The Catholic Church teaches that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Yet, She acknowledges that it is possible that there are some on Earth who nobody thinks of as Catholic, and yet are saved. This teaching is the source of a lot of confusion and misrepresentation, with a number of people (both Catholic schismatics who reject Vatican II, and Protestants and liberal Catholics who reject everything before Vatican II) claim that these views are contradictory or have changed over time. None of this is true.
If you want the short version of what I’m about to say, go here; today’s post is going to look at what the Old and New Testament, Early Church Fathers, Medieval Papacy, and modern Church have to say on the subject. It’s long, and it’s in-depth, but I’ve done my best to make it straightforward. Fortunately, all the Catholic sources, of whatever age, in agreement, in affirming three seemingly contradictory beliefs:
- The Church is visible.
- There is no salvation outside the visible Church.
- Some of those saved may not be visibly members of the visible Church.
There’s a tension, but not a contradiction, between #2 and #3. But that’s not suprising. Consider a few other areas in which the Church embraces a seeming contradiction:
- The Trinity: “God is Three Persons” and “God is One Being”;
- The Hypostatic Union: “Jesus is fully God” and “Jesus is fully Man”;
- Justification: Romans 3:28 and James 2:24;
- Christ simultaneously affirms that “He who is not with me is against Me” (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23) and that “He who is not against Me is with Me” (Luke 9:50).
There are many more, to boot. The truth is generally more confusing and complicated than the heresy, for the exact reason that heresies are of human origin, and generally less complex than things of Divine origin. It’s easy to take half of the truth and run with it: that’s the history of virtually every one of the early Christian heresies. The heretics were almost always half-right, and could prove as much from the Bible. This area is no different. But we’re blessed to have a few instances in which the Bible and the Church address the mystery succinctly.
I. What the Bible Says on this Topic
There’s no question that in the Old Testament, the people Israel were uniquely God’s people (Exodus 3:7; Exodus 8:22-23), and that they formed a visible nation (Numbers 34:1-12). Yet, in Psalm 87:4-6, the Psalmist quotes God as saying:
I will record Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon among those who acknowledge me— Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush — and will say, “This one was born in Zion.” Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” Selah!
This captures perfectly the apparent paradox. Those who are visibly members of the pagan world, places like Babylon, but who acknowledge the Lord are spiritually members of Zion (that is, Israel). These people wouldn’t call themselves Israelis or even Jews — they would call themselves Babylonians; the Jews wouldn’t consider them Jews, either; yet God does, because they worshiped Him, the one True God. Nota Bene: the Egyptian is saved by being a Jew, even if he doesn’t realized he’s a Jew; he’s not saved by being an Egyptian. Romans 9:25 continues on this theme, by quoting Hosea 2:23 and Hosea 1:10,
As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” and, “It will happen that in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ “
So God has a visible people, Israel. And yet some of those who are visible members of Israel are not His people, and some who are not visible members of Israel are His people.
The New Covenant works in the same way. Now, God’s chosen people is the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ. Like Israel, it’s visible, with elders, Councils, and everything else. Christ says that salvation comes only through Him (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, etc.), and equates Himself with the Church (Acts 9:4). He is the Way (John 14:6), She is the Way (Acts 24:14; Acts 24:22; Acts 9:2 Acts 19:9; Acts 19:23). She is the Body of Christ, and She is the Bride of Christ, and the two have become One. Ephesians 5:25-31 spells all of this out at some length, and is worth reading. Since salvation comes only through Christ, salvation comes only through the Church, since He does not have more than one Body, or more than one Wife (cf. John 10:16; John 17:20-26). Yet as St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:15-16 explains:
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 the visible Body includes some members who deny being part of the visible Body. It’s worth noting that Paul considers these members to be sinning, since God Himself created the Body, the Church, in such a way that “there should be no division in the body” (1 Corinthians 12:25). Again, note well: the foot is saved in spite of causing division, and the foot is saved through the One Body it denies being part of.
