How Narrow is the Gate
Weighing In on the Debate
When I consider adding my own voice to ongoing debate between Ralph Martin and Bishop Barron, I definitely do not see my opinion as being anything other than a quiet voice that wants to engage on the subject to resolve what I ultimately believe is an important topic.
First, I would like to address the dangers of public speculative theology. We are living in a time where much of the Church’s teaching is misunderstood, misrepresented, and twisted in the minds of many non-Catholics and Catholics alike. We are all fallible, and seeking to learn more about God’s teaching. In order for us to do that, we must be humble and admit we might make errors, especially those who are studied. This would seem to suggest that any form of public speculation on a matter the Church has not yet resolved may simply detract from what the Church ought to be pastorally focused on: the fundamentals.
Second, I do not discourage speculation, but it ought to be done prudently, especially in a time where the Church experiences significant divisions and polarizations. For this reason, I think it’s worthwhile for the theologian to privately discuss these matters, and humbly submit them to Holy Church. This doesn’t mean we should address issues or bring them into the light of dialogue where we feel as though they are contradicting something fundamental and definitively defined.
Having said all of these things, I would like to do what some might consider a “side-stepping” of the question itself. Many are asking, “How many will be saved” and quickly nuance the term “few” out of existence or simply understand Jesus’ word “few” as a simple response to this question in Matthew 7.
What I would prefer to examine is the very essence of how Jesus comes about this conclusion, and it has to do with the narrowness of the gate. If we skip over this verse, we arrive at some problems in our own discernment of Christ’s words.
Phillip had a great article on this matter from the view of St. Augustine, especially in regard to teaching on Original Sin and Massa Damnata. I’d like to permit St. Thomas Aquinas to weigh in on the manner too. He writes in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew:
“How narrow is the gate, and straight is the way that leads to life.” This is contrary to what precedes it. And this is narrow, because it is narrowed according to the rule of the law, and it is a way against the other way; for the lord knows the ways that are on the right hand: but those are perverse which are on the left hand (Prov 4:27). But one might ask why the way of charity is narrow, for it seems that it would be wide; I will lead you by the paths of equity: which when you will have entered, your steps will not be straitened (Prov 4:11-12). But the way of sin is a narrow way; hence, we wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction, and have walked through hard ways (Wis 5:7).
One should say that in the way of the body and of the reason. The way of charity in the way of the flesh is a narrow way, while the way of charity in the way of reason is the other way around. And an example can be found in a teacher, for the more he loves a child, the more he restricts his steps. Hence the way of charity in the way of the flesh is tightened, while the way of charity in the way of reason is the other way around. Pierce my flesh with your fear (Ps 118:120).
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, C. 7. L. 1, pp 652.
As the way of the flesh tightens up, the capacity for charity in the soul that walks in this manner, increases. I.e. Self-control gives a greater spiritual freedom to librally love God and our neighbor. Yet there is something that St. Thomas mentions here that is worth reflecting on: St. Thomas mentions that the way is “narrowed according to the law.” The Law seems to be something we shy away from speaking about, even when it comes to God’s law about the means to salvation.
Many have been latently affected by what we call deontological ethics today, whereby the automatic interpretation of God’s Natural, Eternal, and Divine Laws are interpreted as nothing more than precepts artificially imposed upon us that we are duty-bound in keeping. Because of this attitude toward God’s law, we tend to veer away from speaking about God’s law at all, because it has entirely sterilized the notion of relationship with God. But the Church doesn’t adopt a deontological approach to God’s law. Rather we recognize the law as a grace, and something we are called to have written on our own hearts and drilled into our minds. In other words, God’s law becomes something living within us, and is actually becomes the internalized reality of justice and charity itself.
On this note, Bishop Barron has mentioned often, that there is a way of the salvation that is “privileged.” Not fully understanding the exact meaning he offers here, a few thoughts come to mind. First is from Pope St. Paul VI:
The Church is deeply aware of her duty to preach salvation to all. Knowing that the Gospel message is not reserved to a small group of the initiated, the privileged or the elect, but is destined for everyone, she shares Christ's anguish at the sight of the wandering and exhausted crowds, "like sheep without a shepherd" and she often repeats His words: “I feel sorry for all these people.”
In this point, St. Paul VI, reminds us about God’s intention for salvation. God’s revealed law whereby we come to know the norms and expectations of Jesus Himself. These laws are not understood without nuance, but they are understood as revelations into the way of salvation. In particular, the command to Baptize all nations.
