In Christian theology, there are two kinds of “universal salvation.” The first kind is described in one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, “Nostra Aetate,” which is the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965. Nostra Aetate rejects the papal (infallible) bulls of previous centuries by stating that salvation can be attained in other religions if adherents remain faithful to their beliefs and follow universal moral laws of love (See my Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate).
The second kind of universal salvation states that every human being will be reconciled to God, no matter what their beliefs or non-beliefs or their (im)moral behaviour. This was the belief of Carlo Carretto. Carretto was the leader of the Italian post-World War II youth movement known as Catholic Action. In 1954, He resigned from that position and joined the Little Brothers of Jesus at their novitiate in the Sahara desert. The Little Brothers of Jesus movement was inspired by the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld.
In 1983, five years before his death, Carretto wrote “I sought and I found,” which was a response to Augusto Guerriero’s (Ricciardetto) “I sought and I did not find.” When Ricciardetto died, Carrretto said of him, “Now he is in the light.” Carretto writes:
“Word of his death reached me in Japan one sunny Sunday while I was visiting the temple of Kamakura, some hundred kilometres from Tokyo. It was a marvellous morning. And for the Japanese it was the day the birth of life was celebrated. Prospective bridegrooms were escorting their brides-to-be before the great Buddha…I was enchanted by all this beauty, and by such throngs of people at prayer. And if Ricciardetto had been there with me, he too would have been moved to behold such vitality, such hope. Look how many ‘are finding,’ I would have told him! How many have found! See how they love one another! See how they hope! Don’t be afraid! God is the living one!” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, Orbis Books, 1985, p.7 – Translation of the Italian edition published in 1983).
I spent more than 20 years in the Catholic Church (age 19 to 41) and all the relatives on my wife’s side are Catholics. My impression, after wide exposure to Catholics and reading modern Catholic literature (like Carretto), is that a large number of Catholics believe, with Carretto, not only that God is love but that love is God, that is, if you are loving towards another, you are a child of God, a child of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. These Catholics regard the following papal Bulls – ex cathedra (infallible) declarations – as a mystical heresy:
” We declare,say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, the Papal Bull ” Unam Sanctum”, 1302 A.D.) ”
The most Holy Roman Catholic Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her. ( Pope Eugene IV, the Papal Bull ” Cantate Domino”, 1441 A.D.).
“Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, outside the (Catholic) Church there is no salvation.” ” The Catholic Church is the Vine , you the branches: he who abides in the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church in him, the same bears much fruit, for without the Catholic Church you can do nothing. If anyone is not in the Catholic Church , he shall be cast forth like a branch and wither, and they shall gather him up and cast him him into the fire, and he burneth” ( John 15:5-6). ” He who is not with the Catholic Church is against the Catholic Church; he who gathers not with the Catholic Church scatters” ( Matt: 12:30). “Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name – than the Catholic Church – under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved (Acts. 4:12).
In a loving nutshell: “Love and all becomes logical, easy and true.” (Carlo Carretto, “I sought and I found, 1985, Orbis Books, 1985, p. 64). This view of love (for others) fills much modern Jewish thought as well; for example, Gerald Jampolsky and Jerry Weintraub whom I discussed elsewhere. Towards the end of his book, Carretto says: “The grandest thing I can say about God is that he is merciful, and I believe in universal salvation” (p. 133). What, however, does the Lord Jesus say?
“16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17).
Carretto would say, like the majority of professing Christians, that “world” means everyone in the world. But then come the verses that contradict Carretto’s “universal” salvation view. “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:18).
I mentioned above that when Ricciardetto died, Carrretto said of him, “Now he is in the light.” Not so, according to the next verse: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light… (John 3:19).
About Jesus loving universally (everybody in the world), Jesus prays in his “unity” prayer:
“ I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you.  For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours (John 17:6-9 ESV, my italics and emphasis).
God’s love and mercy – and light, – infuriatingly, for universalists and many others, are only for those the Father gave (from eternity) to Jesus out of the world. These are those who “believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
There is the further question of how those whom the Father gives the Son come to believe. Simple – for God, but not simple for the human ego:
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). And those who come will certainly be sanctified and glorified and raised on the last day:
“For those whom he foreknew (which means “foreloved,” of course) he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30 ESV). Now, “do not grumble among yourselves” (John 6:43) over God’s sovereign choices.