II. What the Church Said on this Topic at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.)
The best example of the Church simultaneously acknowledging that She is a visible, structured society and that some outside Her physical bounds will be saved is at the Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215 A.D. Her focus there was very much on the Eastern Orthodox, and she said three thing worth mentioning in this context:
- “There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received of us. And this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ Himself gave to the Apostles and their successors. But the sacrament of baptism, which by the invocation of each Person of the Trinity, namely of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, is effected in water, duly conferred on children and adults in the form prescribed by the Church by anyone whatsoever, leads to salvation.” (Canon 1)
- After “the Roman Church, which by the will of God holds over all others pre-eminence of ordinary power as the mother and mistress of all the faithful, that of Constantinople shall hold first place, that of Alexandria second, that of Antioch third, and that of Jerusalem fourth, the dignity proper to each to be observed; so that after their bishops have received from the Roman pontiff the pallium, which is the distinguishing mark of the plenitude of the pontifical office, and have taken the oath of fidelity and obedience to him, they may also lawfully bestow the pallium upon their suffragans, receiving from them the canonical profession of faith for themselves, and for the Roman Church the pledge of obedience. They may have the standard of the cross borne before them everywhere, except in the city of Rome and wherever the supreme pontiff or his legate wearing the insignia of Apostolic dignity is present. In all provinces subject to their jurisdiction appeals may be taken to them when necessary, saving the appeals directed to the Apostolic See, which must be humbly respected. ” (Canon 5)
- “After the Church of the Greeks with some of her accomplices and supporters had severed herself from the obedience of the Apostolic See, to such an extent did the Greeks begin hating the Latins that among other things which they impiously committed derogatory to the Latins was this, that when Latin priests had celebrated upon their altars, they would not offer the sacrifice upon those altars till the altars had first been washed, as if by this they had been defiled.” (Canon 4)
She is describing a visible and organized Church, with an earthly head, the Roman Pontiff (Canon 5), outside of which there is no salvation (Canon 1). Yet she is simultaneously acknowledging that the disobedient Eastern Orthodox are still validly priests, and still validly offer the Eucharist (Canon 4). Her qualm is that they’re washing the altars, not that they’re offering the Eucharist — She’s quite fine with that. And note that She has earlier mentioned that the Eucharist can be offered only by “the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church, which Jesus Christ Himself gave to the Apostles and their successors” (Canon 1). This is an unambiguous acknowledgment that the Eastern Orthodox remain, in some way, part of the Church: they have Apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist. And, of course, they have valid Baptism. The sacrament of Baptism is even more expansive than the sacrament of the Eucharist, in that anyone can offer it, provided they do so faithfully and correctly (Canon 1). And this sacrament leads to salvation. So without question, the Eastern Orthodox may be saved. But again, they’re saved through the Church headed by the Roman Pontiff, not through the Patriarch of Constantinople. For now, simply recognize that it’s not guaranteed they’ll be saved: Paul condemns “factions” and “dissensions” as mortal sins in Galatians 5:19-21.
The Fourth Lateran Council is important, because it expresses simultaneously that there is no salvation outside of the visible Church, and that some are saved who are not visibly within the Church. Most papal documents and Patristic writings address only one or the other, and thus look like contradictions. Lets look at a few of the more controversial statements the Church has made on this issue.
III. The Early Church Fathers on This Topic
There are a lot of writings on the Church Fathers on this topic, but for brevity’s sake (ha!), I’m including only two writings, one for each of the two supposedly “contradictory” propositions, to show that these were both the view of the Church from the start. This is a good starting place to find more writings from the Church Fathers on this issue.
A. No Salvation Outside the Church
In one of the most explicit declarations that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church (“extra ecclesiam nulla salus“), St. Cyprian of Carthage put it this way in 251 A.D.:
The spouse of Christ cannot be defiled; she is uncorrupted and chaste. She knows one home, with chaste modesty she guards the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God; she assigns the children whom she has created to the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined with an adulteress is separated from the promises of the Church, nor will he who has abandoned the Church arrive at the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He cannot have God as a father who does not have the Church as a mother. If whoever was outside the ark of Noe [Noah] was able to escape, he too who is outside. the Church escapes. The Lord warns, saying: ‘He who is not with me is against me, and who does not gather with me, scatters.’ He who breaks the peace and concord of Christ acts against Christ; he who gathers somewhere outside the Church scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says: ‘I and the Father are one.’ And again of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit it is written: ‘And these three are one.’ Does anyone believe that this unity which comes from divine strength, which is closely connected with the divine sacraments, can be broken asunder in the Church and be separated by the divisions of colliding wills? He who does not hold this unity, does not hold the law of God, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.