When we speak about a privileged path to salvation, what seems to be emphasizes is grace. Yet grace is necessary for salvation, and as Catholics it cannot really be defined apart from the Law. It would seem, therefore, that if we develop some normative path to salvation that is outside of God’s preference, that this is more of an invention of human wisdom than a simple nuance to matters such as “baptism by desire” and what Vatican II clearly teaches.
The most disconcerting matter here, that I’d like to highlight is the Church’s own self-understanding of Her mission which comes directly from Christ. To become indifferent toward the way of evangelization and to set up in our minds, the nuancing out of existence the concrete command to evangelize, and baptize, is to become indifferent to the very interior life of Christ that ought to be abiding in each one of us. What is also lacking is a recognition in our own encounter and experience of grace, which brings to us salvation.
When Christ hungered for the woman’s faith at the well, that interior hunger was ultimately shared with the Church who is called to function interiorly as Christ’s own Body. Do we have that hunger for the faith of others? Do we peer into the unbeliever or quasi-catechumen’s soul and experience in our own spiritual empathy a dryness that Christ alone can address. Does it not prompt us to share what we’ve been given by grace, to those who are going hungry, spiritually?
Holiness has often been perceived by many as an individual activity, isolated from the interpenetration of relationships with neighbor. Private-holiness is an oxymoron, however, given that we are social beings. In this sense, when we grow indifferent towards those who are ignorant of Christ, we have become indifferent to our own call to holiness. In this sense, we no longer want to imitate the interior life and mission of Christ, but rather wish to only be on the receiving end of his grace. This is probably the closest notion to the pejorative phrase used today as: “privileged.” It’s without a doubt that Bishop Barron does not mean this term in that sense whatsoever. But what this demonstrates is that it is not within God’s intention to set up distinct elite bodies of faith, rather his love is universal.
Catholicism and Universalism
The irony here, is that Universalism involves at best a latent indifference towards Christ. It suggests that Christ is not the way. Given that Christ is concrete, and gives the Church her norms and laws in the form of the Sacraments, we cannot really separate Christ as the only Way to the Father, and Christ’s Laws. We might nuance what might happen to people in extra-ordinary circumstances, and express the hope we have. Yet, what becomes clear in many variations of universalism is nonetheless the attitude that one’s own merits and works are emphasizes rather than explicit grace coming from Christ. Catholicism teaches that Christ wants to include people of all nations, in Himself. There is something universal and specific about the Catholic Tradition here. What is specific is Himself, and what is general or universal is the invitation that he extends. Universalism sets up for us a wideness in both manners: in those invited, and the path by which we follow-up on that invitation.
I would prefer to suggest that we as a Church always remember that we get our mindset, and motivation from the very heart and mind of Christ Himself. It is clear that Christ wishes that the Ordinary path to salvation occur through Baptism. Thus we ought to make it ordinary everywhere, including the hearts and minds of non-believers. We ought to fall in love with this pattern and design and order that God extends to the Church. Without that, we end up exploiting the nuancing approach to salvation, and thereby actually disincline ourselves as the Evangelists from God’s path of salvation.
Christ wants us to overcome the flesh, not by a presumption that good-will, will actually suffice. Good will doesn’t exist in a pure state for man, without grace, given that we are addicted to sin at the moment of our conception. The spirit is willing, and even when informed is nonetheless weak to the flesh for this reason, St. Thomas writes:
“And few there are who find it!” Here he mentions that the discovery of the way of the spirit is difficult and rare, but not the discovery of the way of the flesh. And there is a reason: because the way of the flesh is pleasure, and this is ready at hand; but the way of the spirit is hidden. Hence, O how great is the multitude of your sweetness, O Lord, which you have hidden from those who fear you! (Ps 30:20) For since it is hidden, few there are who find it!. But some also find it, and fall back, of whom it is said, no man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Mathew, C. 7. L.1, pp 653.
 Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 57 at www.vatican.va
As someone who is much more familiar with St. Augustine’s view on this issue, I found it very interesting to learn what the Angelic Doctor had to say about it. Thank you for writing this, Father! May God bless you!
Great article! We struggle with the reality of hell. Jesus, God, does not struggle at all. How often does Jesus talk about it! The gate is NARROW., not wide. When we try to side step the reality of hell, we rapidly run into universalism or what I think is worse ... indifference. If Salvation is available outside of the Church, then why evangelize? Our Church has become indifferent to Salvation and so evangelism dies. Look at shrinking congregations. How often have I heard someone say if God is Love and God is infinite Mercy and all are saved because of this why I I need Church. Do we really believe that, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.“ (John 6:63) if so, how can we be indifferent.
Sure we worship out of love of God and not fear of hell. However, we cannot dismiss the reality of hell. Again, our Lord is very insistent on this.