History of No Salvation outside the Church
I wrote The Magnificent Communion of Saints a
few weeks ago, it was the start of my explanation of how almost impossible it
is for non Catholics to make it to heaven and impossible for them to make it to
the Kingdom of Heaven. Over the years I have had the
liberals angry at me for condemning pluralism and the idea that all religions
are God’s religions. However, I also
have had conservatives angry at me for teaching what the Church teaches that
salvation can be attained through baptism of desire of blood. In the mean time
I have studied the bible’s teaching on salvation, the Early Church Fathers
teaching, and the Church’s teaching all the way to Vatican II.
think it is time for others to study these things so I offer here an outline of
Church teachings for 2000 years. When
you study this you will see that there are still some unanswered questions. In
the future I will try to give possible answers to these questions that the
Church has not ruled on yet.
the mean time because of the graces we receive as Catholics make it very
possible for us to be saved and for the same reason in makes it almost
impossible for others to be saved.
outline was written by Avery Cardinal Dulles, who is the only Cardinal who is not a priest of a
Nothing is more striking in the New Testament than the confidence with
which it proclaims the saving power of belief in Christ.
Almost every page confronts us with a decision of eternal consequence: Will we
follow Christ or the rulers of this
world? The gospel is, according to Paul, “the power of God for salvation to
everyone who has faith” (Rom. 1:16). The apostles and their associates are
convinced that in Jesus they have encountered the Lord of Life and that he has
brought them into the way that leads to everlasting blessedness. By personal
faith in him and by baptism in his name, Christians
have passed from darkness to light, from error to truth, and from sin to
Paul is the outstanding herald of salvation through faith. To the Romans
he writes, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in
your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Faith, for him, is inseparable from baptism, the sacrament of faith. By
baptism, the Christian is immersed
in the death of Christ so as to be
raised with him to newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).
The Book of Acts shows the apostles preaching faith in Christ as the way to salvation. Those who believe
the testimony of Peter on the first Pentecost ask him what they must do to be
saved. He replies that they must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and thereby
save themselves from the present crooked generation (Acts 2:37-40). When Peter
and John are asked by the Jewish
religious authorities by what authority they are preaching and performing
miracles, they reply that they are acting in the name of Jesus Christ and that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we
must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Paul and his associates bring the gospel first of all to
the Jews because it is the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. When the
Jews in large numbers reject the message, Paul and Barnabas announce that they
are turning to the Gentiles in order to bring salvation to the uttermost parts
of the earth (Acts 13:46-47).
A few chapters later in Acts, we see Paul and Silas in prison at Philippi. When their jailer asks them, “What must I do to
be saved?” they reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” The
jailer and his family at once accept baptism and rejoice in their newfound
faith (Acts 16:30-34).
The same doctrine of salvation permeates the other books of the New
Testament. Mark’s gospel ends with this missionary charge: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole of
creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not
believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
John in his gospel speaks
no less clearly. Jesus at one point declares that those who hear his word and
believe in him do not remain in darkness, whereas those who reject him will be
judged on the last day (John
12:44-50). At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Twelve, “This is eternal life,
that they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ
whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). John concludes the body of his gospel with the
statement that he has written his account “so that you may believe that Jesus
is the Christ and that believing you
may have life in his name” (John
From these and many other texts, I draw the conclusion that, according to
the primary Christian documents,
salvation comes through personal faith in Jesus Christ,
followed and signified by sacramental baptism.
The New Testament is almost silent about the eternal fate of those to
whom the gospel has not been preached. It seems apparent that those who became
believers did not think they had been on the road to salvation before they
heard the gospel. In his sermon at Athens,
Paul says that in times past God overlooked the ignorance of the pagans, but he
does not say that these pagans were saved. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul
says that the Gentiles have come to a knowledge of God
by reasoning from the created world, but that they are guilty because by their
wickedness they have suppressed the truth and fallen into idolatry. In the
second chapter of Romans, Paul indicates that Gentiles who are obedient to the
biddings of conscience can be excused for their unbelief, but he indicates that
they fall into many sins. He concludes that “all have sinned and fall short” of
true righteousness (Rom. 3:23). For justification, Paul asserts, both Jews and
Gentiles must rely on faith in Jesus Christ,
who expiated the sins of the world on the cross.
