Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Defined by the Center

“Young Life has always defined itself by its center and not by its boundaries.” The words registered in my mind but their full impact would continue to unfold for days. “Defined by the center, not the boundaries.” These words came up in a recent conversation I had with a friend and senior Young Life staff member concerning the intricate relationship between Young Life (an interdenominational Christian mission to adolescents) and the Catholic Church.

I’ve encountered some in the Catholic Church that would define Catholicism according to everything that Protestantism is not – Mary, the saints, confession, Mary, the papacy, Eucharistic adoration, Mary (did I mention Mary?) – but this position is hardly tenable. As Thomas Merton once quipped (painting in admittedly broader, interreligious strokes):

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.[1]

As Thomas Groome reminds us, “the foundation of what makes us Catholic is the shared faith of the whole Body of Christ; it is certainly not unique to Catholicism.”[2] What makes us most Christian (both Protestant and Catholic varieties) is what we share, the overwhelming majority of faith that grounds our common religious heritage:
·      One God, triune in being, united in an eternal relationship of self-gift
·      One Lord, Jesus Christ, who revealed the fullness of God’s love, whose life, death and resurrection offer salvation, truth and life
·      One baptism by which we are initiated into the family of God
·      One universal call to holiness
·      One mission to proclaim the reign of Christ to all
·      One body with which to accomplish that mission

Pope Francis began his recent apostolic exhortation by asserting, “The JOY OF THE GOSPEL fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”[3] Not just Catholics or Protestants but ALL who encounter Christ. The pope goes on to say:

Pastoral ministry in a missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines. . . the message has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.[4]

So what is the essential, the most beautiful, most grand, most appealing, most essential? In other words, what is the “center” by which both Young Life and the Catholic Church are defined? I think Cardinal Timothy Dolan says it beautifully:

We are all about a person.
We are all about a relationship of faith, hope and love with a person,
Who happens to be the greatest person who ever lived,
Who also happens to be my best friend,
Who knows me and calls me by name,
Who looks me in the eyes and invites me to spend eternity with him,
and that person is JESUS![5]

[1] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (NY: DoubleDay, 1965/66), 141.
[2] Thomas Groome, What Makes Us Catholic (NY: HarperCollins, 2002), 31.
[3] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1.
[4] Ibid, 35.
[5] Cardinal Timothy Dolan, taken from an address given at the Evangelical Catholic Institute, Madison, WI, 2006.


  1. Michael,

    Love reading the blog posts, been doing so for a while now. Great insight into the Catholic Church and it's relationship with Young Life. I am a Catholic myself and a Young Life Leader and I was recently asked the question, "Can anyone be Saved outside of Jesus?" I know that Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life but I also know that the Catholic Church teaches that some can be saved outside of Jesus if they are ignorant of Him. I found in the Catholic Catechism where it says following:

    "847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
    Those who, through 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."

    I am divided on this issue and most of the other Young Life leaders I talked to disagreed with the above statement in the Catechism and said that it rejects the necessity of Jesus.

    I'm really interested in hearing your thoughts on this and what the Church really believes on this issue and if it is in line with what Young Life believes.

    -Mike Lewis

  2. Thanks for your question Mike. It's great to hear that there are good Catholics out there that are ministering to kids through Young Life. I'd love to talk to you sometime, drop me an email and your contact info and we can connect.

    As to your question, this is obviously a very nuanced and multivalent topic but the short answer is that the Catholic Church has always taught that salvation comes through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We acknowledge God as the sole arbiter of salvation and thus do not presume to adjudicate who is "in" and who is "out". We may rightly have a confident hope of our salvation through Christ in whose grace we rely completely, but the Church leaves the saving up to God.

    That being said, the Catholic Church has reflected with great depth on the question of salvation for those who have not made an explicit confession of Christ as Lord. Lumen Gentium (Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), from which your above reference from the Catechism is directly derived (LG, 16), states clearly that "Christ alone is the mediator and the way of salvation"(LG, 14). Notwithstanding, the Church goes on to reflect on the ways that non-Christians may relate to Christ and notes the POSSIBILITY of salvation for some under various conditions. In many ways, what the Catholic Church is saying here is what Paul said to the men of Athens who constructed an altar to an unknown God, "Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you"(Acts 17:23). The Church proclaims the fullness of Christ, who alone is necessary for salvation, to those who "through 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 . . ." Note that the Church does not say that these individuals ARE saved but states clearly, "those too MAY achieve eternal salvation". Either way, if someone is saved (and again, it is God who decides not us) it is totally by grace and totally on the merits of Christ's atoning work on the Cross and glorious resurrection from the dead. Therefore, the Catholic Church completely upholds the necessity of Christ for salvation.

    Admittedly, this is very hard to convey in a matter of sentences. I wrote my entire master's thesis on this question springing from my work with Muslims in Morocco (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 90's). I'm happy to share that with you, but I'd also direct your attention to the 2000 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled "Dominus Iesus" (literally "The Lord Jesus") which draws tighter and more technical lines that I have drawn here. You can find it at:

    Very rich topic for discussion Mike! But take caution so as not to misrepresent the careful theological work that the Church has exercised on such convoluted issues as these. God is faithful.



  3. That's make so much more sense the way you put it. Thank you for the clarification. My email is


Thanks so much for your input. I pray that this dialogue may be a blessing to you personally and to the ministry you exercise in Christ.