Universalism finds its greatest supporter in the “mystical” experience of being close to God. One of the greatest mystical heroes in Roman Catholicism is Thomas Merton. Carretto was, like Thomas Merton, a Catholic mystic who believed that other religions such a Buddhism was a valid path to salvation (See John 17 and Catholic Universalism: That they may be One – (Reformed) Protestants need not apply). Indeed, Buddhism to Merton was not merely another way to union with God.
There is a growing number of contemporary Catholic monasteries and parishes that hold Buddhist retreats and workshops. A Jesuit priest come Zen master, Robert E. Kennedy, holds Zen retreats at his “Morning Star Zendo”. Kennedy asks “students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen.” ( I’m not recommending Kennedy’s Zendo, but merely citing my sources, which I like to do not just now and zen, but often).
Some of the things that Thomas Merton said make it very difficult to understand how he can reconcile his Catholicism with Buddhism. Merton wants to be both a Buddhist and a Catholic. He says: “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity.”It’s difficult to understand how one can be both a good Zen Buddhist and a good Catholic. It seems Kennedy was more interested in converting Catholics to Buddhism than in Catholicism itself. “The future of Zen is in the West,” he says. And the future of Catholicism? That was too limited in scope, too Roman; not universal enough, not catholic enough. The future lay in the emergent union to be born out of the merger between East and West. Merton had the backing of his illustrious and saintly predecessor, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, who proclaimed: “All that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Could we also say “all that is deep, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit.” Merton was influenced by Gandhi who advocated that the way to finding the deeper roots of one’s own religious tradition is by immersing oneself in other religions, and then returning “home” to see one’s own traditions and beliefs in a clearer light.
The Catholic Church, since Vatican II (1961), has radically changed its attitude towards inter-religious dialogue. Merton and other Catholic devotees of Eastern thought had a significant influence on changing Rome’s attitude to non-Christian religions. The papal encyclical Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”) states: (Nostra Aetate is the Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, October, 1965) “The Church therefore has this exhortation for her sons: prudently and lovingly, through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, and in witness of Christian faith and life, acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture” (Nostra Aetate 2). (See Buddhism, Judaism and Catholic Nostra Aetate).
Mother Teresa, another universalist, would never have dreamed of bringing the Gospel to the sick and the dying:
“We never try to convert those who receive [aid from Missionaries of Charity] to Christianity but in our work we bear witness to the love of God’s presence and if Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, or agnostics become for this better men — simply better — we will be satisfied. It matters to the individual what church he belongs to. If that individual thinks and believes that this is the only way to God for her or him, this is the way God comes into their life — his life. If he does not know any other way and if he has no doubt so that he does not need to search then this is his way to salvation.” (Her Life in the Spirit: Reflections, Meditations and Prayers, pp. 81-82).
In the biography Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work, she is quoted by Desmond Doig as follows: “If in coming face to face with God we accept Him in our lives, then we are converting. We become a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Catholic, a better whatever we are. … What approach would I use? For me, naturally, it would be a Catholic one, for you it may be Hindu, for someone else, Buddhist, according to one’s conscience. What God is in your mind you must accept” (Doig, Mother Teresa, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 156).
At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Caretto joined the Little Brothers of Jesus at their novitiate in the Sahara desert. Carretto writes:”The desert – the real desert, the one made out of jackal howls and starry nights – was the place of my encounter with God…No longer did I wish to discuss him. I wanted to know him…I sought the God of all seven days of the week, not the God of Sunday…It was not hard because he was there ready waiting for me. And I found him. And this is why I say with joy, and dare to testify to my brothers and sisters in the Spirit: ‘I Sought and I Found’” (p. 10).
The desert is a favourite locus for mystical encounters of universal love, where one can become so absorbed into that love that it is easy to forget – or to ever consider – that “whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”(John 3:18) – a forgetfulness that is a desertion – of the Gospel.