Is There Salvation Outside of the Church? And Other Questions.

Leon Suprenant was asked the following question on his blog:

I have a Protestant friend who has asked me two questions. I was wondering if you could help me with them. Thanks!!! First, the conclusion of the Papal Bull “Unam Sanctam” states: “Further, we declare, say, define, and pronounce it to be altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature that he be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Is this saying that if I am not subject to the Pope, I am doomed? Further, Canon 9 of the Council of Trent says, “If anyone says the sinner is justified by faith alone . . . let him be anathema.” This idea is also given in Canons 11, 12, and 24 of Trent. What biblical basis is there for saying our salvation lies in something outside of Christ? Second, is there any point at which Tradition supersedes Scripture? Pope Julius II removed the scriptural prohibition in Lev. 20:21 with a special dispensation allowing Henry VIII to marry his older brother’s widow, Catherine. He believed that he could nullify Scripture. Was that a one-time thing or do all popes believe they have this authority?

His answer is very good, and I highly suggest it. I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own, taking the questions point by point.

I. Is There Salvation Outside of the Church?

The first question the reader asked is a classic one:

First, the conclusion of the Papal Bull “Unam Sanctam” states: “Further, we declare, say, define, and pronounce it to be altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature that he be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Is this saying that if I am not subject to the Pope, I am doomed?

A better way of saying it would be that if you are saved, you’re subject to the pope, whether you know it or not. Here’s why we believe that:

  1. All Christians acknowledge that everyone who is saved is saved by Christ. John 14:6 says as much. So does Acts 4:12… and a whole lot of the rest of the New Testament.
  2. Catholics believe that we’re saved by Christ through the Church, His Body and His Bride. The fact, as Leon points out, that Acts 9:4 so radically unites the Church as Christ, in Jesus’ own words to Saul signals that just as there’s no salvation apart from Jesus, there’s no salvation apart from the Church.
  3. Everyone saved through Christ is saved through the Church on Earth (the so-called Church Militant), since everyone saved is saved in this lifetime. Catholics don’t buy into some notion of a second-chance in the afterlife.
  4. The pope is the head of the Church on Earth. Matthew 16:17-19, etc.

The first three of these aren’t very controversial at all, if you’re familiar with history and theology. For example, John Calvin expressly affirmed the first three points in his Institutes. In Book IV, Chapter I, declared it necessary to cleave to the “Holy Catholic Church,” and said, “Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa. 37: 32; Joel 2: 32.) ” The chapter is expressly on the visible Church, so there’s no squirming around this by pretending he meant something different. The fourth point, that the pope is head of the Church Militant, is something Calvin, of course, denied, but which Catholics affirm with strong Biblical and Patristic support.

So everyone who is saved is saved by Christ, through His earthly Church, which has a temporal head in the Roman Pontiff. All the saved are, in some sense, Catholic. But it’s important to recognize that not all of these men and women realize that they’re Catholic. Here’s why:

  1. We believe that there are those who are members of His Body who don’t know it. We know, for example, that there were plenty of righteous folks saved before Christ came into the world. These people didn’t know who Jesus Christ was, by that name. Certainly, those who were Israelites had a Messianic hope, but their picture of the Messiah was generally a distorted one, which is why Jesus’ arrival was so shocking even to His followers. He wasn’t the Savior they expected. Certainly, some of the saved would have declared vigorously that the Messiah would be a military leader, and many would have been scandalized by the notion of the Trinity. But they’re saved by a Messiah quite different than the One they might have imagined. So these folks are saved by Jesus Christ, even if they never heard His Sacred Name while on Earth. They are all, in some sense, Christians, since they worship and follow Christ (even if they don’t realize that fully themselves).
  2. Some might even expressly deny being members of His Body, out of confusion and forgivable error, and still be part of the Body. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:15-16, says as much:

    If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.

    So it’s possible that even some who are generally aware of Catholicism remain confused about their own relationship to it. Likewise, some are subject to the Roman Pontiff who deny being such (all while affirming those things he declares are true, and following in the path of Christ which he points to).

    The major criticism of this notion is that it’s the sort of “invisible Church” theory which Protestantism has promoted, but which has very weak Biblical support. It’s not. These individuals are invisibly connected to the visibile Church. A way of understanding this is to think of an American living in Paris. America is a visible place, with actual defined borders: she’s not just an invisible ideal of freedom, although her visible reality exists to support invisible notions (American values) as well as visible people (citizens, primarily). These individuals are living outside of the visible borders of America, yet are every bit as American as those of us living within her borders, and they might even be more patriotic.

