SALVATION OUTSIDE THE CHURCH?
By Brian Hughes
During the course of the two millenia of Catholic Church history, few formal dogmas have been as clearly, frequently, and unambiguously enunciated as extra ecclesiam nulla salus, that is, outside the Church there is no salvation.
Despite this fact, there presently rages within what
could be loosely defined as the "Catholic world" an acrimonious
controversy concerning this particular dogma-no doubt due in great part to the
misinterpretation by many of the documents of the Second Vatican Council
dealing with the Church and the question of salvation outside its visible
structure-particularly the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium,
and the Council's decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio.
Catholics who endeavor to remain faithful to the Church's magisterium often find themselves between the Scylla of modernist universalism- "it doesn't matter, nobody goes to Hell anymore simply because they aren't Catholic-all religions are good and lead to heaven"; and the Charbydis of extreme exclusivism-(sometimes referred to as Feeneyiteism) which affirms quite the opposite-"no unbaptized person can ever go to heaven-no exceptions whatsoever."
Both extremes have their modern day partisans, and both, needless to say, are theologically untenable positions, when considered from a truly Catholic perspective.
Nevertheless it would extremely ingenuous if one were to imagine that both extremes are equally in vogue today; by far the more "fashionable" of these two theological positions is the modernist -universalist view. This error is, without a doubt, to use what can only be regarded nowadays as a
politically "incorrect" term, a damnable heresy. There is no other way to describe this view of salvation.
Heresies – Pluralism & Feeneyiteism
In one fell swoop, whether of religious indifference
or of misguided "magnanimity", missionary charity is downgraded to a
mere practical naturalism, faithful Catholics are asked to disregard the
constant, solemnly proclaimed and authoritative teaching of the Church, and
those who are not
yet Catholics but who are sincerely searching for the truth are repelled by such lack of conviction, and seek it elsewhere. For if it is no longer to be believed that the Catholic Church is the one true ark of salvation, why should anyone take the time or effort to get aboard?
Since this particular theological opinion, however,
has received, a considerable theological underpinning from many so called
"faithful Catholic" celebrities, among them the notorious Karl Rahner and the late Hans Urs Von Balthasar (of "Dare We Hope That All May Be
Saved?") fame, and supported by the (unapproved) "Marian"
apparitions at Medjugorje, as well as by many within the "Charismatic
renewal", who seem to think that undergoing the "pentecostal
experience" is more important than membership in any Church, there is
considerable reluctance on the part of many mainstream Catholics to catalogue
it as heretical.
At the other end of the eschatological spectrum, the extreme exclusivist view is held by a small, but growing number of ultra-traditionalists, many of whom have severe doubts regarding the orthodoxy of the Second Vatican Council , and some of whom who have actually fallen into formal schism from the Church, repelled, in many cases, by the doctrinal ambivalence and liturgical anarchy prevalent in a considerable number of dioceses and parishes throughout the
Both of these errors must be addressed forthrightly, and it must be demonstrated and proclaimed that the dogmas of the Church regarding salvation, heaven and hell, have not changed, nor have they been modified in any way, either by the mercurial "spirit of Vatican II", whatever that may be, or the atmosphere of ecumenical conviviality, which tends, tragically, to place most doctrinal matters on the back burner, appearing to many to be more taken up with social etiquette, press releases, and photo-ops. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has certainly not fallen into formal heresy-this is an impossibility from the standpoint of faith. But many of its well meaning prelates have certainly fallen into the oftentimes fatal trap of wanting to be liked, which, in its own way, is a heresy of sorts. Their plight is certainly understandable; after all, who among us who goes around preaching that his Church is the only means to salvation, can, in this day and age, expect to be smiled on by this or that ecumenical committee, civic council, theological commission or Rotary Club? Yet more than merely being liked is required of those entrusted by Christ to shepherd His flock.
Despite all the contemporary confusion, the Church has never failed to teach the truths which have been entrusted to it, received from the Apostles. The truth is there, waiting to be discovered by all those willing to seek it. The search may, for many, be painstaking and tedious, as so many modernistic theological sophistries must be withstood, in order that this truth may be glimpsed in all its fullness. Yet, despite all the obstacles in place in this presently indifferent world of ours, it can be found and cherished unto eternal life.
