<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1906385056278061&ev=PageView&noscript=1" />
Skip to main content Accessibility feedback

No Salvation Outside the Church

Audio only:

Our Director of Apologetics and Evangelization, Tim Staples, says the Magisterium never stopped teaching that there is no salvation outside the Church. This doesn’t sound very PC.


Cy Kellett: Do Catholics still believe there’s no salvation outside the Church? Tim Staples next on Catholic Answers Focus.

Cy Kellett: Hello, and welcome to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and this time we deal with a topic, well, it strikes a lot of people as mean, frankly, and here to help us unpack it and understand what it means is the Director of Apologetics and Evangelization here at Catholic Answers, Tim Staples. Hello, Tim.

Tim Staples: Hello, Cy Kellett.

Cy Kellett: This seems mean to me, you can’t be saved outside the Catholic Church-

Tim Staples: Amen.

Cy Kellett: … there’s no salvation outside the Catholic Church. How can we say such a mean thing?

Tim Staples: Yes, because we’re mean people, Cy.

Cy Kellett: Okay. All right. All right.

Tim Staples: Show’s over. No, you know, it’s actually a dogma of our faith. This has been taught from the Council of Leon in 1274, the Council of Florence, 1445, to the Council of Trent, 1560, right around 60-ish, because it went for 20 years, from ’45 to ’65. From the Council of Trent to Vatican I to including Vatican Council II, people are surprised, as well as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which all teach there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, and it’s a crucial thing for us to understand as Catholics, because really, it’s rooted in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in John Chapter 14 verse six, where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except by me.” “Oh, but Jesus is mean.”

Cy Kellett: Yeah.

Tim Staples: He’s saying no one can come to the Father except–“He’s mean!” No, he’s not mean, he is proclaiming the truth that Jesus Christ is, as St. Paul would later say in 1 Timothy 2:5, there’s one God, one mediator between God and Men, the man Jesus Christ. He is the only person in the universe, my friends, who has the power to reconcile sinful man with his creator. Why? Because one sin against an infinitely holy God requires infinite satisfaction for there to be true reconciliation. Well, Jesus is the only person who was fully man, hence he could make sacrifice fittingly for men, and very importantly, he’s also God at the same time, so he is able to make an infinitely dignified sacrifice, that is, make infinite satisfaction to satiate an infinitely just God. So, Jesus is the only way to salvation. That’s the point. And the Church is what Ephesians, chapter one, verse 22 and 23 says: “The Church is the body of Christ,” catch this, “the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all. The Church is Jesus Christ extended into this world,” according to St. Paul. So, if there’s no salvation apart from Jesus Christ, of course there’s no salvation apart from Jesus, from-

Cy Kellett: From the Church.

Tim Staples: … the Church, because the Church is Jesus Christ extended into this world. But here’s a key.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Tim Staples: Key. Everybody put up a flag here, this is really important. Both of these, Jesus’s statement in John 14:6, and the Catholic Church’s dogmatic declaration, no salvation outside the Church, has to be qualified, and I like to qualify it like this. In John Chapter 14, yes, Jesus says he’s the way, the truth, and the life, but in the next chapter, if you add one to 14, you get 15. John 15, verse 22, just thought, you know, I know-

Cy Kellett: Thank you.

Tim Staples: … your math is kind of shaky.

Cy Kellett: Kind of?

Tim Staples: So, just-

Cy Kellett: Right.

Tim Staples: John 15:22, Jesus says, concerning the Jews who were rejecting him, he said, “If I had not spoken to them, they would have no sin. Now I have spoken to them, their sin remains.” Notice how Jesus says that, or he certainly implies, that you are not responsible for what you do not know, and we would add, could not have known. This is the foundation for the Church’s understanding of the possibility of salvation for those who do not have a formally salvific relationship with Jesus Christ, because they are what the Church, in their tradition, has called “invincibly ignorant.” That is, not just ignorant; ignorance is not bliss, ignorance is dangerous, right? But, invincible ignorance means you’re not responsible for that ignorance, and in that case you are not culpable for what you did not know. And so here we have, right in the Gospel, the possibility implied of salvation for those who don’t know through no fault of their own.

Now, we believe that those who do not know still need to cooperate with God’s grace in whatever way God communicates that grace to them, and we have good reason, Biblical foundation, to know that Jesus does, in fact, give grace even apart from the ordinary means of sanctification that he’s given us through the sacraments. And how do we know that? Well, because if he says that some of these folks would not be culpable, they would be innocent, it would be unjust for him to send them to Hell, because they could not have known any better. Once again, the implication is he will give them grace as long as they do what he says, for example, in Matthew 7:7, and they can do this without knowing who Jesus is: ask, seek, and knock.

Cy Kellett: Ah, right, right.

