Four questions routinely arise about the Church’s view of the possibility of salvation for those outside of Her ranks:
- Is Baptism necessary for salvation?
- Are all of the non-baptized damned?
- If the non-baptized can be saved, why share the Gospel?
- Has the Catholic Church changed her answer to these prior three questions?
To understand how the Church can simultaneously hold that Baptism is necessary for salvation and that those can be saved who have never been Baptized, we’ve got to consider two things: how to get to Heaven, and how to get to Hell.
I. The Necessity of Baptism
Scripture is surprisingly clear on the role of Baptism in salvation. I say “surprisingly,” because its witness is contradicted by a great many Christians, particularly Evangelicals.
Evangelicalism holds that faith alone is necessary for salvation, but holds it in a way that can be summarized as: “He who believes will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In contrast, Jesus Christ explicitly gives two conditions for salvation: belief and baptism. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). There’s just no getting around those three extra words, and the fact that the Evangelical position ignores that explicit condition for salvation shows it to be in error.
Nor is this a one-off instance of Scripture mentioning the role of Baptism in bringing about salvation. Rather it’s seen time and time again. It’s why, after describing Noah’s Ark, St. Peter says (1 Peter 3:21-22):
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
And this is also why, after laying hands on St. Paul and healing him (cf. Acts 9:17-19), Ananias still says to him, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Recall that Paul already believes at this point, yet Ananias still describes Baptism as necessary to remove his sins.
St. Paul understood this point, which is why he taught that Christ saves us “by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). Rather than pitting salvation by grace against salvation through Baptism, Paul describes salvation by grace through baptism.
Here, a quick aside about the Evangelical position. Catholics are often baffled by the Baptist obsession with the precise form of Baptism. For example, you get people like John Piper defending why “our church and our denomination make baptism by immersion a defining part of membership in the local covenant community (but not in the universal body of Christ).” He explains, “Should we call a manmade method of baptism “baptism,” if we believe on good evidence that it departs from the form that Christ inaugurated? Would this not run the risk of minimizing the significance that Christ himself invested in the ordinance?” On face, this is bizarre. He thinks Baptism doesn’t actually do anything, and yet he and his church refuse to accept Christians into their church who were baptized by sprinkling, but didn’t have their entire body go underwater. This, despite the fact that the first-century Christians permitted Baptism by sprinkling, as we read in Chapter 7 of The Didache.
Piper’s position isn’t so strange upon closer examination. In treating Baptism, not as a Sacrament by which God saves us, but as an ordinance that we do for God, they end up treating it legalistically. Baptist Distinctives acknowledges that “Because baptism and the Lord’s Supper are symbolic, the use of the proper symbols is important.” That’s it exactly: because they think it’s only symbolic, and can’t figure out any other role that Baptism might play for the Christian, there ends up being a legalistic obsession with getting the symbol just right. They realize that Christ and the Apostles spend a lot of time talking about Baptism, but their theology doesn’t leave an important place for Baptism. Obsessing over ritualistic details serves to fill that void, albeit in the worst way possible. In Titus 3:5-7, Paul offers the correct solution to this problem: Christ saves us by grace, but He does so through Baptism.
The necessity of baptism for salvation also explains the dramatic ending to St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon, in which his listeners ask how to be saved, and he tells them faith and baptism (Acts 2:37-41):
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Okay, so Scripture clearly (and repeatedly) teaches that Baptism is necessary for salvation. But what do we make of those who aren’t baptized? For example, what about the Gentiles before Christ, or the Native Americans after, who didn’t have Baptism and didn’t know the name of Jesus? For that matter, what about the Old Testament faithful? They had some Scriptures, they had the Mosaic covenant, but they didn’t have Baptism, and didn’t know the name of Jesus. Or what about the thief on the Cross, who knew the name of Jesus, but didn’t know about (and was too incapacitated to receive) Baptism?
II. The Three Elements of Mortal Sin
In addition to providing a roadmap to Heaven, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us how to go to hell (CCC 1857),: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.” So to go to Hell, you need to have done (or omitted) something grave, done so knowingly, and done so intentionally. Is this teaching Biblical? Indeed, it is. What’s more, it’s also perfectly reasonable.