This is a frequent theme. The Barque of Peter, the Church, is viewed as the fulfillment of Noah’s Ark, and those on the outside are doomed, just as those in the days of Noah. And entrance to the Barque of Peter is through the saving waters of Baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). This idea wasn’t always controversial. Even John Calvin admitted as much in Book IV, Chapter I, Section 4 of Institutes, in which he declared of the visible Church: “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.).” While true, however, this concept is incomplete.
B. Some Will Be Saved Who Don’t Appear to Be Catholics, or even Christians
Because the early Church also recognized that some who were visibly non-Christians, even atheists, were actually saved Christians spiritually (even if they didn’t know it). The Church was quite clear on this, in fact — and sensibly so, since requiring someone to actually know Christ would have damned virtually every human being on Earth prior to that point in history, through no fault of their own. St. Paul addresses this issue in Romans 1-2, saying that God has revealed enough of Himself through reason and natural law (Romans 1:20), and that mankind in general has rejected Him (Romans 1:21-32). Nevertheless, some will be saved — Paul even recognizes one of the faithful pagans as a prophet in Titus 1:12. Romans 2:6-11 explains the standard by which those who aren’t exposed to Christ are saved:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
Luke 12:48 sounds the same notes: to those who God has revealed more, He will expect more, because He does not show favoritism. Therefore, those who were only exposed to natural law will be judged only by natural law. Romans 2:14-15 is explicit on this. So is St. Justin Martyr, who explained in his First Apology in 156 A.D.:
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably.
Justin is clear in Chapter 5 why he believes Socrates will be saved , since Socrates lived by reason, in pursuit of Reason Himself, the Logos, Christ. Although condemned for atheism, Socrates was really simply denouncing the gods he knew, because he believed in an Unknown God, who we now know as Jesus Christ (Acts 17:22-23).
IV. Other Church Documents on This Topic
A. No Salvation Outside the Church
There are two Church documents, both likely infallible, which are frequently misrepresented in the context of this discussion. The first is the papal bull Unam Sanctam (1302), which declares the same thing that the Fourth Lateran Council declared, but more forcefully: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. ” This statement is easily the most controversial on the subject, since Protestants and Orthodox don’t think they’re subject to the Roman Pontiff. But those who are saved are subject nonetheless. The most direct way of showing this is through logic:
- Everyone who is saved, is saved through Christ and His Church, whether they know it or not.
- Everyone who is saved is saved during this lifetime – there are no second-chances in the afterlife.
- The head of the Church on Earth is the Roman Pontiff.
- Therefore, everyone saved is saved by spiritual membership in the Church Militant, in which they are subject to the Pope.
Since each of the first three premises can be proven through Scripture, and the fourth flows from it, the conclusion of Unam Sanctam is sound. Or put another way, if there is only one Church on Earth, and the Pope is the head of the one Church, the pope is the earthly head of all the saved, including those saved who are known to God alone. Go back once more to 1 Corinthians 12:15-16. The foot thinks it’s independent, but it’s really part of a body, and as part of an organized body, it is subject to other parts of the body: the brain tells the foot where to go, for example. The pope brings this up in Unam Sanctam for good reason. Cutting one’s self off from communion with the pope means cutting one’s self off from the Church of Christ, which Paul (and the Church) tell us incurs damnation. The pope isn’t saying that every saved person is knowingly subject to the Roman Pontiff, or even aware of who he is. Go back to Psalm 87. Some of the saved Cushites probably had no idea who the King of Israel was, but he was still (in a spiritual sense) their head, since they were spiritually Israelites. Likewise, the thief on the Cross may not have known who St. Peter was, or that he was the head Apostle. He was still subject to him.
The other controversial Church document on this issue is Cantate Domino, the so-called “Bull of Union with the Copts,” issued by the Eleventh Session of the Ecumenical Council of Florence on 4 February 1442. It declares:
[The Roman Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church’s sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.
The dogmatic definitions within both Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino are likely infallible; even if they aren’t, they’re certainly accurate statements of what the Catholic Church infallibly teaches. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger cited to Unam Sanctam for support as recently as his 2000 declaration “Dominus Iesus” on the Church. So ignore anyone claiming the Church “repealed” or “no longer believes” Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino. It’s an absolutely fundamental part of our Faith.
