Advent Sermon by Cardinal Cantalamessa

December 09, 2022
Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa

Every Friday of Advent, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, gives a sermon to the Roman Curia and to Pope Francis to prepare for the Nativity of Our Lord. This year, he decided to preach on the three theological virtues, and he started with faith.

A Profession of Historicism

After asserting that the faith that saves is faith in Christ, the preacher asks himself: “If the faith that saves is faith in Christ, what to think of all those who have no chance of believing in Him?” The answer he gives is nothing less than Catholic.

He begins by noting that the world has changed, that it is now multicultural. In the past one was, “however, aware of the existence of other religions, but they were considered false from the start, or were not taken into consideration at all. … [A]ll Christians shared the traditional axiom: ‘There is no salvation outside the Church.’”

However, “today this is no longer the case.” This statement implies the doctrine of historicism, which interprets the truth according to the data of history or culture. In other words, according to historicism, there is no longer any stable and lasting truth, instead it becomes fluctuating and relative.

Salvation Outside the Visible Church

The cardinal goes on to explain that, thanks to Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council, there now reigns a respect and dialogue between religions, as well as the recognition of the values present in each of them. “With this recognition, the conviction has taken root that even people outside the Church can be saved,” adds the preacher.

This starting point is distorted. The Church did not wait for the Council to say that one can be saved outside the visible Church. She never said, though, that this salvation was obtained through the values of false religions, but rather by the merits of Christ. A member of a false religion can therefore be saved despite this membership, by the Church, if he attaches himself to her, either explicitly or implicitly.

On the strength of this erroneous understanding, the cardinal affirms that if one follows the ancient doctrine “salvation is limited from the start to a very small minority of people.” This view “cannot leave us satisfied and does wrong to Christ, depriving Him of a large part of humanity. One cannot believe that Jesus is God, and then limit His actual relevance to a single narrow sector of it.”

His reasoning is false and judges salvation by the number of the elect. In addition, the cardinal overstates the case to justify his novelties.

Christ’s Commandment to the Disciples

Also note the preacher’s response to the objection he has raised. Indeed, he recalls Christ's mandate: “Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15) and “teach ye all nations” (Mt. 28:19). This mandate “retains its perennial validity, but must be understood in its historical context.” 

To explain it, the preacher gives St. Francis of Assisi as an example. The holy founder of the Franciscan Order envisaged two ways of approaching “the Saracens and other infidels.” He writes in the First Rule:

“The brothers, however, who go among the Saracens and other infidels may conduct themselves in two ways spiritually among them. One way is not to make disputes or contentions; but let them be ‘subject to every human creature for God’s sake,’ yet confessing themselves to be Christians. The other way is that when they see it is pleasing to God, they announce the Word of God, that they may believe in Almighty God,—Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost, the Creator of all, our Lord the Redeemer and Saviour the Son, and that they should be baptized and be made Christians.’ (First Rule, Ch. XVI).”

Note that the prologue of the encyclical Fratelli tutti quotes this passage in order to draw conclusions identical to those of Cardinal Cantalamessa. 

The First Rule of the Friars Minor

The quote is taken from what is known as the “first rule of the brethren minor.” It is in fact the second rule written by St. Francis. The text of the first rule has been lost. The quotation is taken from the 16th chapter, entitled: “Those who go among the Saracens and other unbelievers.”

St. Francis specifies that “whoever of the brothers who, by divine inspiration, wishes to go among the Saracens and other unbelievers, may go with the permission of their minister and servant.”

“The brothers who go can conduct themselves spiritually among [the unbelievers] in two ways. One way is not to quarrel or dispute, but ‘to be subject to every creature for God’s sake,’ (1 Pt. 2:13) and to acknowledge that they themselves are Christians.”

“Another way is to proclaim the word of God when they see it pleases God in order that [the unbelievers] might believe in God the almighty Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, the Creator of all and in the redeeming and saving Son, so that they might be baptized and become Christians, for ‘he who is not born again of water and of the Holy Ghost cannot enter into the kingdom of God,’”(Jn. 3:5).

The end of the chapter makes it possible to understand what precedes. It insists on preaching: “These and other things which will please the Lord they can speak to them and to others, for the Lord says in the gospel: ‘Everyone therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven’ (Mt. 10:32). And: ‘For he that shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him the Son of man shall be ashamed, when he shall come in his majesty, and that of his Father, and of the holy angels,’” (Lk. 9:26).

The saint concludes this chapter with this last consideration: “And all the brothers, wherever they are, should remember that they have given themselves and have abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. And for His love they must expose it to enemies, whether visible or invisible.” He supports this encouragement with quotations from the Gospel. Here is the first: “‘Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’ (Mt. 8:35) for eternal life.” The others only comment on it.

The Words of St. Francis Distorted

It is very clear from reading this chapter of the First Rule, that St. Francis does not intend to separate the two attitudes he describes, but to unite them in a succession. It is not a question either of living as a Christian in the midst of unbelievers, and nothing else, or to preach Jesus Christ. The first attitude can be adopted while waiting for the second to be made possible, or even obligatory in a confession of faith.

The proof of this is given by the text, and by St. Francis’s insistence on preaching and on the total gift of self, even to martyrdom, if it is a question of communicating the way of salvation to those who are strangers. To say anything else distorts the thought of the saint.

This problematic interpretation forgets that St. Francis wanted to go to Egypt to convert the sultan, or to die for the faith, as the life of the holy founder written by St. Bonaventure affirms. It reduces supernatural charity and apostolic zeal to a simple “love” wanting to “embrace all men.”