There’s going to be a lot of discussion on the visible v. invisible Church upcoming, I think. I’d like to look at a number of Protestant (particularly Reformed) Confessions, to see how they understand and identify the Church. But there’s something I need to make clear, which is how Catholics understand the phrase extra ecclesia nulla salus, or “outside the Church there is no salvation.” First of all, it does refer to the Catholic Church, and always has. Second, EWTN has already answered this better than me. So has Mark Shea.
Third, I’ll address it anyways. A Catholic will acknowledge that a person may be invisibly connected to the visible Church. We’ve long acknowledged that those who are partially non-Catholic may still remain sufficiently so (the Eastern Orthodox, for example, were never considered all damned, and we have always recognized their sacraments as valid). Feeneyism has never been the actual position of the Church, contrary to the claims of some anti-Catholics and extreme self-described Catholics.
When people who think they’re not Catholics continue to hold to Catholic doctrine, like Calvin’s retaining of ex opere operatis, despite the lack of clear Biblical evidence, they’re invisibly connected to the Church in some way. If they’re saved, they’re saved through these Catholic beliefs, warped and partially corrupted though they may be, as they move further from their Source. For example, Jimmy Swaggart may well be going to Heaven. Assuming that he is, it’s not because of his hatred of Christ’s Church; it’s because he authentically believed in and loved Jesus Christ and tried to do what he thought Christ was telling him. His hatred of Catholicism must have been out of invincible ignorance (and frankly, given most people’s misunderstanding of Catholicism, this is pretty reasonable). These people were rightly called by Msgr. Knox “Catholics malgré lui” (or “Catholics in spite of themselves”).
Protestants tend to think something similar, I believe, about Catholics: that is, that if they’re saved, it’s because of their Christian Faith, not their distinctly Catholic beliefs. We just happen to think that the Christian Faith we hold in common is, and has always been, part of the Catholic Faith; it was given to Protestantism by Catholicism. Like I’ve said before, the five solas are subtractions from the Faith, not additions to it — we’ve always affirmed Faith, Scripture, the Glory of God, etc. Nothing beneficial has been added from a dogmatic or doctrinal point of view: certain things have just been focused on more (which can be good, but often comes at a heavy cost). Catholics are actually much slower than Protestants to say “and the bar is precisely here.” While Protestants typically claim that anyone who doesn’t explicitly affirm the Lordship of Christ is damned, Catholics take more of a “God will decide” view — those who authentically misunderstand Christ, or are mentally retarded, or have never of Christ, may still have responded to Him interiorly in a way that is beyond our grasp, and basically none of our business. We simply pray for their salvation and do what we can for such people while they are on Earth.
Nevertheless, the fact that some people are invisibly and unknowningly connected to the Catholic Church doesn’t mean that the Church is Herself invisible. I may be an American in Europe, but that doesn’t mean that America isn’t a visible, identifiable place; what’s more, that visible, identifiable place is my home. Incidentally, this is why Catholics use phrases like “come home to the Catholic Church,” “the Journey Home,” etc. Even if you were never a visible member of the Catholic Church, it is your home, and we firmly believe that God wishes you were here.