But at the same time, be careful that you’re understanding what’s being said correctly. Here’s a historical fact worth remembering: the Coptic delegation present at the Council of Florence signed Cantate Domino, although the Coptic leaders in Egypt would later reject it. The Council of Florence very nearly united the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic churches under the pope. If the Copts felt comfortable signing the document, on behalf of the Coptic Church, chances are, the document doesn’t say, “All Copts are damned to hell forever as schismatics.” Rather, it says something pretty simple. Just as the saved Cushites aren’t saved by being Cushites, but by being (in the eyes of God) Israelites, the same goes for the Jews, Copts, and everyone else: the saved are saved by being spiritually Catholic, whether they realize it or not. If one recognizes salvation through a single Church (as the Bible does), this teaching flows naturally. With all of this, keep Psalm 87 and Romans 9:25 in mind. The Church affirms those as well: some are Catholics who deny being Catholics. The Coptic delegation understood this to be what the Church meant, or they wouldn’t have signed it.
But wait, you say! What about being joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives? Doesn’t that mean they have to be in visible, juridical union with the Church? No. It means that they can’t reject the Catholic Church during this lifetime, and get a second chance later. It’s #2 in the four points I listed under Unam Sanctam. It isn’t necessary to salvation to be juridically connected to the Church. The thief on the Cross, as I mentioned, may not have even know who or what the Church was, but he was still part of it. He was connected to the Catholic Church before death, even though he was never Baptized by water. On the other hand, the other thief on the Cross probably regretted his decision to spite Christ at the instant of his death, and desired union with the Church: too late. The saved before Christ were in the same position as the first thief, as were those who never heard the Gospel, but faithfully followed conscience and natural law in the hope of salvation, and in obedience to the Unknown God.
B. Some Will Be Saved Who Don’t Appear to Be Catholics, or even Christians
Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (1964), the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, has an incredibly good account of salvation history in Chapter II, explaining how Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and non-Christians are saved by Christ and his Church. It begins:
9. At all times and in every race God has given welcome to whosoever fears Him and does what is right. (Cf. Acts 10:35.) God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness.
This, it goes on to explain, is why God created Israel, and ultimately, the Church. God has made all the saved members of the Church, with Christ as Head, governed on Earth by the pope, as it notes elsewhere:
The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church.
The Council proceeds to say that salvation comes only through the Church, through Baptism:
14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it 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 (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3.5) 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.
Having expressly acknowledged that there is no salvation outside the Church, and that rejection of the Church is rejection of Christ, and results in eternal damnation, Lumen Genitum then turns to those who are imperfectly united to the Church, but haven’t intentionally severed themselves. This can be broken down into non-Catholic Christians, non-Christian Theists, and everyone else. First, non-Catholic Christians:
15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. (14*) For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. (15*) They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God.(16*) They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. (17*) Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.
This captures the complex relationship between Catholics and other Christians. They’re in the Church, but not fully or juridically, and there’s pain and division there that needs healing before everything’s okay. Protestants tend not to have a problem with this part, of course. Where the problem comes up is the next paragraph, in which the Council turns to “those who have not yet received the Gospel,” but who “are related in various ways to the people of God.” Broadly, there are two categories: non-Christian theists, and agnostic seekers:
- First, there are the Jews, of whom the Church simply notes: “On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. (Cf. Rom. 11:28-29).”
- After that are Muslims, who “professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.”
- Next, there are other theists, for whom the Church promises: “Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, (cf. Acts 17:25-28) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:4)”
All theists have particular hope in finding God’s pleasure, since “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator.” That’s just another way of saying what Romans 10:13 and Joel 2:32 already said: that all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved. So they can be saved. The standard for whether or not Jews, Muslims, and other theists will be saved is simple enough, whether they follow God to the extent He has revealed Himself: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*).”
