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Some Thoughts on the Passing of Billy Graham


Here in the great state of North Carolina one cannot escape the shadow of the Reverend Billy Graham, who died today at the age of 99. As you exit the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport you drive on the Billy Graham Parkway. Not far from that very same airport, in his hometown of Charlotte,  you can visit the Billy Graham Library which celebrates his six decades of ministry.

Graham was a spiritual counselor and trusted advisor to U.S. presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. His televised Billy Graham Crusades were seen by tens of millions over six decades. With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Rev. Graham was the most seen Christian evangelist in the world.

Today we read many tributes offered in his memory. Here are a few brief thoughts offered for your consideration:

Eulogize, yes. Canonize, no. As Catholics we must resist the urge to join Protestants in declaring that Graham is now “with the Lord.” The truth is we don’t know. The incomplete theology of other Christians, one that fails to acknowledge the reality of purgatory and the need to pray for the dead, must be rejected. We should praise Billy Graham the Christian evangelist while still publicly affirming that we will also pray for his soul. One would hope that prominent Catholic priests and bishops would do the same. Rev. Graham never feared to proclaim the gospel (as he understood it), even its unpopular truths. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see that same fearlessness from our bishops by offering Masses for him and publicly asking all to pray for him?

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.  At the same time, let us reject the epic evangelical failure of those tone deaf Catholics who are using the passing of Rev. Graham to loudly declare, “outside the Church there is no salvation!” While they proclaim truth, they lack charity in their failure to elaborate. Do they seek to convert hearts or win debate points? Their implication that Rev. Graham will not experience the beatific vision fails to recognize our full understanding of salvation.

As I often do, let’s look to Father Francis Spirago’s great nineteenth century Catechism Explained for clarity. While clearly reaffirming that the Catholic Church alone possesses the means which lead to salvation, Fr. Spirago also notes:

If, however, a man, through no fault of his own, remains outside the Church, he may be saved if he lead a God-fearing life; for such a one is to all intents and purposes a member of the Catholic Church. The majority of men who have been brought up in heresy think that they belong to the true Church; their error is not due to hatred of God. A man who leads a good life and has the love of God in his heart, really belongs to the Church, and such a one is saved, not by his heresy, but by belonging to the Church. St. Peter said: “In every nation he that feareth God and worketh justice is acceptable to Him” (Acts x. 35).

This was of course restated by Vatican II, but it’s important to show that this has always been the teaching of the Church. To acknowledge this truth isn’t to deny the fact that indifferentism still plagues the Church and must be soundly condemned.

Evangelizing Billy Graham. Was the Reverend Billy Graham ever evangelized by Catholic priests or bishops? Or by anyone of the popes of the last fifty years? Did anyone ever seek to introduce him to Catholicism? Did any prominent bishop care enough for his soul to seek him out? I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions. However, it saddens me to think that no one may have even tried simply because he was a famous evangelical leader.

The Catholic Church isn’t simply the truth for Catholics. The sacraments aren’t simply the visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace for a few. As Catholics we know that all men need sacramental grace, it is not simply an option or preference. From baptism, to confession, to the Eucharist, the thought of living a life absent sacramental grace is unfathomable. The thought of dying without the grace of the sacraments is downright scary. At the passing of such a prominent Protestant we are afforded an opportunity to teach others what exactly is meant when we proclaim that the Church has the fullness of the truth. If we give others the impression that the Catholic Church is simply one of many denominations, then we have failed them.

Resist Pelagianism. Lastly, one senses a bit of Pelagianism in the Catholic response to Graham’s passing. It is human nature (and noble I would argue) to exalt the good of a man who has just died. Grandiose language and glowing tributes should not be condemned. Verbal excesses can be excused. What we as Catholics should try our best to avoid is equating the evangelical “good works” of Reverend Graham with our hope for his salvation. International fame, even for something as noble as sharing the gospel, does not earn one heaven. Having said that, we do (literally) pray that these works are a manifestation of his belief. It is simply important to be a bit more careful and precise in our praise for this great man.

In the end what we do know is this: the vast majority of Protestants will not be praying for the repose of his soul as they have already canonized him with their magisterium of one. That being the case, may we pray for his soul; that he may realize the beatific vision. We hope that he will spend eternity with Our Lord. Anything less lacks charity and is not Catholic.

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