Sole Principle of Spiritual Truth, Unity, and Life as the Body of Christ
The necessity of membership in the Church for salvation is implicitly yet clearly affirmed time and time again in the New Testament, by Our Lord and the Apostles; the following quotations by no means constitute a complete synthesis of New Testament teachings on the Church-rather I have provided them merely to illustrate that, for all the controversy which has been generated lately within the Church with regards to this dogma and its misinterpretation by well meaning and sincere Catholics, Sacred Scripture and the early Fathers very clearly testify to it.
The analogy used by Our Lord Himself, with reference to the Church as a sheepfold and Himself as Good Shepherd, connotes the exclusive nature of Church membership, and the dangers of being excluded from the fold:
”Amen, amen, I say to you; he that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth by the door is the shepherd of the sheep; to whom the porter openeth: and the sheep hear his voice and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. I am the door. If any one enter by me, he shall be saved, and he shall go in, and shall go out, and shall find pastures. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine, and mine know me. As the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for my sheep. And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”
(St. John 10:1-3, 9, 14-16 Douay-Rheims
The identification of the Church with the sheepfold as the sole guarantor of truth and entrance to spiritual life is alluded to by the great St. Irenaeus:
”Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth; so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.” ( St.Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 3, ch. 4)
St. Irenaeus' clear allusion to the foregoing passage from John's Gospel is unmistakable; the Church is the exclusive entrance to spiritual life in Jesus Christ.
The Gospels and Epistles are replete with analogies which illustrate the indispensability of the believer's being united with Christ in an organic unity through membership in the Church, which relationship is also likened by Jesus to that of a vine to its branches:
”I am the vine: you are the branches: he that abideth in me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me, you can do nothing. If anyone remaineth not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth.” (
St. Augustine of Hippo comments on this passage thus:
”This passage of the Gospel, brethren, where the Lord calls Himself the vine, and his disciples the branches, declares in so many words that the Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, is the head of the Church, and that we are His members.” (Tractate 80: John 15:1-3)
Therefore, not remaining on the vine, not "abiding in Jesus", that is, not being incorporated into his Church, is to be "withered, gathered up, cast into the fire" synonymous with spiritual death or eternal perdition.
”And if some of the branches be broken, and thou, being a wild olive tree, art ingrafted in them, and art made partaker of the root and of the fatness of the olive tree. Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast: thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say, then: the branches were broken off that I might be grafted in. Well: because of unbelief, they were broken off. But thou standest by faith: be not high minded, but fear.” (Romans 11: 17-20)
We should fear being cast off from the Church, the Olive tree, as the consequences are separation from the very life of Christ Jesus; if branches could be "broken off" then this quite logically implies the "casting away" of those who rejected Jesus Christ and, by implication, His Church:
”…in the Catholic Church, they obtain the root of charity in the bond of peace and in the fellowship of unity: so that all the sacraments of truth which they hold serve not to condemn, but to deliver them. The branches ought not to boast…for if they do not live by union to the root, they shall…be cast into the fire. But of some branches that were broken off, the apostle says
that "God is able to graft them in again." (
Perhaps the most significant illustration which St. Paul presents with respect to the intimacy of our relationship with and in Christ is the revelation that we actually form one living Body-with Christ, through our individual incorporation into His Church-
”For as in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one, members of another.” (Romans 12: 4-5)
”For the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. For no man ever hateth his own flesh: but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother: and shall adhere to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament: but I speak in Christ and in the Church.” (Ephesians 5:23, 29, 30-32)
”Now, you are the body of Christ, and members of member.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)
This bodily unity with Christ Jesus and with all members of His Church is not just a moral, or symbolical unity, but a true, albeit mystical, incorporation in Christ, effected by the sacrament of Baptism; a vital unity, a new life in Christ's life, the sole principle and source of spiritual life, absolutely necessary for obtaining and sustaining the supernatural life of grace:
”Know ye not that all we, who are baptized in Christ Jesus, are baptized in his death? For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, in like manner we shall be also of His resurrection. Now, if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live together with Christ: So do you also reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Romans 6: 3, 5, 8, 11)
”For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free: and in one spirit we have all been made to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)
This is the "new birth" without which there is no salvation, about which our Lord spoke to Nicodemus:
”Jesus answered: Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the
This new birth implies much more than a mere mental act of "accepting Jesus Christ as personal savior". It signifies a real, supernatural rebirth effected by means of the sacrament of Baptism, a birth into the Kingdom of God, an incorporation into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, wherein the believer grows in grace and in faith, hope and charity through the sacramental graces which the Church alone provides:
”Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” (St. Mark 16:15-16)
”Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the Universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said: "Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (
When considered from this perspective, the Eucharistic words of our Lord take on added significance, as eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ Jesus becomes for the incorporated member of Christ's mystical body the most intimate co-mingling of his or her nature with that of the God man, absolutely necessary if one is to be united to Christ Jesus in the Church,
and partake of His life:
”Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen, I say to you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (St. John 6:54-55)
”For Christ is the bread of life; and this bread does not belong to all men, but is ours…And we ask that this bread should be given to us daily, that we who are in Christ, and daily receive the Eucharist for the food of salvation, may not…be separated from Christ's body…When, therefore, He says, that whoever shall eat of His bread shall live forever; as it is manifest that those who partake of His body and receive the Eucharist by right of communion are living, so, on the other hand, we must fear and pray lest any who, being withheld from communion, is separate from Christ's body should remain at a distance from salvation: as He himself threatens, and says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall have no life in you." And therefore we ask that our bread-that is, Christ-may be given us daily, that we who abide and live in Christ may not depart from His sanctification and body.” (St. Cyprian of
It is clear from Sacred Scripture that this new vital
relationship with Christ is possible only by means of His Church, and that there is only one Church of
”I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beseech you that you walk worthy of the vocation in which you are called, with all humility, and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity, careful to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, one body and one spirit: as you are called in one hope of your vocation, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:1-5)
”There is one God, and Christ is one, and there is one Church, and one chair founded upon the rock by the word of the Lord. Another altar cannot be constituted nor a new priesthood be made, except the one altar and the one priesthood. Whosoever gathereth elsewhere scattereth. Whatsoever is appointed by human madness, so that the divine disposition is violated, is
adulterous, is impious, is sacrilegious.” (St. Cyprian of Carthage, epistle 39)
"One Lord, one faith, and one baptism" implies one standard of the truths of faith alone, a guarantor of the veracity of the words of Jesus Christ and of His promises, and the one sure sign of His saving presence among men: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15)
”See that ye all follow the bishop, ,even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God…Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (St. Ignatius of
Contrary to what may be maintained by contemporary, so called "Catholic" theologians, membership in the Church and incorporation in Christ is a supernatural vocation, a work of prevenient grace which flows to the believer from Almighty God gratuitously without regard to pre-existing human merit, or any disposition of mere human nature. It is not something that all human beings possess by birth, or a "civil right." Though God desires that all men should be saved, and proffers to all the means of salvation, the grace which sanctifies cannot be said to be the fruit of human initiative or of an immanent "religiosity" latent in the human spirit, as when, thanks to modernists like Karl Rahner, the concept of the "potentia obedentialis" (a natural dispositon to grace) is misinterpreted to the detriment of the Church's exclusive role as the ark of salvation. A salvific and efficacious response on the part of the believer to this supernatural vocation originates in the inscrutable designs of Divine Providence, and must find its fulfillment in membership in the one body of Christ:
”Jesus , therefore, answered, and said to them: Murmur not among yourselves. ‘No man can come to me, except the Father draw him, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (
”For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be made conformable to the image of his Son, that he might be the first born amongst many brethren. And whom he predestined, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Romans 8:29-30)
”But in this food and drink, that is, in the body and blood of the Lord, it is not so. For both he that doth not take it hath no life, and that doth take it hath life, and that indeed eternal life. And thus He would have this meat and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of His own body and members, which is the holy Church in his predestined, and called, and justified, and glorified saints and believers. Of these, the first is already effected, namely predestination; the second and third, that is, the vocation and justification and justification, have taken place, are taking place, and will take place; but the fourth, namely the glorifying, is at present in hope; but a thing future in realization. The sacrament of this thing, namely, the unity of the body and blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord's table in some places daily…”(St. Augustine, T 26, on John 6:41-59)
One could go on and on with example after example and analogy after analogy drawn from both the Sacred Scriptures and the early Fathers-the Church as the Heavenly Jerusalem, into which nothing defiled can enter-the Church as the new Ark of Noah, outside of which, all will perish-but this would require a volume in itself.
Some readers may ask, "why even take up all these seemingly unrelated themes-isn't it enough to show from authoritative Church documents that outside the Church there is no salvation?" They may be right, but I have endeavored to demonstrate, from what has been written so far, that membership in the Church is not only necessary for salvation, but is, in a sense, salvation itself: for through His body, the Church, Christ Jesus preaches the truth, and is really, corporally united to His elect in baptism and in the life giving sacramental and ascetic life of the Church, the summit of which is His co-mingling with the members in His giving of Himself in the sacrament of His own body and blood, and that it is within the Church alone that this supernatural life can be had; nowhere else.