This is still fundamental stuff we’re dealing with. What God expected of someone in the time of Noah is less than what He expected in the time of Moses, which was less than what He expects of someone today, now that Christ has entered history personally. But to those who have never heard of Christ, or even Moses,the bar is lower. An otherwise-faithful Jew in Jerusalem who heard and listened to Jesus, and died in 40 A.D. without believing would likely be damned (since he rejected Christ); while a Jew who died on the outskirts of the Roman Empire that same year would likely not be damned, since he’d never heard of Jesus, and was following everything he knew that God had commanded him. Likewise, a Roman pagan who sought God, but never encountered a Jew or Christian long enough to find out what the Faith was all about, might still be saved – St. Justin Martyr is quite sure on some specific men who were saved, because they died for a God they didn’t fully know. St. Irenaeus in Book IV, Chapter XXII, of Against Heresies, addresses such men as well, as well as their ancestors:
For it was not merely for those who believed on Him in the time of Tiberius Caesar that Christ came, nor did the Father exercise His providence for the men only who are now alive, but for all men altogether, who from the beginning, according to their capacity, in their generation have both feared and loved God, and practised justice and piety towards their neighbours, and have earnestly desired to see Christ, and to hear His voice. Wherefore He shall, at His second coming, first rouse from their sleep all persons of this description, and shall raise them up, as well as the rest who shall be judged, and give them a place in His kingdom.
But what of non-theists? Well, we know that God provides aid sufficient for them to come to salvation. Romans 1 tells us that, as does Lumen Gentium:
“Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.
What is notably not said is that these folks are okay where they are – simply that if they seek in good faith, they’ll find – a consistent Biblical theme (Deuteronomy 4:29; Proverbs 8:17; Jeremiah 29:13; Matthew 7:7-8).
Often, Lumen Gentium is painted as if the Council was saying, “You can be a Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew, or Muslim, or agnostic, or atheist, and it’s all okay!” or “You’ll go to Heaven as long as you’re basically a good person.” But clearly, that’s not what She said. Quite the contrary, She reaffirmed the necessity of the Church to salvation – simply acknowledging in addition that some of the Church’s members have incomplete knowledge and incomplete membership in Her Body. None of this is radical stuff. Consider St. Paul’s description of how the Unknown God worshiped by the Greeks is the same God as the Known God worshiped by the Jews and Christians (Acts 17:22-31). But St. Paul also says in Acts 17:30, in that same sermon to the Greeks: “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Once a seeker has found Who he is looking for, he can’t go back to being a seeker without rejecting God. The Gospel is Good News, in that is brings the possibility of salvation (Romans 10:14-15) , but it also brings with it the possibility of judgment, for those who reject the Gospel (Malachi 3:2).
V. A Full Picture of the Church in Salvation
There are two writings I wanted to close on, from two of the finest Catholic writers of the modern era. Both are interested in trying to understand how to accurately capture this complex reality. The first is by Pope John Paul II, in a 1995 homily he gave called, “All Salvation Comes Through Christ.” Early in the homily, he quotes his own encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, explaining how the gift of salvation cannot be limited “to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all,” and that “Many people do not have the opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions.” However, he continues in his homily:
What I have said above, however, does not justify the relativistic position of those who maintain that a way of salvation can be found in any religion, even independently of faith in Christ the Redeemer, and that interreligious dialogue must be based on this ambiguous idea. That solution to the problem of the salvation of those who do not profess the Christian creed is not in conformity with the Gospel. Rather, we must maintain that the way of salvation always passes through Christ, and therefore the Church and her missionaries have the task of making him known and loved in every time, place and culture. Apart from Christ “there is no salvation.” As Peter proclaimed before the Sanhedrin at the very start of the apostolic preaching: “There is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).
For those too who through no fault of their own do not know Christ and are not recognized as Christians, the divine plan has provided a way of salvation. As we read in the Council’s Decree Ad Gentes, we believe that “God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel” to the faith necessary for salvation (AG 7). Certainly, the condition “inculpably ignorant” cannot be verified nor weighed by human evaluation, but must be left to the divine judgment alone. For this reason, the Council states in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes that in the heart of every man of good will, “Grace works in an unseen way…. The Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (GS 22).
In other words, everyone who is saved is saved by Christ. A Jew, Muslim, etc., who makes it to Heaven does so because of Jesus Christ – and no one else. John Paul II reiterates this again:
It is important to stress that the way of salvation taken by those who do not know the Gospel is not a way apart from Christ and the Church. The universal salvific will is linked to the one mediation of Christ. “God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and come to know the truth. And the truth is this: God is one. One also is the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:3-6). Peter proclaimed this when he said: “There is no salvation in anyone else” and called Jesus the “cornerstone” (Acts 4:11-12), emphasizing Christ’s necessary role at the basis of the Church.
