What is the Catholic Teaching of "Anonymous Christianity"?
by Todd Wilken
The teaching of "Anonymous Christianity" has been most clearly stated by Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner.
"Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity… Let us say, a Buddhist monk… who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity." (Karl Rahner in Dialogue, p. 135)
But this teaching isn't simply the private teachings of Rahner. Anonymous Christianity is also taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York: Doubleday, 1995, nos. 839-848):
"The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day."
"Those who no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation."
The Catechism is citing the 1964 papal document, Lumen Gentium, which was ratified by the Second Vatican Council. (The full text may be found in the book, Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Austin Flannery, gen. ed. Northport, (New York: Costello Publishing, 1988.), pp. 367-368.)
Most recently, the concept of Anonymous Christianity has been reiterated by the papal document Dominus Iesus (2000):
"Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, "does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'". Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain." (I, 8)
"Theology today, in its reflection on the existence of other religious experiences and on their meaning in God's salvific plan, is invited to explore if and in what way the historical figures and positive elements of these religions may fall within the divine plan of salvation. In this undertaking, theological research has a vast field of work under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council, in fact, has stated that: "the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude, but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a participation in this one source"." (III, 14)
"With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God — which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church — comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it "in ways known to himself"." (VI, 21)
According to the concept of Anonymous Christianity, the "Mystery of Christ" is contained in varying degrees in non-Christian religions. Therefore, salvation is also available in those other religions.
This teaching ostensibly affirms Jesus as the only way of salvation. However, it also locates Jesus (albeit in imperfectly) in other religions outside Christianity. These religions variously deny Jesus (Judaism), call him a mere prophet (Islam), an ascended master (Buddhism), or know nothing of him (spiritism, animism, etc.). These other concepts of Jesus are not merely imperfect revelations of Jesus, but are, in fact, various forms of denying Jesus as Holy Scripture reveals Him.
This teaching also ostensibly denies that there is salvation outside of Christianity. However, it does so by including as "anonymous" Christians individual members of virtually every religion.
In other words, the teaching denies what it claims to affirm —the teaching of salvation in Christ Alone, and affirms what it claims to deny —salvation outside the Christian faith.
The Rev. Todd Wilken is the Host of Issues, Etc.