These days, it’s common to hear people, particularly Evangelical Protestants, talk about how all sins are equally bad in God’s eyes. That’s unbiblical nonsense, and I’m happy to see that many Protestants are pushing back against it. Usually, the people claiming this are basing this idea off of half of Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” From this fragment has derived the idea that (1) all sin is mortal, so a single sin (whether a white lie or a genocide) leads to damnation, (2) therefore all sins are punished equally, and (3) therefore all sins are equally bad in God’s eyes. None of those conclusions logically derive from Romans 6:23, nor from one another. The first of them is actually explicitly repudiated by 1 John 5:16-17, in which St. John clarifies that not every sin is mortal (deadly):
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
That last line — that there is a type of wrongdoing that’s a sin, but not a mortal sin — is a direct repudiation of the assumption that Romans 6:23 is calling every sin mortal. Or to put it all another way: for a sin to be the type of sin that sends you to hell, it has to be gravely serious. CCC 1855 describes the distinction this way:
Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.
But it’s not enough for the act in question to be grave. You also need knowledge. If you’re innocently unaware of a moral duty or prohibition, you’re not punished, or at least punished lightly, for violating it. This is why Christ’s prayer from the Cross is “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). It’s also why St. Paul is gentle in rebuking the Greeks for their idolatry (Acts 17:29-31):
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.
And it’s why Christ concludes one of His parables by saying that those whose sin is rooted in ignorance will be punished less harshly than those who disobeyed knowingly (Luke 12:47-48):
And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.
All of this debunks that whole “all sins are punished equally” thing, but it also shows that knowledge is an important element in the severity of a sin. And of course, that makes complete sense. If you give a peanut butter sandwich to a kid with a peanut allergy, it matters whether or not you knew he had a peanut allergy.
Finally, you need consent. The Mosaic Law recognized this from the start, distinguishing between adulteresses and rape victims (Deuteronomy 22:25-27):
But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But to the young woman you shall do nothing; in the young woman there is no offense punishable by death, for this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor; because he came upon her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.
The woman isn’t punished at all, because she didn’t do anything wrong. She had knowledge of the gravity of the offense being done to her, but didn’t consent to it. That’s an extreme, and obvious case. Other factors include things ranging from sleep to mental illness to torture.
Of the three factors we’ve discussed, only one of them (the gravity of the act) can be known by us. The degree to which another person knew and consented to their bad acts is known only to God (CCC 1861):
Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
III. Mortal Sin and the Unbaptized
It’s time now to tie this discussion of the elements of mortal sin to the salvation of the unbaptized. Heresy and apostasy are grave matter. But as St. Paul acknowledged to the Greeks in Acts 17, the severity of these sins is diminished (perhaps even eliminated) when there’s an innocent lack of knowledge. There’s a world of difference between the person who doesn’t call upon Jesus out of pride, and the one who doesn’t because he doesn’t know that sweet Name.
Thus, the early Christians were quick to claim those who would have been baptized had they had the chance. For example, St. Justin Martyr writing in the First Apology, c. 160 A.D., explains how both the Old Testament faithful Jews and the pre-Christian Greeks could be saved by Christ:
And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that he was introducing new divinities; and in our case they display a similar activity. For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue.
Notice the distinction Justin makes in talking about those Gentiles who “lived without reason.” That’s key: how do you respond to the revelation that you’ve been given? People often ask what to make of those who’ve never heard the Gospel. In Romans 10:18, St. Paul denies that such people exist. The Church’s consistent stand has always been that (a) everybody receives some revelation — natural law, conscience, creation, etc.; (b) it’s possible to be saved with even a very tiny amount of revelation, due to the workings of grace; and (c) the more you have to work with, the more likely you are to respond to it, and actually be saved. That’s why we evangelize. We want to give people the tools needed to be saved, and to open as many conduits through which the Holy Spirit can work. Assuming that because a person is ignorant of part of the Gospel that they’re therefore better off is an insult to the Gospel.
So yes, Baptism is necessary for salvation, but refusal to be baptized is only a mortal sin if the refusal is knowing and willing. Those who aren’t baptized through no fault of their own — be it through inculpable ignorance, or the inability to be baptized, as in the case of the death of catechumens, etc. — are not damned for something outside of their own control. And this isn’t some new Vatican II insight, but can be found amongst the earliest of Church Fathers.