In other words, apart from the Church, there is no
life in Christ.
Therefore the question, of salvation outside the Church, understood in an objective sense is a nonsensical question. If this were otherwise, then the New Testament, and the overwhelming testimony of the Fathers would, essentially, be a useless word jumble. If wishful thinking, or a latent restless longing in human nature, or practical naturalism were alone sufficient for salvation, then Christ's incarnation, and more specifically, His death on the cross, would have been unnecessary. The Church, which was formed out of the blood and water which flowed from His side would be relegated to the status of just another religious boutique, indistinguishable from so many others in the twenty first century mall of indifference and feel good religion.
But is the one true Church the visible, Roman Catholic Church? Or is the unity of God's Church somehow divided into the shards of a scandalously fragmented unity? In the following section, certain writings from the early Fathers, and the definitions it will be demonstrated that it has always been taught that the
“See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus
Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also
reverence the deacons…Let no man do anything connected with the Church without
the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is administered either
by the bishop, or one to whom he has entrusted to it. Wherever the bishop shall
appear, there let the multitude [of the people] be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ
is, there is the Catholic Church.” (St. Ignatius of
Therefore, one indispensable sign of unity in the Catholic Church, as evinced by St. Ignatius, a disciple of the Apostle John, was not an invisible or moral union of believers, but, in unity of the faithful with their Bishop, the successor to the apostles.
St. Irenaeus, the mighty third century defender of the faith against the gnostic heresy, makes it clear that through this apostolic succession the Church of Rome is a pre-eminent guarantor of truth and source of unity for all the (particular) Churches:
”Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vain glory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings…by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, owing to its pre-eminent authority…”(St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, Bk. 3, ch. 3)
St. Clement of Alexandria points out the absolute exclusive claim on truth and salvation of the Catholic Church:
”Therefore, in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith-which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament by the will of the one God, through one Lord-those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous. But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself.” (St. Clement of
From earliest times, it has been acknowledged that unity with the Church, and by implication, with Christ, implied much more than an invisible, interior faith- as St. Cyprian of Carthage makes clear with regards to lapsed sinners and heretics, for whom a public reconciliation with the Church, as visible institution, was required:
”Let the lapsed, however, who acknowledge the greatness of their sin, not depart from entreating the Lord, nor forsake the Catholic Church, which has been appointed one and alone by the Lord; but, continuing in their atonements and entreating the Lord's mercy, let them knock at the door of the Church, that they may be received there where once they were, and may return to Christ from whom they have departed…” (St. Cyprian, Epistle 63, To Epictetus)
Perhaps the greatest of all the Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo, bears testimony to the fact that the visible Catholic Church can readily be seen by all of good will to be the one true Church:
”For in the Catholic Church…there are many things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations keeps me in the Church; so does her authority, inaugurated by miracles, nourished by hope, enlarged by love, established by age. The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so,
lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained, so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house…Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church…” (
A telling example from antiquity, this declaration from Pope Hormisdas in 517 a.d., threatens certain Bishops from the east not in communion with the Apostolic See, and, consequently, with the Catholic Church, with having their names excluded from being ready at the liturgy-a sure sign of being excluded from the very life of Christ and from the Church:
”The first condition of salvation is to keep the norm of the true faith, and in no way deviate from the established doctrine of the Fathers. For it is impossible that the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church", should not be verified. And their truth has been proved by the course of history, for in the Apostolic See, the Catholic religion has always been kept unsullied…I promise that from now on, those who are separated from the communion of the Catholic Church, that is, who are not in agreement with the Apostolic See, will not have their names read during the sacred mysteries…” (The Formula of Pope Hormisdas)
Throughout the intervening millenia and a half, the Church's teaching never changed; we shall examine most of the other documents related to this teaching in the section on dogmatic pronunciations of the dogma regarding salvation itself-nevertheless, two more passages should be included here-two magnificent enyclicals from the great, yet much maligned Pope Pius XII,
Mystici Corporis, given in 1943 , and Humani Generis, promulgated in 1950:
”Therefore, those who believe that they can accept Christ as head of the Church, without giving their loyal to his vicar on earth, walk the path of dangerous error. They have taken away the visible head, and they so disfigure the true concept of the body of the Redeemer, that it cannot be recognized or found by those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation…(Pius XII,
”That the mystical body of Christ and the Catholic Church in communion with Rome are one and the same thing, is a doctrine based on revealed truth.”(Pius XII, Humani Generis, )
