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May 4, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – In his homily at Mass on May 4, 2020, starting from the consoling truth that Christ died for all men, Pope Francis appears to have stated a doubly false conclusion: that we are not to convert unbelievers and that His death “justifies” everyone:  

Big, small, rich, poor, good and bad. All. This “all” is the vision of the Lord who died for all. “But did he die for that wretch who made my life impossible?” He died for him too. “And for that brigand?”: He died for him. For everyone” The Lord died for all. And also for people who do not believe in Him or are of other religions: he died for everyone. That does not mean that proselytism must be done: no. But He died for everyone, He justified everyone.

There are some rather basic problems with these off-the-cuff statements, which do not appear in the Vatican’s official transcript but may be heard in the video.  

First, it seems that the Pope has confused redemption with justification. Redemption is Christ’s paying of humanity’s debt of justice to the Father. This He accomplishes in His bloody sacrifice on the Cross, which is the one and only acceptable sacrifice of atonement. This objective redemption must be applied to the soul of each human being: this is what we call the subjective redemption, that is, the sharing of individuals in Christ’s redemption through faith and the sacraments. In other words, the fact that Christ has given to the Father all that humanity owes Him does not automatically cancel out the debt each individual incurs from Adam and from his own personal sins. The individual must freely enter into the death and resurrection of Christ to be fully redeemed.

Justification, also known as regeneration, describes the application of the fruits of Christ’s Passion to individual men by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why we can truly say that Christ died for all, but not all will be saved, not all will be justified—only those who are united to Christ in faith, hope, and charity. This, moreover, is precisely why missionary and evangelistic efforts are necessary. As St. Paul teaches: 

“Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!” But they have not all heeded the gospel; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Rom 10:13–17)

In other words, we must call on the Lord’s name to be saved, we must believe the Gospel. For St. Paul, who was the greatest missionary in the history of the Church and who tirelessly sought the conversion of every Jew and Gentile with whom he came into contact, the only path to salvation is hearing the Gospel and assenting to it—which means not just saying that one assents to it, but endeavoring to live in accordance with the teaching of Christ.

The most authoritative exposition of the Catholic teaching on justification is the one given in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, by far the most ample and detailed teaching of the Magisterium on the question, prompted by heretical distortions prevalent in the sixteenth century. Chapter 1 reaffirms that in Adam all have sinned; all are unclean and under God’s wrath; all are in the power of sin, the devil, and death. Chapter 2 states that Christ came precisely to rescue us from this abject slavery. Chapters 3 and 4 then speak directly contrary to the preaching of Pope Francis:

But though “He died for all” (2 Cor 5:15), yet all do not receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His Passion is communicated, because…if they were not born again in Christ, they would never be justified, since in that new birth there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His Passion, the grace by which they are made just…. This translation [from wrath to adoptive sonship] cannot, since the promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration [baptism] or the desire for it, as it is written: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5).

The Council of Trent goes on to say in Chapter 6 that adults are prepared for justification by hearing the preaching of the Gospel and responding with repentance and a desire for baptism. Chapter 7 furnishes a clear definition:

Justification…is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts whereby an unjust man becomes just and from being an enemy becomes a friend, that he may be “an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Tit 3:7).

This same chapter teaches what the causes of justification are:

  • the final cause (purpose) is “the glory of God and of Christ and life everlasting”; 
  • the efficient cause (origin of action) is “the merciful God who washes and sanctifies”; 
  • the meritorious cause is “His most beloved Only-Begotten, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, ‘when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us’ (Eph 2:4), merited for us justification by His most holy Passion on the wood of the Cross and made satisfaction for us to God the Father”; 
  • the instrumental cause is “the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which no man was ever justified” (emphasis added); 
  • the formal cause (that which makes the soul to be just) is “the justice of God.” 

In light of the foregoing, the pope’s words “He justified everyone” could, with some squinting, be given an orthodox interpretation if we took them to mean: “He was the meritorious cause of the justification of everyone who is justified.” Nevertheless, the words as they stand—particularly adjacent to the statement about not going out to convert unbelievers, which implicitly calls into question the instrumental cause of baptism—seem to suggest a view more akin to universalism, i.e., that all men will be saved regardless of their faith or lack thereof, because Christ simply justifies everyone, tout court.

Trent reminds us also in Chapter 14 that those who fall into mortal sin lose sanctifying grace—“forfeit the received grace of justification”—and are restored to justification by the sacrament of penance, which Christ instituted precisely to give us a “second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost.” In other words, unlike the Protestant view “once saved, always saved,” the Catholic Church teaches that we must freely remain in the grace of God and persevere in it until death; that we can indeed fall away; and that we can be restored to spiritual life. As Augustine says: “He who created you without you, will not save you without you.” It is not some sort of mechanized automated process.

In his Dictionary of Theology, the eminent Oratorian theologian Louis Bouyer adds valuable precisions:

As for the faith whereby we receive justification, it is the faith of Christ (Rom 3:22; cf. Gal 2:16), i.e., the faith which leads us to be justified in him (Gal 2:17), justified in his blood (Rom 5:9). The fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans sheds light on this latter verse by showing us the Cross of Jesus as the root of our justification, just as the sin of Adam had been the root of our sin. We must further see it in connection with the following chapter, where St. Paul shows us how it is through baptism that the faith takes possession of God’s gift, which brings us justification insofar as we are baptized (i.e., immersed) in his death, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4). The whole context shows how justification by faith in the grace of God in Christ, quite far from excusing us from living in the holiness of Christ, requires and enables us to do so. (255)

Bouyer notes that the Sixth Session of Trent “set forth a particularly detailed and delicately worded doctrine of the different aspects inherent in justification”:

In conformity with the must more unified conception of St. Paul, the Council affirmed that there is only one justification, which comes entirely from the merits of the crucified Christ alone, but which is realized in the positive justification that grace engenders in us, the principle of good works that will be its fruit, and, immediately, the principle of charity that is inseparable from the state of grace. (257)

The dogmatic teaching of Trent summarized above has been expressed innumerable times in other documents of the Church’s Magisterium and expounded by reputable theologians of all periods. Readers may consult, for example, the systematic index of magisterial teachings in Denzinger’s Enchiridion symbolorum, definitionum et declarationum de rebus fidei et morum (43rd ed., Ignatius Press), 1255–59 and the thorough presentation in Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Baronius Press ed.), 269–89.

When listening to or reading transcripts of the homilies of Pope Francis, one often gets the sense of a man who, as soon as he speaks off the cuff, reveals the inadequacy of his own theological training and the sloppiness of his thinking. He seldom sounds like someone deliberately trying to dismantle traditional theology with the cleverness of a Karl Rahner; rather, he comes across as an embarrassing witness to the collapse of sound dogmatic and moral theology in the mid- to late twentieth century.

Popes in general would do well to speak only when their thoughts have been correctly formulated—it was not for any trivial reason that papal speeches and documents of any kind were always carefully reviewed by house theologians—and only on occasions when public speaking is pastorally necessary, rather than doing it day after day like a radio talk show or a tear-off calendar with affirming sentiments. If popes limited themselves in this way, their statements would have a greater resonating force and a greater possibility of fruitful ecclesial reception.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,