. The only caveat therefore, is  when this submission to the Roman Pontiff takes place.

Most people would read Boniface’s statement to mean that salvation is conditional on the person’s submission to the Roman Pontiff, and no doubt knowing Boniface’s time and personality the old beast meant just that. However, a broader interpretation of his words is possible and it is therefore perfectly acceptable and rather interesting to suggest that the submission to the Roman Pontiff could be a result of the soul’s salvation rather than the condition for their salvation.

The greater issue here seems to be a matter of will. Does one desire to be a Catholic and be saved and submit to Christ’s church and his vicar or not?

In my experience people who put forward such narrow minded objections suffer not from an intellectual problem, but a volitional problem. In other words it is not because they cannot be Catholic but because they will not.

When I say that this is my experience it is because that is what I was like while still an Anglican.

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