Animated by vibrant faith in Christ
the Savior, the Christian Church was
able to conquer the Roman Empire. The converts
were convinced that in embracing Christianity
they were escaping from the darkness of sin and superstition and entering into
the realm of salvation. For them, Christianity
was the true religion, the faith that saves. It would not have occurred to them
that any other faith could save them.
however, soon had to face the question whether anyone could be saved without Christian faith. They did not give a wholly negative
answer. They agreed that the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, because
they looked forward in faith and hope to the Savior, could be saved by adhering
in advance to him who was to come.
The apologists of the second and third centuries made similar concessions
with regard to certain Greek philosophers. The prologue to John’s gospel taught that the eternal Word
enlightens all men who come into the world. Justin Martyr speculated that philosophers such as Socrates and
Heraclitus had lived according to the Word of God, the Logos who was to become
incarnate in Christ, and they could
therefore be reckoned as being in some way Christians.
Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen
held that the Wisdom of God gave graces to people of every generation, both
Greeks and barbarians.
The saving grace of which these theologians were
speaking, however, was given only to pagans who lived before the time of Christ. It was given by the Word of God who was to
become incarnate in Jesus Christ.
There was no doctrine that pagans could be saved since the promulgation of the
gospel without embracing the Christian
Origen and Cyprian, in the third century, formulated the maxim that has
come down to us in the words Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—”Outside the Church, no salvation.” They spoke these
words with heretics and schismatics primarily in
view, but they do not appear to have been any more optimistic about the
prospects of salvation for pagans. Assuming that the gospel had been
promulgated everywhere, writers of the high patristic
age considered that, in the Christian
era, Christians alone could be
saved. In the East, this view is represented by Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom.
The view attributed to Origen
that hell would in the end be evacuated and that all the damned would
eventually be saved was condemned in the sixth century.
In the West, following Ambrose and others, Augustine taught that, because
faith comes by hearing, those who had never heard the gospel would be denied
salvation. They would be eternally punished for original sin as well as for any
personal sins they had committed. Augustine’s disciple Fulgentius
of Ruspe exhorted his readers to “firmly hold and by
no means doubt that not only all pagans, but also all Jews, and all heretics
and schismatics who are outside the Catholic Church,
will go to the eternal fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.”
The views of Augustine and Fulgentius remained
dominant in the Christian West
throughout the Middle Ages. The Fourth Lateran Council
(1215) reaffirmed the formula “Outside the Church, no salvation,” as did Pope
Boniface VIII in 1302. At the end of the Middle Ages,
the Council of Florence (1442) repeated the formulation of Fulgentius
to the effect that no pagan, Jew, schismatic, or heretic could be saved.
On one point the medieval theologians diverged from rigid Augustinianism.
On the basis of certain passages in the New Testament, they held that God
seriously wills that all may be saved. They could cite the statement of Peter
before the household of Cornelius: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation
anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
The First Letter to Timothy, moreover, declares that God “desires all men to be
saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). These assurances
made for a certain tension in Catholic teaching on salvation. If faith in Christ was necessary for salvation, how could
salvation be within reach of those who had no opportunity to learn about Christ?
Thomas Aquinas, in dealing with
this problem, took his departure from the axiom that there was no salvation
outside the Church. To be inside the Church, he held, it was not enough to have
faith in the existence of God and in divine providence, which would have
sufficed before the coming of Christ.
God now required explicit faith in the mysteries of the Trinity and the
Incarnation. In two of his early works ( De Veritate and Commentary on Romans), he discusses the
hypothetical case of a man brought up in the wilderness, where the gospel was
totally unknown. If this man lived an upright life with the help of the graces
given him, Thomas reasoned, God would make it possible for him to become a Christian believer, either through an inner
illumination or by sending a missionary to him. Thomas referred to the biblical
example of the centurion Cornelius, who received the visitation of an angel
before being evangelized and baptized by Peter (Acts 10). In his Summa Theologiae, however, Thomas omits any reference to
miraculous instruction; he goes back to the Augustinian theory that those who
had never heard the gospel would be eternally punished for original sin as well
as their personal sins.