Since Christ brings about salvation through his Mystical Body, which is the Church, the way of salvation is connected essentially with the Church. The axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus”–“outside the Church there is no salvation”–stated by St. Cyprian (Epist. 73, 21; PL 1123 AB), belongs to the Christian tradition. It was included in the Fourth Lateran Council (DS 802), in the Bull Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII (DS 870) and the Council of Florence (Decretum pro Jacobitis, DS 1351). The axiom means that for those who are not ignorant of the fact that the Church has been established as necessary by God through Jesus Christ, there is an obligation to enter the Church and remain in her in order to attain salvation (cf. LG 14). For those, however, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. RM 10). It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her. It is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church the Savior founded.
In order to take effect, saving grace requires acceptance, cooperation, a yes to the divine gift. This acceptance is, at least implicitly, oriented to Christ and the Church. Thus it can also be said that sine ecclesia nulla salus–“without the Church there is no salvation.” Belonging to the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, however implicitly and indeed mysteriously, is an essential condition for salvation.
John Paul II’s point is downright brilliant, and the full homily is worth reading (much of the rest explains the Church’s role in preparing the ignorant for the Holy Spirit). Those saved, however they’re saved, must say “Yes” to God. And a Yes to God the Father is a Yes to God the Son and to the Church of God, given their interrelation. Note that in arriving at this conclusion, he’s relying at once (in the same paragraph!) on Lumen Gentium, St. Cyprian, the Fourth Lateran Council, the Bull Unam Sanctam, and the Council of Florence’s Cantato Domino. Pretty much everything covered in this post, he ties together succinctly.
The second thing I wanted to close on is by Msgr. Ronald Knox. He’s writing in 1923, in a brilliant book (one of my favorites) called The Belief of Catholics; although written well before Lumen Gentium, his work is in complete agreement with everything before and after which we’ve looked at. In Chapter XVIII, Knox writes of how much of a stumbling block this part of the faith is to modern Protestants:
Nothing, probably, arouses more antagonism against the Church than her exclusiveness. […] The inquirer into her doctrines may be attracted by all that is positive in what she teaches, and yet, as a child of his age, shrink from giving in his name to her allegiance because he shrinks from a negation. Can he “un-church” the other denominations, satisfying as they do the spiritual needs of men wiser and better than himself?
Nay, will he not have to go farther? Will he not have to exclude them, not merely from his communion on earth, but from his hopes of heaven? What else is meant by that grim tenet, “No salvation outside the Church”?
I like this introduction, because it’s an accurate assessment of what people think “no salvation outside the Church” means. Knox then explains what it really means:
Let it be understood from the outset that there is one sense in which this principle is literally true, admitting of no qualifications. Catholics believe that there is no other religious body in the world through which salvation can be procured. The fact of membership in any other religious body than ours will not contribute to any man’s welfare in eternity. Let us suppose two brothers, both brought up and confirmed as Anglicans. One, from a dislike of forms and ceremonies, breaks away from his old associations and throws in his lot (let us say) with the Society of Friends. Even here he does not aspire to full membership; but he believes in our Lord, he prays, he lives an upright life. His brother remains an Anglican, and wears his Anglicanism with a difference; he goes to Confession and to Communion with exemplary regularity, believes in the Real Presence, and puts his trust in the “undivided” Church. Now, from the Catholic point of view, there is no more and no less hope of salvation in the one case than in the other. Either is saved, if he is saved, under the same title; namely that, in the sense to be explained lower down, he is a Roman Catholic without knowing it.
In a word, we do not think of our Church as the best religious body to belong to; we believe that those who do not belong to it, provided that they believe in our Lord and desire to do his will, may just as well belong to no religious body at all. Even a schismatic Greek who is “in good faith,” although he receives valid Communion, and at the hour of death valid absolution, is saved through Rome, not through Constantinople. For it is normally necessary to salvation to hold the Catholic faith; and to believe in Catholic doctrines without believing in the existence of that infallible authority which guarantees them all is to hold, not the Catholic faith, but a series of speculative opinions. It is the first infidelity that counts.
