Last week I spoke to a group of Catholics on the topic is there salvation outside the Church? The ensuing discussion was vibrant. The sense was that most people in the room were inclined to agree that baptism and membership in the Roman Catholic Church is a universal requirement for one’s salvation. As a child I would have to say that I had a strong leaning toward the same or a similar opinion. I wondered about my Protestant neighbors and the few Jews that lived in my small town of New Waterford, Nova Scotia, where there were no known Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists.
One should realize that answering this question had significant ecumenical and interfaith implications.
Frequently Christian scholars will speak of the three measures of time. The first measure is from the beginning of time up until the time of the Mosaic Law, given by Moses. We might ask are these people saved? It would seem that one of the earliest Church fathers leads us to believe that they indeed were saved.
Justin Martyr, for example, had this to say: “We have been taught that Christ is the first-begotten of God, and we have declared him to be the Logos of which all mankind partakes (Jn 1:9); those, therefore, who lived according to reason, were really Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists” (First Apology, No. 46 / A.D. 151). Origin, another father of the Church, would also seem to indicate that they are saved. He notes that “He [God] always provided beings endowed with reason with occasions for practicing virtue and doing what is right. In every generation the wisdom of God descended into those souls which he found holy and made them to be prophets and friends of God” (Against Celsus, No. 4:7 / A.D. 248).
The second measure of time is the period extending from the time of Moses to the coming of Jesus. Of this period St. Paul’s reminds the early Christians that salvation comes from the Jews (Jn 4:22). How should we understand the words of the prophet Isaiah when he says, “Israel, you are saved by the Lord, saved forever (45:17)? Furthermore, it hardly sounds as though the Jews are excluded from salvation when we read these words from the Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate (No. 4): “Likewise, the Church keeps ever before her mind the words of the apostle Paul about his kinsmen: ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race according to the flesh, is the Christ” (Rom 9:45).
Most Christians believe that the covenant God made with Israel is irrevocable. As the chosen people of God, Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and relations with the Jews, is known to have said that the Catholic Church does not have a mission to the Jews. To some degree, however, this is a question which the Roman Catholic Church has not fully answered for itself.
The third measure of time is from the time of Jesus up until the end of time, commonly referred to as the second coming of Jesus. In its earliest consideration of this question of salvation outside the Church, the Church Fathers were keen to apply their response to schismatics, those rejecting divinely revealed doctrine, and heretics, those separating themselves from the Catholic Church and/or joining a schismatic church.
To cite a few examples we note St. Ignatius of Antioch who clearly states, “Be not deceived, my brethren: If anyone follows a maker of schism, he does not inherit the Kingdom of God”; similarly, he notes, “If anyone walks in strange doctrine (i.e., is a heretic), he has no part in the passion of Christ” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3-4:1 / A.D. 110). St. Jerome is known to have commented: “Heretics bring sentence upon themselves since they by their own choice withdraw from the Church, a withdrawal which, since they are aware of it constitutes damnation” (Commentary on Titus 3:10-11 / A.D. 386).
The doctrine is again acknowledged in the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 wherein we read, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all is saved.” What appear to surface quite clearly in the Church Fathers and down through the ages is that those who have been excommunicated, namely schismatics and heretics physically placed outside the Church, are not saved.
To a greater rather than lesser degree this sense of no salvation outside the Catholic Church remained for centuries and was prevalent after the Protestant Reformation, where it was sustained by the teaching of the 16th century Council of Trent. Throughout these years this doctrine was often used as a tool to draw converts and lapsed Catholics into the Catholic Church. In addition, its negative and condemnatory language was used for 450 years to fuel bitterness and discourage dialogue among Christian communities. Practically speaking, this doctrine remained in place until after Vatican II.
Some will recall the controversial and outright proselytizing efforts of Father Leonard E. Feeney, a Jesuit priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. He upheld a strict, even literal interpretation of (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) outside the Church there is no salvation. Father Feeney was eventually excommunicated for his views (Feb. 13, 1953). In 1972 he was reinstated in the Church without having to recant his position.
Influenced by her ecumenical and interfaith commitment, in more recent times the Church has acknowledged that her teaching of membership in the Church and salvation has widely been misunderstood. Consequently, it has undertaken a reformulation of this teaching in a more positive way. Interestingly enough, the reformulation does not call upon the Church Fathers, whose primary concern at that time was that of heretics and schismatics, a language not often spoken, if at all, by the contemporary Church. Instead the language of reformulation reaches for the theology of Vatican II.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church now says, “All salvation comes from Christ the head through the Church which is His Body.” That may seem to contradict the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, which states, “Hence they could not be saved who knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ and refuse to enter it.” But, citing Lumen Gentium, the Catechism also says, “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.”
In addition, the Decree on Ecumenism has this to say. “The brethren divided from us also carry out many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. In ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or community, these liturgical actions most certainly can truly engender a life of grace, and, one must say, can aptly give access to the communion of salvation” (No. 3).
Finally, it perhaps is important to be reminded that according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, at every turn of events the Church seeks to uphold that Jesus Christ is the universal salvific savior of the world. Because of this doctrine Catholics can hold and believe that those Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and indeed any one person living by the fullness of an informed conscience can be saved, but always by the merits of Jesus Christ. For the non-Christian such an affirmation would not be acceptable.
FATHER MACPHERSON, S.A., is a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, and is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto, Canada.