    The other criticism is that this theory is some sort of clever ruse to get out of the seemingly plain language of Unam Sanctum. It’s not. At the same time things like the bull of Unam Sanctum were being promulgated, the papacy recognized the validity of the Eastern Orthodox sacraments (as it always has, even when the mutual excommunications were in place). Where there are valid sacraments, there is the Church. So even though the Eastern Orthodox weren’t, and aren’t, in full Communion, they’re in some sort of Communion sufficient enough to have valid sacraments, and to receive the Eucharist at Mass should they so desire.

    Protestantism breached union with the Church more than did the Eastern Orthodox, but it’s not true to say that Protestants left the Church entirely. Every saving truth preached by Protestantism is a Catholic truth (since there are no other kinds of saving truths).

    II. Anathema!

    The reader’s second question:

    Further, Canon 9 of the Council of Trent says, “If anyone says the sinner is justified by faith alone . . . let him be anathema.” This idea is also given in Canons 11, 12, and 24 of Trent. What biblical basis is there for saying our salvation lies in something outside of Christ?

    Leon handles the Biblical basis for all of this quite nicely, so let me add just a couple things. First, the anathema applies to Catholics who reject the Church, not to those who were never Catholic. St. Paul is the first we know of who uses the anathema, and he does so in 1 Corinthians 16:22 and twice in Galatians 1:8-9. And in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, he declares an anathema (although he doesn’t use the term in this case) upon an unrepentant sexual deviant:

    Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.

    Significantly, though, Paul recognizes that this authority is connected with participation in the visible Church, noting in v. 12-13:

    What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”

    So the anathemas are meant to stop heresy within. Note also that although it uses the language of damnation (handing the man over to Satan, e.g.), the goal is the heretic or mortal sinner’s salvation. You throw his heretical self out of the visible Church so he’ll realize he’s gone terribly astray. It should be done lovingly, as St. Paul did here.

    Finally, the Catholic Church affirms that salvation is brought about through faithful obedience to God. This consists of both a full-throated belief and faith in Him, and acting upon that belief, since even the demons believe (and shudder) at the reality of God (James 2:19). But this acting upon the belief isn’t something separate from Christ, as the dead works of the Pharisees were. Even declaring that Christ is Lord requires the Holy Spirit working silently within us (1 Corinthians 12:3).

    So rather than Jesus plus anything else, the good works which the Church speaks of refers to doing the Will of God, made possible only through the Power and Grace of God, and it’s the very thing which Christ keys in upon as the source of salvation. In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” He’s not saying you need Him plus your own anything else. He’s saying that accepting Him entails doing the will of His Father, since He’s the perfect model of obedient sonship, even unto death on a Cross (Philippians 2:8), a spirit of obedient sonship which we have now received (Romans 8:15). If we reject obeying the Father, we reject Christ. Finally, John 14:21 ties it up nicely: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.

    III. The Pope, The Bible, and Henry VIII


    Finally, the reader asked:

    Second, is there any point at which Tradition supersedes Scripture? Pope Julius II removed the scriptural prohibition in Lev. 20:21 with a special dispensation allowing Henry VIII to marry his older brother’s widow, Catherine. He believed that he could nullify Scripture. Was that a one-time thing or do all popes believe they have this authority?

    Again, Leon answered this well, but I think it’s important to note that this wasn’t a case where the pope was setting aside the Levitical code at all. Leviticus 20:21 forbids marrying your brother’s wife… while he’s alive. The exact opposite was the case under the Levitical law when your brother died. Then it was your obligation to marry her and bear children. The Sadducees note as much in Luke 20:28, which Jesus doesn’t refute. And as Leon mentioned, Genesis 38:6-8 describes this duty even prior to the Levitical code. But when Christ came, He fulfilled the Law. So neither the pope, nor Henry VIII, nor any other Christian, is bound to follow the entire Levitical code (and even those parts we’re bound to follow are because they’re things which God cares about, not because they’re violations of the Law).

    Rather, marrying your brother’s widow was a violation of canon law, and needed a papal dispensation. Henry VIII acknowledged the authority of the pope as head of the Church Militant, sought, and received the dispensation. Later, he decided he wanted another wife (what we call “adultery”). He tried to argue that he shouldn’t have been granted the dispensation, and sought an annulment. But the marriage was obviously valid, even painstakingly so. Henry had gone out of his way to make sure his marriage to Catherine was valid in the eyes of God and His Church, and then rebelled from the Church (and God) when he couldn’t eat his cake and have it, too. So no, no pope can nullify Scripture. But a pope can nullify canon law.

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