A major theological development occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. The voyages of discovery had by this time disclosed that there were
large populations in North and South America, Africa, and Asia
who had lived since the time of Christ
and had never had access to the preaching of the gospel. The missionaries found
no sign that even the most upright among these peoples had learned the
mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation by interior inspirations or
Luther, Calvin, and the Jansenists professed
the strict Augustinian doctrine that God did not will to save everyone, but the
majority of Catholic theologians rejected the idea that God had consigned all
these unevangelized persons to hell without giving
them any possibility of salvation. A series of theologians proposed more
hopeful theories that they took to be compatible with Scripture and Catholic
The Dominican Melchior Cano argued that these populations were in a
situation no different from that of the pre-Christian
pagans praised by Justin and others. They could be justified in this life (but
not saved in the life to come) by implicit faith in the Christian
mysteries. Another Dominican, Domingo de Soto, went further, holding
that, for the unevangelized, implicit faith in Christ would be sufficient for salvation itself.
Their contemporary, Albert Pighius, held that for
these unevangelized persons the only faith required
would be that mentioned in Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to
please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and
that he rewards those who seek him.” They could therefore be saved by general
revelation and grace even though no missionary came to evangelize them.
The Jesuit Francisco Suarez, following these pioneers, argued for the
sufficiency of implicit faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation, together with
an implicit desire for baptism on the part of the unevangelized.
Juan de Lugo agreed, but he added that such persons could not be saved if they
had committed serious sins, unless they obtained forgiveness by an act of
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Jesuits of the Gregorian University
followed in the tradition of Suarez and de Lugo, with certain modifications. Pope Pius IX incorporated some of their ideas in two important
statements in 1854 and 1863. In the first, he said that, while no one can be
saved outside the Church, God would not punish people for their ignorance of
the true faith if their ignorance was invincible. In the second statement, Pius
went further. He declared that persons invincibly ignorant of the Christian religion who observed the natural law and
were ready to obey God would be able to attain eternal life, thanks to the
workings of divine grace within them. In the same letter, the pope reaffirmed
that no one could be saved outside the Catholic Church. He did not explain in
what sense such persons were, or would come to be, in the Church. He could have
meant that they would receive the further grace needed to join the Church, but
nothing in his language suggests this. More probably he thought that such
persons would be joined to the Church by implicit desire, as some theologians
were teaching by his time.
(In Pius IX’s
statement we see no doctrine on the diference between
Kingdom of Heaven and Heaven.)
In 1943, Pius XII did take this further step. In his encyclical on the
Mystical Body, Mystici Corporis, he distinguished between two
ways of belonging to the Church: in actual fact (in re) or by desire (in voto). Those who belonged in voto,
however, were not really members. They were ordered to the Church by the
dynamism of grace itself, which related them to the Church in such a way that
they were in some sense in it. The two kinds of relationship, however, were not
equally conducive to salvation. Those
adhering to the Church by desire could not have a sure hope of salvation
because they lacked many spiritual gifts and helps available only to those
visibly incorporated in the true Church.
represents a forward step in its doctrine of adherence to the Church through
implicit desire. From an ecumenical point of view, that encyclical is
deficient, since it does not distinguish between the status of non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians.
The next important document came from the Holy Office in its letter to Cardinal
Cushing of Boston
in 1949. The letter pointed out—in opposition to Father Leonard Feeney, S.J., and his associates at St. Benedict
Center—that, although the Catholic Church was a necessary means for salvation,
one could belong to it not only by actual membership but by also desire, even
an unconscious desire. If that desire was accompanied by faith and perfect
charity, it could lead to eternal salvation.
Neither the encyclical Mystici Corporis nor the letter of the Holy Office specified the
nature of the faith required for in voto status. Did
the authors mean that the virtue of faith or the inclination to believe would
suffice, or did they require actual faith in God and divine providence, or
actual faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation?
The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church
and its Decree on Ecumenism, made some significant departures from the teaching
of Pius XII. It avoided the term member and said nothing of an unconscious
desire for incorporation in the Church. It taught that the Catholic Church was
the all-embracing organ of salvation and was equipped with the fullness of
means of salvation. Other Christian
churches and communities possessed certain elements of sanctification and truth
that were, however, derived from the one Church of Christ that subsists
in the Catholic Church today. For this reason, God could use them as
instruments of salvation. God had, however, made the
Catholic Church necessary for salvation, and all who were aware of this had a
serious obligation to enter the Church in order to be saved. God uses the
Catholic Church not only for the redemption of her own members but also as an
instrument for the redemption of all. Her witness and prayers, together with
the eucharistic sacrifice,
have an efficacy that goes out to the whole world.
In several important texts, Vatican II took up the question of the
salvation of non-Christians.
