It has rightly been said that in order to appreciate the “Good News” of salvation we first need to recognize the bad news of damnation. This point appears to have been lost on the likes of Bishop Robert Barron with his echoing of 20th century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s suggestion that we might reasonably hope that all men are saved. In a recent Sunday sermon, Barron is careful to affirm that the “fullness of salvation” lies in Jesus alone, yet he immediately follows this with the observation that all the other major religions of the world can participate in this salvation offered by Christ.
The case which Barron develops is made on the basis of Lumen Gentium 16, as well as John Henry Newman’s description of conscience as the “aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul.” What the good bishop neglects to mention, however, is that this same John Henry Newman was deeply pessimistic about the eternal prospects of those outside the Church. Like Augustine, Newman felt compelled on the basis of Scripture to believe in the massa damnata, a position which takes literally Christ’s words that only few will enter the gate to eternal life (see Matthew 7:14).
The soteriological realism of Augustine and Newman stands in stark contrast to the quasi-universalist view adopted by Bishop Barron. No doubt His Excellency’s gifts as a theologian and pastor are considerable and his contributions to the modern Church immense. But on this most sensitive of issues, his position remains deeply problematic for the way in which it impedes a proper sense of urgency in matters of evangelization. In suggesting that we can reasonably hope all men will be saved, Barron appears to be staking out a modest middle ground. But appearances can be deceiving, and a deeper analysis reveals the perilous nature of his position.