The quotations above are, of course, merely an infinitesimal fraction of the thousands of volumes of Church documents, patristic writings, writings of the saints and doctors, etc. This does not mean that these few brief quotes are not representative of the Church's view of itself from the time of the apostles-quite the contrary-the evidence that the one Church of Christ and the visible Catholic Church are one in the same is simply overwhelming, and leaves no room for doubt whatsover that the testimony of Church teaching and history unambiguously identifies the one true Church founded by Christ as the visible institution of the Catholic Church. There is nothing in the history of the Church which could even remotely be construed as a contradiction of this dogma; that is, until the misinterpretation of one single word in the Second Vatican Council's Lumen Gentium, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
BEING CATHOLIC WITHOUT CATHOLIC BAPTISM
”This Church, constituted and organized in the world
as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church which is governed by the
successor of Peter and by the Bishop in union with that successor, although
many elements of sanctification and of truth can be found outside its visible
structure.” (Lumen Gentium 8 par. B)
The word in question is the latin word, "subsistit" (subsists):
Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata, licet extra eius compaginem elementa plura sanctificationis et veritatis inveniantur…
To give one example of the distortion in interpretation, hyper-modernist, "Catholic" theologian, Father Richard Mcbrien wrote in 1987:
”Commentators on the Dogmatic Constitution have, from the beginning, interpreted this text to mean that the whole Church is larger than the Catholic Church alone. The Catholic Church "subsists" in the wider ecumenical
Such an interpretation changes traditional Catholic teaching on non-Catholic churches.
If there is still "one, true, Church", it is the whole Body of Christ: Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox alike. (Richard Mcbrien, The Brooklyn Tablet, July 4, 1987 as quoted in Gerard Morrisey, The Hardest Cross: Doctrine and Vatican Policy, pge. 192, Christendom Press, Front
Royal, VA 1995)
In other words, since the word "subsists" was used instead of "is", this, in the thought of Mcbrien, implies that the Council has recognized that the Roman Catholic Church exists within the larger ontological framework of a "Super Catholic Church", in which are included Catholics, Protestanst, Orthodox, etc. and therefore has overturned nearly two thousand years of constant and authoritative teaching on the nature of the Church.
This false and heretical interpretation of the one
statement in Lumen Gentium has, unfortunately,
insinuated itself into much of the thinking of a good many theologians,
teachers, parish priests and religious, not to mention supposed
"neo-conservative" Catholic movements. However, it is quite clear that
the position of the Church's magisterium diverges quite widely from Mcbrien's interpretation:
"…on March 20, 1987, the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith-in a letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger-rejected the position that Fr. Mcbrien advocates. Mcbrien quotes the Congregations letter as follows:"
'But the Council has chosen the word "subsistit"-subsists-exactly in order to make clear that one sole "subsistence of the true Church exists, whereas outside her visible structure only "elementa ecclesiae"-elements of Church-exist.'" (Gerard Morrisey, Ibid., pge 192)
A closer reading of what follows the phrase itself, should dispel any doubts as to the true meaning of the text:
”This Church… subsists in the Catholic Church…although many elements of sanctification and truth can be found outside its visible structure, which, as gifts proper of the
What the Council stated here was nothing essentially new in the context of Catholic doctrine; the reality of "many elements of sanctification" being found outside of the visible structure of the Church was recognized by the early Church fathers; otherwise, how is one to explain the early controversies relating to the rebaptism of heretics who wished to be reconciled to the Church? One document which explicitly sets forth this teaching is the Anonymous Treatise on Rebaptism, probably written during the third century:
”And he on whom, when he should be baptized, invocation should be made in the name of Jesus, although he might obtain baptism under some error, still would not be hindered from knowing the truth at some time or another, and, correcting his error, and coming to the Church and to the bishop, and sincerely confessing our Jesus before men: so that, when hands were laid upon
him by the bishop, he might also receive the Holy Spirit, and would not lose that former invocation of the name of Jesus. Which none of us would disallow, although this invocation, if it is standing bare and by itself, could not suffice for affording salvation…” (Anonymous Treatise on Rebaptism)
St. Augustine also expresses the same opinion with regards to the schismatical followers of Donatus:
”When, therefore, any come to us from the party of Donaturs, we do not welcome the evil which belongs to them, viz. their errors and schism: these, the only obstacles to our concord, are removed from between us, and we embrace our brethren, and we embrace our brethren, standing with them in "the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace", and acknowledging in them the good things that are divine, as their holy baptism…their faith in the Trinity, and such like…When, therefor, they come to the Catholic Church, they gain thereby not what they already possessed …[but]… those things which they possessed begin then to be profitable to them. (
What a clear, theological anticipation of the words of Lumen Gentium : … "many elements of salvation can be found outside its visible structure, which, as gifts proper of the
We can glean from the foregoing that the "elements of sanctification" found outside the Church are not in and of themselves independent of the Church, but are her "proper gifts" which, when received outside of visible communion with her serve as lights, spiritual helps, which "impel to Catholic unity" that is, through their valid reception, unfailingly lead those called by grace to unity with her. What has been declared at the second Vatican Council is no new dogma, but merely the reassertion of an ancient truth, and it in no way affects the dogma of "no salvation outside the Church".
OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH, THERE IS NO SALVATION
This dogma of the Church is so well attested to in the Fathers, in the Councils, and in infallible Papal decrees, that a denial of it would constitute most egregious formal heresy. The clarity of the Church's pronouncements of this dogma leaves little room for commentary or speculation, and the documents speak quite unambiguously for themselves:
”…in the efficacy of the Spirit, all those have no part, who do not hasten to the Church; rather they, by their evil teachings and their evil deeds, rob themselves of life. For where the Church is, three is also the spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace.” (St. Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, bk.3ch. 24)
”Outside the Church, nobody will be saved…” (Origen, In Jesu Nave, homily 3, 5)
”Even as also the apostle Peter laid down, saying, ‘Thus also shall baptism make you safe:’ showing that as they who were not in the ark with Noah not only were not purged and saved by water, but at once perished in the deluge: so now also, whoever are not in the Church with Christ will perish outside, unless they are converted by penitence to the only and saving laver of the
Church.” (St. Cyprian, Epistle 73, 15)
”…it is said, 'I will give the nations for thy inheritance, and the limits of the earth for thy possession;' and other innumerable testimonies which set for the Catholic Church. If then, thou know not these, thou has no part in Me, thou canst not make thyself My heir…To Peter it was said, "My sheep;" to schismatics it is said, "thy goats"…Recollect the right Hand and the left of our Judge; recollect where the goats shall stand, and where the sheep…the fair and the deformed, that which is about to receive the kingdom, and that which is to find everlasting punishment.” (
”As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none, with none but your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built. That is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. (
”Indeed, there is but one universal Church of the faithful outside which no one is saved…”(Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 a.d.)
”We are compelled in virtue of our faith to believe and maintain that three is only one Catholic Church, and that one apostolic. This we firmly believe and profess without qualification. Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins…Further, we declare, say, define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, bull Unam Sanctam, a.d. 1302 )
”The holy, Roman Church believes, professes, and preaches that "no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the "everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" unless
before the end of life they are joined to the Church…no one can be saved…unless he remains in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Council of
”It must of course be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic, Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salavation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood.” (Pope Pius IX, allocution Singulari Quadam, a.d. 1854)
"Men can find the way to eternal salvation, and they can attain eternal salvation in the practice of any religion whatever." [Heresy]
"There is good reason at least to hope for the eternal salvation of those who are in no way in the true Church of Christ" [Heresy] (Syllabus of Errors, a.d. 1864 Holy Office under Pius IX)
The Church of Christ, therefore, is the only ever enduring Church; and all who depart from it, depart from the will and command of Christ, our Lord. They have left the path of salvation and are heading towards destruction. (Satis Cognitum, encyclical of Pope Leo XIII, a.d. 1896)
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation…He explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed the necessity of the Church, which men enter as through a door. (Second
As previously stated, this dogma has been the universal, constant and unambiguous teaching of the Catholic Church ever since its divine origin. Despite all the clarifications made by the Church's magisterium subsequent to the Second Vatican Council, there still exists a very pervasive attitude on the part of many theologians and members of the faithful that the Church no longer considers membership in her to be necessary for salvation, and therefore has in essence "changed her teachings". The idea that one "Council's" statements on ecumenism, as enunciated in Unitatis Redintegratio, somehow overturn virtually all previous Church teaching on the matter, is a
false and shallow approach, which is illuminism of the worst kind ("our generation has the right to make changes to the truth"). If the Church had indeed changed a dogma of faith, then she is not the one true
obviously not the case; the Church has changed no teaching, but in the Council documents has merely restated constant teachings of the Church in language that is more amenable to attracting non-Catholics to dialogue with the object of the reuniting of all Christians in the one body of Christ, the Catholic Church. Where ecumenical dialogue is concerned, there is no question of altering doctrine or dogma:
”… the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), mentions the way of formulating doctrine as one of the elements of a continuing reform. Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accomodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or supressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6), who would consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?” (Pope John Paul II, encyclical Ut Unum Sint, 18)
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CONTROVERSY
Since it is established beyond a doubt that the Church has always taught that "outside the Church, there is no salvation", there have, throughout her history, been many who have denied categorically that all those who are not baptized, professing Roman Catholics are categorically excluded from eternal life in heaven.
