Why Mathison is Wrong on Salvation Outside the Church

Last week, two of the issues I addressed were the question of salvation outside the Church and Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, part of an ongoing critique. Well, here’s the perfect storm — it’s Mathison’s attempted critique of the Church for allegedly switching positions on the question of whether non-Catholics can be saved.

As you might know, Mathison is convinced that the Magisterium can just make up, willy-nilly, dogma, and that Catholics will just blindly accept whatever they’re told, even if it explicitly flies in the face of every scrap of Scripture and Tradition. This is based on larger confusions he has about the nature and limitations of papal infallibility, but suffice to say for now, Mathison’s view of the Church (“Tradition III”) is 180 degrees opposed to the limitations the Magisterium recognizes on Her own authority. In any case, Mathison claims on page 135:

With Tradition III, Rome has, in effect, freed herself not only from Scripture but also from the burden of her own past authoritative doctrinal decisions.

To prove this, he offers in a footnote (fn. 25) what he believes is proof of this claim:

A perfect example of this may be seen in the dogmatic change that has taken place on the issue of salvation outside of the Roman Catholic church. The papal bull Unam Sanctum (1302) and Cantate Domine [sic] (1441) expressly state that there is absolutely no possibility of salvation for any man outside of visible union with the Roman Catholic church and subjection to the bishop of Rome. The decrees of Vatican II (1962-65), however, expressly allowed for the possibility of salvation, not only for non-Roman Catholic Christians, but also for Jews, Muslims, pagans, and even those without an “explicit knowledge of God.” The issue is not which if either of these two positions is true. The issue is the fact that they cannot both be true, and the fact that the second cannot seriously be considered a “development” of the first. The bulls decree that it is “altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Unam Sanctum). Vatican II decrees that it is not altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff; in fact it is not even necessary for salvation that a person be Christian. The two doctrines are in direct and complete contradiction with each other, and no amount of explanation can hide that plain fact.

There are thus at least five serious errors in this footnote alone:

  1. Mathison claims that Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino require visible union with the Church. They don’t. They require union with the Church, but the Church has from its beginnings recognized that there are some Catholics known only to God who are not in juridical, visible union.
  2. Mathison claims that Unam Sanctam and Cantate Domino expressly require visible union. Whereas #1 might be a matter of simply misinterpreting the implications of the documents, #2 is just flatly false. Feel free to check out either bull (since this express requirement is supposedly found in both). Find anything that even speaks of visible union, much less requires it. (Remember again that the Coptic delegation at the Council of Florence approved of Cantate Domino, and weren’t in visible union with Rome. According to Mathison, they approved a Church document which damned them to Hell).
  3. Mathison claims Vatican II expressly allows the possibility of salvation of those without explicit knowledge of God. First, there is a very narrow sense in which that is true: anyone can be saved (atheist, theist, whatever), if they come to Christ. That’s the normal Christian understanding, and not what he means. He means instead that, according to Vatican II, atheists who die atheists might go to Heaven. Nowhere does Vatican II claim this. Rather, the only Vatican II document using the phrase “explicit knowledge of God” is Lumen Gentium, and it says:

    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.

    So atheists who seek after the True and the Good (which is to say, atheists searching for God), but who have not yet come to an explicit knowledge of Him can be promised two things: (1) God will aide them by providing them “the helps necessary for salvation” — that is, whatever it is that they’re missing that’s keeping them atheists, God will give them graces sufficient to overcome that; and (2) whatever they’ve found in groping for the True and Good will be considered preparation for the Gospel. Both #1 and #2 require, as a starting assumption, that they (1) still need to be saved; and (2) still need the Gospel. That’s the opposite of what Mathison is claiming Vatican II teaches.

  4. The claim “Vatican II decrees that it is not altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff” is just bizarrely untrue. Vatican II acknowledges that some who aren’t visibly subject to the pope are saved. But it explicitly says that the Roman Pontiff is earthly head of all the Church, including those not in full visible union. This is Lumen Gentium again:

    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.

    That’s the same Vatican document Mathison is quoting from, and it says the exact opposite of what he (without citation or reference) claims.

  5. Mathison claims that Vatican II decrees that “it is not altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Again, that’s just false. I showed in #4 that this is a horrible misrepresentation of what the Council actually taught, but more simply, find any Conciliar decree declaring that one need not be subject to the Roman Pontiff. You won’t find it because it doesn’t exist.

In #1, 3, and 4, Mathison misunderstands the evidence, and presents as true things which just aren’t. This is forgivable, but evidence of a general sloppiness which pervades the book. He assumes he understands things he doesn’t, and doesn’t seem to consult with any Catholic sources before declaring to Catholics what the Church actually teaches. More problematic are the times in #2, 3, and 5, in which Mathison doesn’t just take away the absolutely-wrong conclusion, but claims, without ever citing to a single Church document, that they explicitly say or decree something which they just don’t. Here, there’s not even room for argument over interpretation. He’s just claiming (three times in a single footnote) that explicit evidence exists where it doesn’t.