Although they were related to the Church in various ways, they were not
incorporated in her. God’s universal salvific will,
it taught, means that he gives non-Christians,
including even atheists, sufficient help to be saved. Whoever sincerely seeks
God and, with his grace, follows the dictates of conscience is on the path to
salvation. The Holy Spirit, in a manner known only to God, makes it possible
for each and every person to be associated with the Paschal mystery. “God, in
ways known to himself, can lead those inculpably
ignorant of the gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please
him.” The council did not indicate
whether it is necessary for salvation to come to explicit Christian faith before death, but the texts give the
impression that implicit faith may suffice.
Vatican II left open the question whether non-Christian
religions contain revelation and are means that can lead their adherents to
salvation. It did say, however, that other religions contain elements of truth and
goodness, that they reflect rays of the truth that enlightens all men, and that
they can serve as preparations for the gospel. Christian
missionary activity serves to heal, ennoble, and perfect the seeds of truth and
goodness that God has sown among non-Christian
peoples, to the glory of God and the spiritual benefit of those evangelized.
While repeatedly insisting that Christ
is the one mediator of salvation, Vatican II shows forth a generally hopeful
view of the prospects of non-Christians
for salvation. Its
hopefulness, however, is not unqualified: “Rather often, men, deceived by the
evil one, have become caught up in futile reasoning and have exchanged the
truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or, some
there are who, living and dying in a world without God, are subject to utter
hopelessness.” The missionary activity of the Church is urgent for bringing such
persons to salvation.
After the council, Paul VI (in his pastoral exhortation “Evangelization
in the Modern World”) and John Paul
II (in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio)
interpreted the teaching of Vatican II in relation to certain problems and
theological trends arising since the council. Both popes were on guard against
political and liberation theology, which would seem to equate salvation with
formation of a just society on earth and against certain styles of religious pluralism, which would attribute independent salvific value to non-Christian
religions. In 2000, toward the end of John
Paul’s pontificate, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the
declaration Dominus Iesus, which emphatically taught
that all grace and salvation must come through Jesus Christ,
the one mediator.
Wisely, in my opinion, the popes and councils have avoided talk about
implicit faith, a term that is vague and ambiguous. They do speak of persons
who are sincerely seeking for the truth and of others who have found it in Christ. They make it clear that sufficient grace is
offered to all and that God will not turn away those who do everything within
their power to find God and live according to his law. We may count on him to
lead such persons to the faith needed for salvation.
One of the most interesting developments in post-conciliar
theology has been Karl Rahner’s idea of “anonymous Christians.” He taught that God offers his grace to
everyone and reveals himself in the interior offer of grace. Grace, moreover,
is always mediated through Christ
and tends to bring its recipients into union with him. Those who accept and
live by the grace offered to them, even though they have never heard of Christ and the gospel, may
be called anonymous Christians.
Although Rahner denied that his theory
undermined the importance of missionary activity, it was widely understood as
depriving missions of their salvific importance. Some
readers of his works understood him as teaching that the unevangelized
could possess the whole of Christianity
except the name. Saving faith, thus understood, would be a subjective attitude
without any specifiable content. In that case, the message of the gospel would
have little to do with salvation.
The history of the doctrine of salvation through faith has gone through a
number of stages since the High Middle Ages. Using the New Testament as their
basic text, the Church Fathers regarded faith in Christ
and baptism as essential for salvation. On the basis of his study of the New
Testament and Augustine, Thomas Aquinas held that explicit belief in the
Trinity and the Incarnation was necessary for everyone who lived since the time
of Christ, but he granted that in
earlier times it was sufficient to believe explicitly in the existence and
providence of God.
In the sixteenth century, theologians speculated that the unevangelized were in the same condition as pre-Christians and were not held to believe explicitly
in Christ until the gospel was
credibly preached to them. Pius IX and the Second Vatican Council taught that
all who followed their conscience, with the help of the grace given to them,
would be led to that faith that was necessary for them to be saved. During and
after the council, Karl Rahner maintained that saving
faith could be had without any definite belief in Christ
or even in God.
We seem to have come full circle from the teaching of Paul and the New
Testament that belief in the message of Christ
is the source of salvation. Reflecting on this development, one can see certain
gains and certain losses. The New Testament and the theology of the first
millennium give little hope for the salvation of those who, since the time of Christ, have had no chance of hearing the gospel. If
God has a serious salvific will for all, this lacuna
needed to be filled, as it has been by theological speculation and church
teaching since the sixteenth century. Modern theology, preoccupied with the
salvation of non-Christians, has
tended to neglect the importance of explicit belief in Christ,
so strongly emphasized in the first centuries. It should not be impossible,
however, to reconcile the two perspectives.