Tim Staples: “Ask, it shall be given. Seek, you shall find. Knock, it shall be opened unto you.” That’s Jesus’ promise, that if you seek God the best way you can, in fact, we would say God’s grace is already working in your life even if you don’t know who God is, God is already working. And we have an example of this. For example, in Cornelius the centurion in Acts chapter 10. If you remember, Cornelius didn’t know who Jesus was. He was a God-fearer, that is, a Gentile who believed in the God of the Jews, went to the court of the Gentiles, but could not go into the inner sanctuary because he wasn’t a fully converted Jew. But, he was a God-fearer who was on the top of his house one day, praying, when the angel Gabriel appears to him and says, “Cornelius,” look at Acts chapter 10 verse four, folks: “Cornelius, your prayer and your alms have ascended before God as an anamnesis, a memorial offering to God, and your prayer has been heard.” In fact, later, Peter would say, in verses 34 and 35, of Cornelius he says: “I perceive that every man,” Jew, Gentile, doesn’t matter, “every man who works righteousness and fears God is acceptable to Him.”

So, Peter told us even though he didn’t know who Jesus was, he was already acceptable to God. What does that imply? God is already giving him grace. Now, of course, Peter came and brought him to the fullness of the faith, and that’s what we want to do for everyone as well, but the key principle here is that because of that invincible ignorance it is possible for someone to be in right standing with God, cooperating with grace already, even though he doesn’t even know who Jesus is. See, that’s true here for Jesus Christ himself, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me.” The same is true of the fullness of the truth that we alone posses as Catholics.

If you have people today, real-time, who are where they are, through no fault of their own, they’ve never rejected the truth of Christ in his Church, but they seek God in accordance with the legitimate sacraments–for example, they may have, if they’re Orthodox they have seven, Protestants have two–but even if they’re not Christian, if they cooperate with the graces that they have now, the bits and pieces, in fact Lumen Gentium, in paragraph 16, talks about the “images and shadows” that even the religions that don’t even believe in God posses, like the Hindus and such. Those are sources of grace, God acting. And so, if they respond the best way they can, they have the possibility of salvation. So, now, is this a compromise? Are we really making so many exceptions that no salvation outside of the Church really doesn’t have any meaning? Absolutely not.

Cy Kellett: No, yeah.

Tim Staples: The truth is, all salvation comes through Jesus Christ and his Church. In fact, the graces that our Hindu friends, Buddhists, and anybody else who is honestly seeking God, will receive, ultimately, come through Jesus and his Church. But my friends, really, this was a teaching that attracted me to the Catholic faith among all the others, but in a particular way, because it just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Cy Kellett: Yeah. God’s not unjust. That’s the most important thing, yeah.

Tim Staples: Exactly. In Romans chapter two, you know, verse 14 through 16, St. Paul makes the point that if pagans, people outside who don’t even know the law, keep the law that’s written in their hearts, he’s talking about natural law there, he says that will be a source, that is the law written on their hearts to either accuse them or, possibly, excuse them, on the day of judgment. St. Paul tells us that. So, the Bible is very clear on this, that if, in fact, you are invincibly ignorant, and you seek God the best way you can, you have the possibility of salvation. But, the last thing I would say about the no salvation outside of the Church is really an exhortation to Catholics, because I think today, in popular Catholic culture, the possibility of salvation outside of the Church has been so emphasized that evangelism has almost become a moot point-

Cy Kellett: Yeah, why do it?

Tim Staples: … because, you know, “they’re already saved.” And that is a damnable heresy, number one, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his great Evangelii Nuntiandi, the greatest document ever written, in my humble opinion, on evangelization, he does acknowledge there that yes, it is possible that folks can be saved apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, but that’s not the ordinary means. Souls are going to be lost if we don’t proclaim the Gospel, I mean, that’s the bottom line. But Paul VI, I think, beautifully brings out another aspect here. He says perhaps the question we should ask is not so much will they be saved, but will we be saved if we fail to proclaim the Gospel, because as Paul told a young priest that he had ordained, Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:16, he said, “Timothy, stand fast in the doctrine, in the teachings which you have received, because in so doing you will both save yourself, and them that hear thee.” So, what we’re talking about here is salvation’s on the line both for us and for them, and we can never forget that. Any theology that teaches you “Oh, it’s okay, you don’t need to evangelize,” that, my friends, is grave error. Not just error, but grave error.

Cy Kellett: Can I ask you about something with, we see so, I mean, it’s just overwhelming how the culture is just grabbing young people out of the Church with all of its, I don’t know, bullying I would say, kind of bullying and seductions, bullying and seduction of the culture. So, what do you say to the parent who is very anxious for the loss of their child’s soul…the child was baptized, and confirmed, and all that, but got sucked out of the Church by this incredibly powerful pop mass culture, whatever you want to call it. What do you say to that person?

