Twice this week, I’ve been asked about the Church’s teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. More specifically, I’ve been asked how that teaching can be rectified with the Church’s hope that those who die outside of Her visible bounds might yet be saved. I’ve answered this question in greater depth before, showing that this is a shift in emphasis and tone, rather than a shift in doctrinal teaching. But I want to approach the question from a different perspective today, through something of a thought experiment.
Consider four different categories of people:
People who don’t have any public Divine revelation, and live exclusively by the natural law.
People who have access to some revelation, and live by it, but haven’t heard of Jesus Christ.
People who have heard of Jesus Christ, but have only heard incomplete and/or inaccurate things.
People who knowingly reject natural law, Divine revelation, Jesus Christ, or His Church.
For Category X, the answer is no. Anyone who knowingly rejects God cannot be saved. In this category is everyone who rejects the law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15); everyone who knowingly rejects Christ by name; and all those who claim to accept Christ, but knowingly reject His Church. The Second Vatican Council didn’t (and can’t) change this teaching. On the contrary, the Council explicitly reaffirmed that the Church is necessary for salvation, and that those knowingly reject Her cannot be saved:
Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it [the Second Vatican Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism(124) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.
We’ll return to what it means to knowingly reject the Church, but first, let’s move to Categories A-C.
Can anyone in these three categories be saved? At the very least, we know that some of them were saved in the past. Hebrews 11 lists faithful “men of old” who “received divine approval” (Hebrews 11:3). So for example, Hebrews 11:5-6 says:
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
|Polish Icon, Enoch and Elijah in the Desert (17th c.)|
That, apparently, is the sort of faith that Enoch had: that there was a God, and that God rewards those who seek him. He’s pretty squarely in Category A. Certainly, Enoch didn’t have a Bible. Not only was there no Bible around yet, but most of the events recounted in the Bible hadn’t happened yet (Enoch’s life is recorded in Genesis 5). Jesus hadn’t been born, Moses hadn’t received the law, God hadn’t yet created the Jewish people by forming a covenant with Abraham, and even the Noahic covenant didn’t exist. Enoch is not just pre-Christian; in a very real sense, he is pre-Jewish. And yet he’s not just saved, but presented as a model of faith in Scripture.
Reading through Hebrews 11, you’ll see plenty of people in Category B, as well: Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, etc., down the line. These people received bits and pieces of Divine revelation, but didn’t have the full thing.
As for Category C, Simeon (Luke 2:25-32) would seem to be a perfect example. He sees and believes in the infant Christ, and then welcomes his death. Do you think that he died with a full knowledge of the Catholic faith, or even something like the Apostle’s Creed? Of course not. He knew that God had sent the Messiah for the good of both the Jews and Gentiles, and that Jesus was this Messiah. And that, in his case, was enough. Likewise with the good thief on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43). How well catechized do you imagine that he was? He encountered Christ in his last moments, long enough to declare Him as the Heavenly King, but it’s unlikely that he was fully exposed to the Gospel.
This reveals the first principle: we’re responsible for responding to what God has revealed. Nobody is going to Hell for failing to believe in the Trinity before God revealed the Trinity.
So people in Category A, B, and C could be saved, at least in the past. Has that changed? Some say “yes” because more has been revealed. We believe in what we receive from God. Now that we’ve received more, we need to believe more. And that’s true. But here’s where that logic goes awry: we’re not responsible for revelation that isn’t revealed to us, unless it’s somehow our own fault.
|Gerard Hoet, Moses Promulgates the Law,
Figures of the Bible (1728)
Let’s take a hypothetical example to see why this is so. Imagine an elderly Jewish couple, Judas and Judith, alive during the exodus from Egypt (or at any point in which ongoing revelation is taking place).
At one point, God calls Moses to the Tent of Meeting to reveal the Levitical Law (Lev. 1:1). Assume that, while he’s there receiving the Law, Judith dies. Will she be condemned for her faithlessness to the Levitical Law? Of course not. It would be an absurd sort of legalism to assume that the instant something is revealed to the prophet, it is binding on the whole world, whether or not they’re aware of it. Provided that Judith was faithful to what had been previously revealed, she’s saved.
Now imagine that her husband hears that Moses is coming with lots of new laws. He doesn’t bother to find out what the Law is (since he doesn’t want to be burdened with new rules), and dies soon after. Of course, he’s in a very situation. He’s no longer in Category A or B, but Category X.
Even though they would face different fates, both will go before God responsible for responding to that revelation that they knew (or should have known) about. What’s changed is how much they should have known about. For the wife, she has what’s called invincible ignorance: she had no way of knowing what else God was asking. For the husband, he has vincible ignorance: it’s his own fault that he didn’t know what God demanded.
Here’s why that matters. Before God reveals Himself to Abraham (the event that creates Category B), people were spread out over all the earth. We know this both from secular history and archaeology, and from Scripture itself (Genesis 11:9). For those people who went to the New World, they and their descendants were just stuck in Category A until at least 1492.
When God reveals Himself to Abraham, they weren’t around to hear about it. When God gives the Law to Moses, they weren’t around to hear about it. When the prophets expanded the amount of publicly-available revelation , they weren’t around to hear about it. When Jesus Christ takes on our Humanity, and dies on the Cross for us, they weren’t around to hear about it.
