While some Christian denominations take a narrow and limited view of the salvation of non-members, the Catholic Church recognizes the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, and even non-Christians. The Catholic Church recognizes that God works in many ways through many diverse channels, including in ways that might surprise us. For example, God used the Persian king Cyrus to free the Jews from captivity, allowing them to return back to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. In 54, the prophet records the Lord’s message about Cyrus:
God used a pagan for his purposes, even if Cyrus was unaware that he was doing the will of the god of the Hebrews. Thus, God can use even those without explicit knowledge of Him for His divine purposes.
Before I begin to address specific Catholic Teaching on non-Catholics, I need to address the issue of invincible ignorance, because the salvation of non-Catholics is strongly tied to the concept. Ignorance is invincible if a person is not able to remove the ignorance by applying reasonable diligence. Thus invincible ignorance is ignorance that is, essentially, out of the individual’s control, because the individual still remains ignorant after having made a good effort to rectify the lack of knowledge. The Church teaches that if a person remains in ignorance even after due diligence, he is not morally culpable for his actions. Lacking the desire to apply reasonable diligence in seeking answers to moral and theological questions and problems is not invincible ignorance, but rather vincible ignorance. Ignorance is vincible if a person is ignorant, but is able to remove the ignorance by applying reasonable diligence. Vincible ignorance diminishes moral culpability, but does not remove it.
First, let us begin with the salvation of non-Catholic Christians. The Catholic Church recognizes the possibility of salvation in non-Catholic churches. The Churches with which Catholics have the most in common are the Orthodox Churches. Catholic Teaching on the matter is:
Thus Orthodox Churches, having valid Apostolic Succession, have valid sacraments. Because of this, the Orthodox Churches are a means of salvation. Orthodox Christians may even commune in Catholic Churches with certain qualifications. However, Orthodox Churches do not usually allow their members to commune in Catholic parishes, so this practice is rare.
While the Catholic Church does not grant the title “true particular Church” to Protestant denominations, it recognizes the possibility of salvation for Protestants, and the good work that Protestants do for the Lord. The Catholic Catechism says:
“…many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.” ( 819)
Also from the Catechism:
Baptism constitutes the foundation of communion among all Christians, including those who are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church: “For men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church. Justified by faith in Baptism, [they] are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.”( 1271)
You may ask, “but don’t Catholics consider Protestants heretics?” In a sense, the answer is yes. Most Protestants are, from a Catholic perspective, material heretics, meaning objectively, yes Protestants hold to many incorrect beliefs. In fairness, most Protestants would say the same thing about Catholics, because Protestants also recognize that they share fundamental disagreements with Catholics. However, are most Protestants formal heretics? A formal heretic rejects Catholic teaching absolutely, with full deliberation and full knowledge of this rejection. Most Protestants probably do not hold their beliefs as a rejection of Catholic Teaching, willfully rejecting Catholic Teaching with full knowledge. Some Protestants do seem to believe what they do as a willful rejection of Catholic Teaching. However, these Protestants who specifically reject Catholic Teaching may do so because of mitigating factors, e.g. ignorance of actual Catholic Teaching, false prejudice, an anti-Catholic upbringing, scandalous behavior of Catholic relatives, etc, and not because they willfully and fully reject Catholic Teaching. Because of the nuanced Catholic view of Protestants described above, many Catholics have ceased using the term “heretic” to refer to Protestants, and prefer using the term “separated brethren,” because while Protestants are our brothers and sisters through baptism, they are separated from the Church for a variety of reasons, including holding beliefs contrary to Catholic Teaching.
The Catholic Church recognizes the possibility of the salvation of non-Christians as well, although without baptism, the Church is more hesitant to speak of their salvation. Even though Jesus is the only Way, the only Truth, and the only Life, the Church recognizes:
…other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men ( 2).
Also, the Church teaches:
But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator…Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. 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 ( I:16).
Saint Justin Martyr (AD 150) expressed similar views, and contended that those who lived in accord with True Reason (Logos) were Christians, even if they did not have explicit knowledge of Christ. Conversely, those who acted against True Reason, even without knowing about Christ, were hostile to Christ (Logos):
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus…and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably ( 46).