My continual grievances with this book have been: (1) he doesn’t have a firm grasp on the evidence he’s citing; (2) he doesn’t consult with Catholics, or seemingly anyone who does have a firm grasp on the issues he’s dealing with; (3) he doesn’t quote the document. If Mathison had quoted Unam Sanctam and Lumen Gentium, it’d have been clear that they weren’t saying what he said they were saying. But he doesn’t, and I end up having to write lengthy blog posts refuting arguments that even basic research should have prevent him from making in the first place.

In Case You’re Confused by the Apparent Contradiction….
The Church has always held both: (1) that the Church is an indispensable part of salvation, such that you cannot be saved without Her (since Christ has but one Body and one Bride); and (2) that some will be saved without express membership in the Church. The teachings are in seeming tension (just as “One God,” and “Three Persons” are in seeming tension), but they don’t contradict. To paraphrase Karl Rahner, everyone saved is Catholic, even if some are “Anonymous Catholics” who may not grasp their membership in the Body (this is, of course, less important than Jesus knowing you’re in the Body). This isn’t some new modern teaching: in the earlier, more exhaustive post, I quoted St. Justin Martyr, who spoke of how Socrates seemed an atheist to his peers, but was spiritually a follower of the Christ he didn’t know by Name. So this isn’t a “development” at all: it’s the clear teaching of Tradition. It’s only a contradiction if you claim that visible union is required, which Mathison does, but the Church doesn’t (and in fact, condemns as heresy).

The truth of the matter is that there are differences in perspectives (some like to focus more on the fact that you must be Catholic to be saved; some like to focus more on the fact that not everyone saved realizes that they’re Catholic), these two teachings aren’t particularly hard to hold simultaneously. US law requires that only American citizens may vote: it doesn’t restrict voting to those who are within the visible US borders, and it doesn’t restrict it even to those who consider themselves Americans. You can be an angry anti-American US citizen living in Paris, and you’re still an American. If that’s not a logical contradiction (and it’s not), then the Catholic Church’s position isn’t, either. And it’s worth noting in passing that almost all Christians hold to some variation of this: believing that we’re only saved through Christ, but that some were saved before Him, by Him, without explicit knowledge of Him or membership in His Church.


  1. What about the authenticity of the pastoral letters? In God and The World p. 355, Pope Benedict seems to imply that these may not be by St. Paul. But in the Catholic Encyclopedia article from 1906 online, it says that the authenticity of the pastorals is part of the infallible tradition.

    Am I misreading BXVI here or is there a position switch going on? I presume the former, but this is weird to me. If it is the former, do you know what the case for the authenticity of the pastorals is that refutes the “majority of NT scholars”?


  2. Sam,

    Good question. I tried to answer earlier, but Blogger ate my reply. Short answer, the infallible tradition is that all Scripture is inspired. Catholic Enyclopedia and BXVI might disagree about the implications of that teaching, though (and they’re free to do so).

    Catholic Encyclopedia argues that this means that 1 Timothy was written by Paul personally, since it seems to say it was in 1 Timothy 1:1-2. Benedict seems to think that we can accept Scripture as inspired while still rejecting that 1 Tim. 1:1-2 proves Pauline authorship.

    It’s possible, I suppose, that we have something like a Romans 16:22 situation. Romans is Paul’s (inspired) thoughts recorded by Tertius, the scribe who did the actual writing. 1 Timothy clearly could have been the same way, but Benedict seems to be arguing for the possibility of something bigger than a scribal role: Paul’s thoughts through the lens of one of his students, like a ghost-writer.

    Neither BXVI nor Catholic Encyclopedia’s thoughts on this are authoritative (or presented as such), and it’s not an issue the Church has spoken on.

  3. So, as soon as I posed that, another possibility struck me.

    The Book of Deuteronomy is written by Moses, but Deuteronomy 34 clearly isn’t. It doesn’t even pretend to be: it describes Moses’ death. Moses’ follower(s) added this (and perhaps other sections) afterwards. They didn’t do this to forge the Book, but to build upon the foundation Moses laid, and as Christians, we believe that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit in doing so.

    There’s a camp within Catholic Biblical circles that think something similar happened here and in other places (like the end of Mark’s Gospel). Benedict may be one of them. If that’s what’s going on, I don’t think it’s incompatible. We don’t think 1 Timothy is inspired because Paul wrote it, but because the Holy Spirit wrote it. He could have used two pens, so to speak.

  4. I was looking into this issue again and saw that Origen (who I understand to be something of a universalist) said: “Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, i.e. outside the Church, none is saved” (Hom. in Jos., iii, n. 5 in P.G., XII, 841). Which strikes me as a good example that the ancients did not mean you must be a visible Catholic to be saved when they said “outside the Church, none is saved”

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