They were invincible ignorant of anything going on to the Jews, because they had no way of knowing that such a people even existed – much less that God had revealed Himself in a special way to them. These people would seem to be in the same position as the Jewish woman from our hypothetical: God has revealed Himself, but news of this revelation hasn’t arrived to them yet.
By no means am I suggesting that everyone in the New World was automatically saved, or anything of the sort. One purpose of revelation is our salvation, so it seems a reasonable conclusion that those who have less revelation have less of a chance of being saved. But it’s still possible, provided that they’re faithful to what has been revealed to them.
|Paul in Athens (19th c.)|
By the way, this isn’t just logical; it’s also Scriptural. In Acts 17:22-23, St. Paul says to the Greeks at Mars Hill:
So Paul, standing in the middle of the Are-op′agus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
To the eyes of the world, the men he’s talking to look like pagans. They don’t look like Jews, certainly (and would deny being Jewish, if asked). Yet St. Paul recognized that they were already worshiping the one true God. His aim was to fix their ignorance: to tell them about the God that they worshiped in ignorance.
So this spells out the second principle: we are only responsible for that revelation which is revealed to us. This is the logical extension of the first principle (if you understand why Enoch wasn’t responsible for knowing the Mystery of the Trinity, then you’ll know why a 13th century Incan wasn’t, either).
Here, we turn to the most vexing problems: what about those who have heard a distorted version of the Gospel, or are only dimly aware of the Gospel? Let’s call these the “Rotten Gospel” and “Background Gospel” problems.
Rotten Gospel: Imagine a group of second-century Jews whose only exposure to Jesus Christ is from, say, the Marcionites (who claimed that there were two gods: an evil God of the Old Testament, and a good God of the New Testament). Any pious Jew would be forced to reject Marcionism: it contradicts Divine revelation.
Are they knowingly rejecting Jesus Christ? Not really. They’re rejecting a false and heretical version of Jesus, and they’re right to do so. In the process, they might come to associate the New Testament with Marcionism, and never give it a second chance. But that’s hardly a knowing rejection. It’s possible that the same is true of those who reject Christianity lived badly. So, for example, if you’re a Jewish kid whose only exposure to Catholicism is hearing about it from a Nazi prison guard, you’re likely to reject it. Arguably, you’re still rejecting a false form of Catholicism – a failure in orthopraxy, not in orthodoxy, but still presenting something far from what the Church proclaims.
Background Gospel: Nor is it enough, seemingly, for the true faith to simply be generally present in the background. After all, the first-century Athenians had probably heard of Judaism, even if they weren’t well exposed to it. Yet St. Paul doesn’t treat them as having rejected the Gospel. He treats them as having embraced the little bits of the Gospel that they know, and as hungry for more.
This is the critical question in the modern age: how many people that we consider non-Catholics (and even non-Christians) are really like these Athenians? How many have failed to embrace Catholicism simply because it’s always been in the background, or because they were only exposed to distorted and false versions of it? Obviously, that’s a question that only God can answer. The Second Vatican Council simply points out that such people exist, even in the modern world, and acknowledges that it’s possible for them to be saved… which, of course, it is.
|The Seal of the President of the United States|
At this point, you may be asking: does this eliminate the unique role of Jesus Christ and His Catholic Church in salvation? No, that’s not the case at all. Whether they know it or not, all who are saved are saved by Jesus Christ. Thus, Acts 4:21 says of Jesus that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” That didn’t suddenly become true in the first century. It’s always been true. When Enoch was saved, he was saved by Christ. If some faithful Unknown God-worshiping Athenian died before Paul got there, his salvation was by Christ.
And all who are saved are incorporated into the People of God, which means, in the New Covenant, into the Catholic Church. Psalm 87 promises to number Egyptians, Babylonians, Ethiopians, etc., as Israelites (Ps. 87:4). It’s possible to be part of the spiritual Israel without being aware of it, then. St. Paul goes so far as to say, “If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body” (1 Cor. 12:15). That is, it’s possible to be part of the Church even while denying that you’re part of the Church.
Finally, and this part is critical, all of this deals with people who through no fault of their own don’t have access to the fullness of the Gospel. It’s no excuse to slack off in search for the fullness of the truth. That would be acting like Judas, not Judith, and would imperil your soul. Nor is it an excuse not to evangelize: just because it’s possible that those with incomplete revelation are saved doesn’t mean it’s probable or assured. In Romans 10, St. Paul simultaneously affirms that everyone has heard the basics of the Gospel simply through the natural world (Rom. 10:18), but also that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
The Seal of the President of the United States has an eagle on it with olive branches (representing peace) in one talon, and arrows (representing war) in the other. The message is that we hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I mention this because, whenever this conversation comes up, it seems that people are quick to want to jump in with some guess about how many will be saved. That strikes me as a profoundly foolish thing to do. We don’t want to presume, judge, or despair. Instead, evangelize as if your non-Catholic neighbors are hellbound, pray for the departed as if they aren’t, and entrust the rest to the mercy of God.