You raise an important point about salvation. The Vatican II document “Lumen Gentium” focuses on how the Church defines herself and includes a section on those who are not Christian. The passage to which you are referring is found in paragraph 16: “Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the People of God.” Giving the example of Jews, Muslims and “those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God,” the document states that all “can attain 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 to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.” This even includes those who have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, provided they cooperate with His grace in living a good life.
An important point that Lumen Gentium makes, however, is that Christ alone saves humanity. People in other religions are capable of loving God and attaining great holiness, and the Vatican II document “Declaration on Non-Christian Religions” states that we reject nothing in those religions that is holy. That being said, we believe that the fullness of revelation exists in the Catholic Church, and it is Christ who extends the necessary grace for salvation, not the practice of other religions. It is His grace with which they are cooperating.
The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner used to refer to these people as “anonymous Christians,” although he later stopped using that term out of respect for their own religious identity. It comes down to our belief that while people in other religions don’t fully understand who it is they are worshipping, God receives their love and loves them in return. We also believe that anyone who loves God has something to teach us about God, even if we don’t agree with their doctrines.
So why evangelize? I would like to answer your question with a question: If we truly believe that humanity is saved through the generous self-offering of Christ, how could we NOT proclaim that truth and invite others to know Him fully? What’s more, evangelization saves souls. Personally speaking, I can say that even if salvation is possible for non-Christians, had I not come to know Christ and His teachings, I would have been lost. Perhaps most important, we evangelize because Jesus commanded us to do it: “Go, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have taught you” (Matthew 28:19). Obedience to Christ is, in itself, reason enough.
Father Scott Jones is pastor of Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish in St. Louis.