That last sentence summarizes the faith proclaimed by the Fourth Lateran Council neatly. Knox then mentions that this claim to uniqueness is one which “the Catholic Church still lays claim; save for a handful of sects, alone among the Christianities. That is her continuous witness, from the times when the New Testament was written to our own.” This is a badge of pride: if Christ set up One Visible Church, it’s not hard to figure out which One.
And yet it is true, I think, to say that Catholics in our own day are more ready to believe in the good faith of those outside the Church, and consequently to hope for their salvation, than Catholics were (say) in the Middle Ages. That is not an alteration of doctrine; it is rather a shifting of perspective. The question, whether and in what circumstances salvation is possible outside the visible unity of the Church, is a question which is felt to have more urgency in proportion as the imagination pictures the number of people affected. When the known world could be roughly divided into Catholics, Jews, and Mohammedans, it would hardly occur to a Catholic writer to consider whether the sporadic heresies of his day numbered among their adherents any who refused the authority of the Church through inculpable ignorance. Today, and especially in English-speaking countries, we are everywhere surrounded by Protestantism, and Protestantism nearly in the tenth generation; we are conscious that many of our neighbours live by high Christian ideals, and have an unaffected love of the truth. Naturally we are more ready to keep in mind that principle of Catholic theology which deals with those who hold religious errors “in good faith.” Knox then directly addresses the shift in tone from Unam Sanctam to the modern age:
Knox then quotes Pope Piux IX, who throughout his pontificate (1846-1878), strongly to advance the Gospel. Yet it was this same Pius who wrote: opposed Modernist heresies. Pius IX, you may recall, was the pope during Vatican I’s dogmatic declaration on papal infallibility, and he was not a man to blush at using the office of the papacy:
“Those who are hampered by invincible ignorance about our Holy Religion, and, keeping the natural law, with its commands that are written by God in every human heart, and being ready to obey him, live honourably and uprightly, can, with the power of Divine light and grace helping them, attain eternal life. For God, who clearly sees, searches out, and knows the minds, hearts, thoughts, and dispositions of all, in his great goodness and mercy does not by any means suffer a man to be punished with eternal torments, who is not guilty of voluntary fault.”
Everything Lumen Gentium says is simply an application of this principle. Knox continues:
It may be added that invincible ignorance is defined as “that which has not been capable of being overcome or removed by reasonable care; whether because no thought or doubt concerning such matters ever entered the mind; or because, even if such a thought had come into the mind, this ignorance could not have been overcome or removed by the use of reasonable and common care, nor could a knowledge of the truth have been obtained.”
Knox reminds his readers that with the possible exception of those under the age of reason, all souls are destined either for Heaven or Hell,
and this is true even of those myriads of souls which have never had the opportunity, or never had full opportunity, to hear the Christian message preached; true of those many souls which have never inherited any intelligent tradition of Theism. All of these, in proportion as invincible ignorance debarred them from the truth, will be judged according to the lights they had.
Thus, someone committing ritual suicide out of a mistaken belief that it is honorable will be judged less harshly for this act than a Christian who does so knowing it is abhored by God. For that matter, a non-Christian who divorces is explicitly held to a lower standard, Biblically, than is a Christian. Knox sums up this idea by noting that “nobody goes to hell except through his own fault,” so if a person commits an act they cannot reasonably know is wrong, God won’t hold them responsible for that act (which is not, of course, to say that they won’t be damned for those acts which they did know were wrong).
These considerations clearly do not apply to those who, having once obtained the grace of faith through baptism, and arrived at an intelligent appreciation of Christian tenets, abandon their belief in favour of agnosticism or of some rival religion. That failure of the mental powers can be held to excuse such a change of sentiments is evident from the controversy which arose over the later speculations of Mivart, and the ecclesiastical sanction which ultimately granted him Christian burial. It may well be that some of those whom we regard as formal apostates were not responsible for their apparently sane decisions. It may well be that others never really “left” the faith, because in fact, through defect of education, the faith had never been in them. It is difficult not to believe that the absence of all priestly ministrations sometimes causes, especially among the uneducated, inculpable lapses from Christian unity. But such charitable speculations will not always be in place; and there are careers upon which no optimistic epitaph can be pronounced, except the hope that some change of heart, outwardly unattested, may have saved the unhappy soul from the guilt of final impenitence.