Scripture itself assures us that God has never left himself without a
witness to any nation (Acts 14:17). His testimonies are marks of his saving
dispensations toward all. The inner testimony of every human conscience bears
witness to God as lawgiver, judge, and vindicator. In ancient times, the Jewish
Scriptures drew on literature that came from Babylon,
Egypt, and Greece. The
Book of Wisdom and Paul’s Letter to the Romans speak of God manifesting his
power and divinity through his works in nature. The religions generally promote
prayer and sacrifice as ways of winning God’s favor. The traditions of all
peoples contain elements of truth imbedded in their cultures, myths, and
religious practices. These sound elements derive from God, who speaks to all
his children through inward testimony and outward signs.
The universal evidences of the divine, under the leading of grace, can
give rise to a rudimentary faith that leans forward in hope and expectation to
further manifestations of God’s merciful love and of his guidance for our
lives. By welcoming the signs already given and placing their hope in God’s
redeeming love, persons who have not heard the tidings of the gospel may
nevertheless be on the road to salvation. If they are faithful to the grace
given them, they may have good hope of receiving the truth and blessedness for
which they yearn.
The search, however, is no substitute for finding. To be blessed in this
life, one must find the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field,
which is worth buying at the cost of everything one possesses. To Christians has been revealed the mystery hidden from
past ages, which the patriarchs and prophets longed to know. By entering
through baptism into the mystery of the cross and the Resurrection, Christians undergo a radical transformation that
sets them unequivocally on the road to salvation. Only after conversion to
explicit faith can one join the community that is nourished by the Word of God
and the sacraments. These gifts of God, prayerfully received, enable the
faithful to grow into ever greater union with Christ.
In Christ’s Church, therefore,
we have many aids to salvation and sanctification that are not available
elsewhere. Cardinal Newman expressed the situation admirably in one of his
The prerogative of Christians
consists in the possession, not of exclusive knowledge and spiritual aid, but
of gifts high and peculiar; and though the manifestation of the Divine
character in the Incarnation is a singular and inestimable benefit, yet its
absence is supplied in a degree, not only in the inspired record of Moses, but
even, with more or less strength, in those various traditions concerning Divine
Providences and Dispositions which are scattered through the heathen
We cannot take it for granted that everyone is seeking the truth and is
prepared to submit to it when found. Some, perhaps many, resist the grace of
God and reject the signs given to them. They are not on the road to salvation
at all. In such cases, the fault is not God’s but theirs. The references to
future punishment in the gospels cannot be written off as empty threats. As
Paul says, God is not mocked (Gal. 6:7).
We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How
that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only
that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord
(Matt. 7:7). If non-Christians are
praying to an unknown God, it may be for us to help them find the one they
worship in ignorance. God wants everyone to come to the truth. Perhaps some
will reach the goal of their searching only at the moment of death. Who knows what
transpires secretly in their consciousness at that solemn moment? We have no evidence that death is a moment of revelation, but it
could be, especially for those in pursuit of the truth of God.
Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by
word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the
obligation to share it with others. Christian
faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s
witnesses to the ends of the earth.
Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word
of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives
to Christ and join the community
where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward
in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been
fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of
grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be
saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the
service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted.
But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not
receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in
Religion and Society at Fordham
University. This essay is
adapted from the Laurence J. McGinley Lecture delivered on November 7, 2007.
One thing non Catholics do not have is the fountain of all saving grace: The Mass
Joseph Ratzinger – “I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we
are experiencing today to a large extent is due to the disintegration of the
liturgy, th without the Liturgy, which is the
indispensable center of the Church and of each and every man.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said: “Know, oh Christian, that it is better to devoutly hear one
Holy Mass than to distribute to the poor one’s own properties or walk as a
pilgrim over the whole earth”).
Saint Cyprian of Cartage: “The liturgy is the medicine for the cure of
ailments and the holocaust to pay for sins”,
Saint John Chrysostom: “The
Liturgy has in a certain manner, as much value as for our souls as the death of
Jesus Christ on the Cross”.
Holy Curé of Ars
(“All good works put together do not equal the Sacrifice of the Mass, because
they are the work of men, while the Mass is a work of God”)
Saint Peter Julian Eymard (“The Holy Mass is
the most holy act of religion, you can do nothing that
can give greater glory to God,