Tim Staples: What I say to that person is you have reason for real concern for the soul of your child, number one, and number two, you also have reason for hope.

Cy Kellett: Okay.

Tim Staples: We have reason for hope because of everything we’ve just talked about, the possibility of salvation. I always say to people, if your child committed suicide, there is still hope. There is always hope in the Catholic Church, in our understanding of the possibility of mitigating factors, especially when it comes to suicide and things like that, where God only knows the pressures that lead someone to that, and the possibility of mitigation there. Now, it doesn’t mean automatically, somebody committed suicide, “Oh, thank God, they’re going to Heaven!” No, because that’s objectively a grave sin, and they may well have gone to Hell for it, too, but there is always hope. In the same way, when a child that has left the sacraments, of course we should be concerned as parents, and do what we can. Be sneaky, right? Try to lead them back. Get a third party. Get a Tim Staples book, get a Jimmy Akin book, give it to them. You know, we should be sneaky and everything else trying to bring them home, but always maintain that sense of hope. Never despair, because despair, my friend, is not of God. When you have a parent who’s hurting badly, and it causes them to leave their faith, they’ve fallen into despair.

I have encountered that, where a child leaves the faith, and a parent is so distraught they can’t even pray anymore, and they start calling into question “How could God be real and allow this kind of pain in my heart?” You know, that’s the ends to which despair can take you. So, we must remember, come back to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Keep in the forefront of our mind 1 Timothy 2:4, “God wills all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” God wills the salvation of your child more than you do. So, you’ve got an advocate in Jesus Christ, pray, pray, pray. Now, God’s not going to force them. Hell is a real possibility. God will allow us to go to Hell if we want to, and we have to understand that that is true.

Cy Kellett: Yeah, Jesus talked about that a lot.

Tim Staples: Yes, he did.

Cy Kellett: Made it very clear.

Tim Staples: Matthew chapter 25, verse 46, “These shall depart into everlasting fire.” But you know what? A mom who continually cries out to God and prays, a dad, siblings who cry out to God, that child, whoever it is, is going to be miserable until he comes back, because God’s going to turn up the heat.

Cy Kellett: Make your child miserable, yeah, yeah.

Tim Staples: That’s right. God’s going to make them miserable, he’ll turn up the heat, not to the point of coercion, God never coerces, but you know what? God has an uncanny way of getting his way for those who love him, and will be that one who will not leave. I’m going to pray the prayer, as we used to call it, the prayer of importunity, right? I’m going to park at your doorstep, God, and I’m not leaving until my child comes home.

Cy Kellett: And so, outside the Church there’s no salvation, but that does not mean that people who are not explicitly in contact with the Church can’t be saved, it just means that the saving graces that the world needs, in every corner of the world, are poured out through Christ and his Church.

Tim Staples: Yeah. I’m going to steal something from Jimmy Akin that I got years ago, and I’ve used it a thousand times. In order to go to heaven, you don’t have to have a formal relationship with the Catholic Church. That is, beyond the registry of Catholic parish. But, you do have to have a salvific relationship with the Church, and that salvific relationship can come via invincible ignorance, and the cooperation with the graces of God that you are receiving wherever you are, firmly unto death, you have the possibility of salvation.

Cy Kellett: And so, outside the Church we can say with confidence there is no salvation, but inside the Church there is salvation and more, salvation and all the glory of God, the sacraments to be helps to you, all the things that will-

Tim Staples: Amen.

Cy Kellett: That’s a fullness of life.

Tim Staples: That’s an important message, isn’t it? John, chapter 10, verse 10, Jesus says, “I am come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” It is true that, you know, the sufferings of this age are not even worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed, Romans 8:17, 1 Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of men what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Yes, we do need to be heavenly minded, in that sense, to understand that that is our ultimate goal. This ain’t it.

Cy Kellett: No, right?

Tim Staples: But at the same time, we also have to understand that God has come to give us real life, life now, relationships, and love in your marriage and with your children. God infuses agape, that is, the divine love of the four loves, right, that C.S. Lewis wrote about? Agape is the divine love that’s infused by the power of the Holy Spirit that changes everything in your life, gives meaning and purpose now, so that we can be happy now, as well as for all eternity, when we come to Jesus.

Cy Kellett: Praise God. Tim Staples, thank you very much.

Tim Staples: God bless you, Cy.

Cy Kellett: And thank you for listening to Catholic Answers Focus. Again, if you enjoy what you hear here on Catholic Answers Focus, if you would give us a review wherever you get your podcast, or maybe a thumbs up, or a like, or whatever there, or maybe those are the same thing. I don’t know. But those are the ways that other people will find us. We’d love to grow this. And there’s also just the let people know where they can find Catholic Answers Focus. We’ll see you next time.

Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission! Donate