The sentence I’ve put in bold would prove sadly prophetic: in the second half of the twentieth century, catechesis, particularly in the West, became dismally bad, and “Catholics” left the Church in droves, having never encountered Catholicism. While plenty of Catholics were guilty of that abomination, it would be unjust to place the guilt on those who left without knowing what they’d left. Still, as a general rule, Catholics who leave the faith leave Christ. For those born Protestant who never subsequently encounter true Catholicism, the situation is quite different:
But, whereas it is normal to assume that one who takes the initiative in heresy will be held responsible for his disloyalty to Catholic doctrine, it would be unreasonable to argue that one born and bred in heresy, who does not “see his way” to accepting the Catholic Faith, lies under the same condemnation. All the traditions of his thought, all the prejudices of his race and caste, all the influence of his friends and teachers, has been thrown into the opposite scale; the “vis inertiae” tells not for but against his chances of being a Catholic. Meanwhile, he has probably received valid baptism; the habit of faith, then, has been implanted in him, and those circumstances of environment and education which have made him a heretic are not imputable to him as a fault; he has not wilfully sinned against it. So long, therefore, as he does not come in contact with the Catholic system at all, or does not come across it in such a way as to be effectively challenged by its claims, he has not refused grace. So long as he takes all reasonable pains to study those claims in a fair-minded spirit, and still, through some defect of outlook, of temperament, of intellectual apparatus, finds himself drawn no nearer to the truth, he has not refused grace. His ignorance is, so far as we can tell, of the invincible kind; he remains what he is “in good faith.” If he falls into grave sin he has, of course, no access to sacramental absolution; but it is still possible for him to make that perfect act of contrition which claims forgiveness. We have no fears for such heretics as this.
Hammering home the same point as virtually every other Catholic source, Knox explains that these saved Protestants are saved by the Catholic Church and nothing else:
But, we must repeat, it is not through adhesion to any other religious body that such a man can qualify for membership in our Church, as by a kind of “ad eundem” degree. Rather, he is a lonely satellite of the Church’s system that has lost its true orbit. And it should be added that this plea of “good faith” is one which may be urged on behalf of the Protestant, but it is not one which he can urge in his own behalf. A man can say, “You are in good faith,” “He is in good faith,” but not “I am in good faith”–that is to beg the question. The attitude of mind–painfully common–which says, “I am not qualified to go into all these complicated credentials of the Catholic Church,” is an attitude of intellectual indolence masquerading as intellectual humility. The man who “thinks there may be something in it”, yet makes no effort to find out how much, is actuated not by invincible but by supine ignorance. The man who (worse still) excuses himself from examining our credentials for fear lest he should find them to be true; who tells you that he is too busy to consider the Catholic claim, or too modest, or too unadventurous, when at the back of his mind he is shrinking from the injury to his prospects, the troubles with his family which submission to the Church would involve–such a man is actuated not by invincible but by affected ignorance. And, I am sorry to say it, I believe there is much supine ignorance, much affected ignorance, among our fellow- countrymen. Let them not deceive themselves; they will have to find another title to heaven if they are to attain heaven at all.
I think Knox’s warning against false ignorance is still true, although two major circumstances have changed. First, Catholics today are less informed (and more misinformed) than Catholics of virtually any other generation I know of. This is being solved, and quickly, but it’s still quite a problem. So Protestants interested in Catholicism may well be invincibly ignorant on account of not finding a single Catholic who accurately presents the Faith. On the other hand, the Internet exists, and it’s not very hard to find answers to all things Catholic, if one is truly interested.
Thank you to everyone who made it this far — this was one of my longest posts, but I felt it was worth taking an exhaustive look for one primary reason: to prove that the Church hasn’t changed Her position. She’s always viewed Herself as united with Christ, and therefore, as indispensible to the economy of salvation. Yet She’s also acknowledged from the start that there are some who silently follow the Lord without appearing to be in union with Her, and who are perhaps unaware themselves that they are members of the Body. Hopefully, it’s more than clear now that these, too, are saved by Christ through the Church. The Church condemns two heresies: Feeneyism, which says only those juridically or visibly members can be saved; and universalism, that anyone can be saved by being faithful members of their own religion, without Christ or the Church. This is the faith of the Psalmist in Psalm 87; of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12; of Irenaus and Justin; of the Fourth Lateran Council; Msgr. Ronald Knox; and John Paul II. This is our Faith, and outside of it, none are saved.