This error is articulated today mostly by extreme traditionalists, many of whom are scandalized by the manifest changes that have occurred in the Church's liturgical life and by the many radical theological dissenters who have run roughshod over the Church's dogmas and disciplinary canons-radical nuns, liberation theologians, etc. Unfortunately, many of these people in their disgust have gone to the other extreme-and fallen into material heresy themselves, since they believe that the Second Vatican Council fell into heresy. However, this is not the place to expatiate on the Catholic Traditionalist movement. Suffice it to say that many traditionalists have also taken up certain errors of the "Feeneyites"-who exaggerated the teachings of the late Father Feeney, an American priest who stridently taught a hyper-rigorist version of "no salvation outside the Church" which was interpreted by the "Feeneyites" as excluding everyone from the possibility of salvation who was not a baptized, professing Roman Catholic. The Feeneyites were severely reproved by Pius XII (see below)
What scandalized these traditionalists were certain
declarations of the Second Vatican Council, which seemed to mitigate the dogma
that nobody outside the Church can be saved. One such teaching is the
”Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience-those too may achieve eternal salvation…” (Lumen Gentium 16)
To many, this appeared an open contradiction to the previous teaching; but such is not the case. Alongside the teaching of "no salvation outside the Church", from earliest times there was always an implicit acknowledgement that, as God's mercy was boundless, ignorance of the truth could, in certain cases, provide for an exercise of God's mercy outside of the visible Church-and this applied even to heretics:
”The Apostle Paul hath said: "a man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject, knowing that he that is such is subverted and sinneth, being condemned of himself." But though the doctrine which men hold to be false and perverse, if they do not hold it with passionate obstinancy, especially when they have not devised it by the rashness of their own presumption, but have accepted it from parents who had been misguided and fallen into error, and if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics.” (
”…the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that worketh by
charity", whereby God, whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly…(St. Thomas Aquinas, S. Th. III, Q. 68, art.2)
Regarding the so called "Baptism of desire", the constant Church teaching has been that such "desire" does not necessarily have to be an explicit one, as is pointed out by Dr. Ludwig Ott in his remarkable Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma:
”In special circumstances, namely, in the case of invincible ignorance or of incapability, actual membership in the Church can be replaced by the desire (votum) for the same. This need not be expressly (explicite) present, but can also be included in the moral readiness faithfully to fulfill the will of God (votum implicitum). In this manner also, those who are in fact outside the Catholic Church can achieve salvation. (Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books and Publishers, Rockford, Ill., 1974, pge. 312)
This was something that was also acknowledged by the
Popes well before the Second Vatican Council:
”It must of course be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic, Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood. On the other hand, it must likewise be held as certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the Lord…”(Pius IX, Singulari Quadam)
The letter from the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing of Boston in 1949, from which the following exctracts have been taken, dealt with the Feeneyite controversy:
”…to gain eternal salvation, it is not always required that a person be incorporated in fact as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and longing.”
