CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Ralph Martin, a professor at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, reads the First Reading at the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 28
On the subject of the Second Vatican Council, Ralph Martin is nothing if not an enthusiast.
The Detroit theologian said the "wonderful things" that came out of Vatican II include an "emphasis on the active role of laypeople, the universal call to holiness, the rediscovery of Christian unity and ecumenism, (and) the desire to affirm whatever we can positively about modern culture."
But in at least one crucial area, Martin said, the council's expectations have been gravely disappointed.
Vatican II had as one of its central purposes to "make the Church more effective in proclaiming the Gospel to the modern world," he said. Instead, the council was followed by a loss in Catholic missionary zeal.
The post-conciliar era was characterized by a "remarkable decline in the missionary orders that traditionally have carried out evangelization," along with a "tremendous decline" in observance by Catholics in historically Christian countries, he said.
What happened? There was a widespread misunderstanding of some of Vatican II's most distinctive teachings, said Martin who served as an official expert at the October 2012 world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization.
He deals with the issue in his new book, Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization.
In it, Martin argues that many Catholics were confused by the council's laudable emphasis on ecumenism and interreligious dialogue into thinking that "maybe it doesn't matter anymore whether people are Christians or not."
Many Catholics today have adopted an attitude of "practical universalism" - that almost everyone will go heaven and hardly anyone will go to hell.
"The problem with this," Martin said, "is it's just the opposite of what Jesus himself tells us" in Matthew 7.14: "How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few."
At first glance, Vatican II may seem to have taught something inconsistent with Jesus' words, since the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) says it is possible for people to be saved without hearing the Gospel.
Many Catholics have taken this as a licence for complacency about evangelization, Martin said: "They make this huge leap from possibility to probability to (presuming) almost everybody" will be saved.
But Martin noted that the council document carefully qualifies its own reassuring message, specifying three conditions for the salvation of non-Christians: "inculpable ignorance, that it's not their own fault that they haven't heard the Gospel"; that "they are seriously seeking God, they want to know who he is and what his will is"; and that "they are living according to the light of their conscience assisted by grace."
Rectifying misunderstandings in this area is crucial, Martin suggested, not only for reviving efforts to convert non-Catholics, but for the specific goal of the new evangelization: persuading those already baptized and fallen away to take their faith seriously again.
"In our own culture, . . . many people are just being swept away with secular culture," Martin said, "and are drifting toward the disintegration of human relationships and marriage and family life . . . and then the possibility of eternal separation from God."
Evangelization is "not just about enriching people's lives, it's not just about making people happier on this earth," he said. "It's really about the difference between heaven and hell."
(A video interview with Ralph Martin is available at www.youtube.com/user/CatholicNewsService.)