The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology

My review of Stephen Bullivant’s outstanding volume The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology came out in this quarter’s edition of Nova et Vetera.  If you wonder about the question of how to reconcile Vatican II’s teaching on the possibility of salvation for non-believers with traditional Catholic doctrine, this is the book for you.  Immediately below is my condensed review I posted on Amazon, followed by a link where you can download my full review to learn more about Bullivant’s book.

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Stephen Bullivant’s monograph offers a welcome contribution to an area in the theology of Vatican II that continues to require clarification fifty years after the Council. The aim of this work is to elucidate “how, within the parameters of Catholic theology, it is possible for an atheist to be saved.” While not intended as an apologetic response to the New Atheism, Bullivant is correct in observing that his work will challenge one item in the New Atheist arsenal, namely the assumption that individuals who happen to lack certain “religious information” are thereby automatically assumed to be damned. The primary focus of this study consists in elucidating two poignant sentences of Lumen Gentium 16: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”

Bullivant’s post-mortem solution to the problem of how atheists might be saved is plausible and well-argued. In brief, Bullivant proposes that atheists can be saved in accordance with what they have done to Christ’s “least ones.” In a move all-too rarely made in contemporary theology, Bullivant offers hagiographical evidence to corroborate his claim. After a delightful analysis of how his paradigm is reflected in the lives of St. Benedict and St. Martin de Tours , the author dwells at greater length on the theology of Bl. Mother Teresa, who taught that Christ is present “in his distressing disguise” in the poor themselves. If this presence is as the saints describe it, then moral atheists not only act under the influence of grace but also have an objective encounter with Christ himself when performing corporal works of mercy for his “least ones.” Echoing D’Costa, Bullivant thus argues that the atheist already in this life has an “ontological relationship” with Christ, whereas the requisite “epistemological relationship” with him will only be rectified post-mortem. None of this, he argues, requires that we attribute to the atheist implicit or anonymous faith; rather, in this case it is Christ who is anonymous. Briefly stated, “Anonymous Christs do not entail anonymous Christians.”

For this reader, a significant remaining objection concerns how Bullivant seems to imply the presence of charity in an atheist while denying that this virtue is accompanied by at least implicit faith. It is difficult to see how the salvific grace an atheist receives in his encounter with Christ’s “least ones” is not accompanied by some noetic content.

Read the full review here!