It is not always necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When a man is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good disposition of soul by which a man wants to be conformed to God's will…
With…prudent words, the pope (this letter is referring to a section of Mystici Corporis, of Pius XII) censures those who would exclude from salvation all men who belong to the Church only with implicit desire; and he also censures those who falsely maintain that men can be saved equally as well in any religion. (Letter from the Holy Office to Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cushing of Boston)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses this teaching thusly:
”Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1260)
Since the Church teaches that those martyrs who, prior to being baptized, shed their blood in witness to Christ, undergo a "baptism of blood", which, though not a sacrament proper, brings in its train eternal life, and therefore, the fruits of Baptism; and that the desire of catechumens who die before baptism effects their salvation, therefore, it is not impossible to speculate that those ignorant of the Church's existence may, (provided they desire fervently to do the will of God) somehow share, albeit imperfectly, in the saving life of the Church, which, in the words of Lumen Gentium, is the "universal sacrament of salvation."
The same is taught by the Second Vatican Council with regards to those validly baptized members of other "denominations" who are invincibly ignorant of the necessity to be joined to the one true Church:
”The Church knows that she is joined, in many ways, to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.(Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, 3)
Therefore, the idea that some are indeed saved outside of visible communion with the Church is not a theological novelty for the Church; it has merely been restated more `frequently in the wake of the Council.
However, it is likewise important that Catholics do not take the ideas of invincible ignorance, and of explicit and implicit desire too far, as has been the case with many theologians of the "progressive" school. It is one thing that the Church has recognized the possibility of salvation for some outside the Church; it is another thing entirely to take a "don't worry, be happy" approach to salvation, which is in reality, one of the most effective devices which Satan uses to bog down the Church's missionary activity in the muck of religious indifference and syncretism.
that some can be saved without actual incorporation into the Church in no way
implies that all religions lead to salvation, or that men are no longer
obligated to seek the truth and be joined to the Catholic Church in order to be
saved. "Invincible ignorance"
is not a universal ticket out of hell; to be invincibly ignorant implies a
sincere desire for the truth and a sincere-and therefore difficult and heroic-
striving to accomplish the will of God in one's life-it does not refer to a
Santa Claus kind of salvation offered to those who stick their head in the sand
and pretend that all religions are equally valid means to attain salvation.
Pastors of the Church should be especially careful not to give such an
impression; such ideas are clearly refuted by the Church's constant
”…We want your Episcopal care and vigilance to be on the alert to keep away from men's minds , with all possible effort, that opinion which is as unholy as it is deadly. We mean the opinion that a way of eternal salvation can be found in any religion whatever. With all the learning and ingenuity that is yours, teach the people entrusted to your care that the dogmas of the Catholic Faith are not in the slightest opposed to the mercy and justice of God.” (Pius IX, Singulari Quadam)
"Everyone is free to follow and to profess the religion which the light of reason leads him to judge to be the true religion." [Heresy]
"Men can find the way to eternal salvation, and they can attain eternal salvation in the practice of any religion whatever." [Heresy]
"There is good reason to hope for the eternal salvation of all those who are in no way in the true
"Protestantism is simply another form of the same true Christian religion, and it is possible to please God just as much in it as in the Catholic Church." ("Synthesis of Errors" decree of Holy Office under Pius IX) [Heresy]
Towards the end of the same encyclical (Pius XII, Mystici Corporis), when with all his heart he invites to union those who do not pertain to the body of the Catholic Church, the Pope mentions those "who unsuspectingly belong to the mystical body of the Redeemer by some kind of desire or longing." He by no means excludes these men from eternal salvation; but on the other hand, he
does point out that they are in a condition "in which they cannot be secure about their salvation …. since they lack many great gifts and helps from God, gifts they can enjoy only in the Catholic Church."
It must not be imagined that any desire whatsoever of entering the Church is sufficient for a man to be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which a man is related to the Church be informed with perfect charity. And an implicit desire cannot have its effect unless a man has supernatural
faith…(Letter of the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing of Boston)
”Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to the faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.” (Ad Gentes, Second Vatican Council's decree on missionary activity, 7)
Therefore, the Church, while never despairing of the salvation of anyone in the wayfaring state, has never ceased to proclaim that outside her motherly embrace there is no salvation; and while faithful Catholics are exhorted by her to trust in the super abundant mercy of God, we are also cautioned
against assuming an over optimistic indifferentism which an over optimistic attitude towards the eternal fate of non-Catholics; though we may hope for their salvation, this does not excuse us from preaching the truth to all peoples at all times:
For if I preach the gospel, it is no glory to me: for a necessity lieth upon me: for wo is unto me, if I preach not the Gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:16)
Mindful of our vocation as members of the one true faith, we should never fall neither into presumption, or despair, but persevere on that one sure road to salvation:
”Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who enter by it. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way which leadeth to life: and few there are who find it!”