Yet, the Catholic Church also warns that we must not embrace pluralism, indifferentism, or religious relativism, i.e. when all religions are viewed as equally valid paths to salvation. All salvation is through Jesus Christ, even that of non-Christians. The Catholic Church still affirms extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which is the ancient Christian Teaching that outside of the Church nobody can be saved. This Teaching is Catholic dogma, and is attested in the writings of many Church Fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch (AD 105), Cyprian of Carthage (AD 250), and Origen of Alexandria (AD 220). So, if the Catholic Church holds to the ancient standard of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, how can those non-Christians who seem to be outside the Church be saved? Catholic Teaching is that those non-Catholics who are saved, are somehow inside the Church, albeit imperfectly. According to ,
Indeed, some prayers and rituals of the other religions may assume a role of preparation for the Gospel, in that they are occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God. One cannot attribute to these, however, a divine origin or an ex opere operato salvific efficacy, which is proper to the Christian sacraments. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that other rituals, insofar as they depend on superstitions or other errors (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:20-21), constitute an obstacle to salvation (21).
For instance, Buddhism in-and-of-itself does not have the power to provide salvation. However, a Buddhist may be saved by Christ under certain circumstances.
One question that usually follows this discussion is, “so is the Church saying that we don’t have to evangelize anymore?” No. Just because non-Catholics may have a spark of the Truth that is enough for them to attain eternal life, this does not mean we are to avoid sharing the fullness of faith with them. As mentioned above, the Church has consistently taught that the sure way to salvation is to be within the ark, the Church. The surest way to do this is to be in full communion with the Church. Perhaps a spark is the bare minimum, but a fire is much better, so we must still evangelize those who do not yet have the fullest communion possible with the Lord and the Church he established.
The position stated in this article is called inclusivism. This is the belief that while non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians may be saved, this salvation is through Jesus Christ alone, mediated through his Church. This is the current Teaching of the Catholic Church. There are other positions on the salvation of non-Catholics. One is exclusivism, the belief that one must be within the visible confines of the Catholic Church to be saved. This interprets extra ecclesiam nulla salus in a narrow manner. This view was held by a few Church Fathers, although the majority of Church Fathers seem to have held that it is possible for those who are not members of the visible Church to be saved (e.g. Saint Justin, referenced above). In the mid 20th century, Catholic priest Fr. Leonard Feeney promoted an extreme view of the exclusivist position, and the Church eventually excommunicated him for his refusal to admit his error and submit to Church Teaching. In addition to exclusivism, another extreme position on the salvation of non-Catholics is pluralism, the view that all religions are equally valid paths to God, and just as the Christian path saves the Christian, other paths save persons of other religions. Pluralism is a form of universalism, the belief that all people will achieve salvation. The Church rejects pluralism, and was specifically written to refute this belief, which has become increasingly popular among some Catholics. Pluralism contradicts the dogmatic Teaching of the Church that Christ is the sole mediator and way of salvation.
Even though the salvation of non-Catholics has been addressed frequently since Vatican II (in our current era of increased dialogue and ecumenism), the issue is not new. Pope Pius IX addressed the issue, and the extreme positions, in 1863:
Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments ( 7).
The Catholic position on salvation may seem highly nuanced, or even confusing, but it holds two very important realities in tension: God’s loving mercy and God’s revealed Truth. Overall, the Catholic position on the salvation of non-Catholics recognizes that God is merciful and gracious to those who sincerely seek Him, but this grace and mercy are balanced with his revealed Truth. While we pray and hope for the salvation of all people, the Church recognizes that Hell exists for those who willfully reject God, and those who choose to be separated from God may, sadly, get their wish in the afterlife. However, those who are saved receive salvation only on account of God’s grace through Jesus Christ, who alone is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
Note: The recently released Catholic document, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church, essentially re-affirms the inclusivist position outlined in this article, succinctly stated in . For my comments on this new document, see The News That Isn’t on the Per Christum blog.
A similar article to this, “Do You Think Protestants and Modernists Are Lost?” originally appeared on the Ancient-Future.Net site