The Catholic Church teaches infallibly, “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” or, “outside the Church there is no salvation.” But as with all dogmas of the Faith, this has to be qualified and understood properly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lays out the truth of the matter succinctly in paragraphs 846-848, but I would recommend backing up to CCC 830 for a context that will help in understanding these three essential points concerning this teaching:
1. There is no salvation apart from Christ and his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Again, this is an infallible teaching and not up for debate among Catholics.
2. Those who are “invincibly” ignorant concerning the truth of #1 above will not be culpable for this lack of knowledge before God.
3. Those in the category of #2 have the real possibility of salvation even if they never come to an explicit knowledge of Christ and/or his Church.
As we will see below, “invincibly ignorant” does not mean just because a person is “ignorant” of the truth, they will automatically be saved. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous. There are other criteria beyond being “invincibly ignorant” that must be met as well before one can finally be saved. But it does mean that they have the possibility of salvation.
Now, before we get too far into the weeds here, let me quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 846-48, which—as is so often the case no matter the doctrine with the CCC—presents this teaching clearly and to the point under the heading: “Outside the Church there is no Salvation.”
How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
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; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it (CCC here quotes The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium,” 14, from the documents of Vatican II).
The Church is very clear here. There is no salvation apart from a salvific union with the Catholic Church. However, the Catechism continues:
This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: “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” (quoting, Lumen Gentium, 16).
“Although in ways known to himself God can lead those, who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” (quoting Ad Gentes, 7, another document from Vatican II).
I recommend a careful reading of the texts represented by the footnotes in paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium (nos. 17 and 18) which reference St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica III q. 8 a. 3 ad 1, and the Instruction of the Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949 that I will reference below. These make very clear that anyone who is ever saved is not saved by his or her false religious beliefs (i.e. Judaism that rejects Christ, Islam that denies Jesus is the Son of God, etc.); rather, they can be saved in spite of them. If they are ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own (they have never had the opportunity to either hear or understand the truth), then the limited amount of truth that they do have “among shadows and images,” and “all goodness and truth found in these religions [serve] as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’ (CCC 843).”
A Catholic Contradiction?
Perhaps the one paragraph in the CCC used more than any other to “prove” Catholics contradict themselves with regard to this the doctrine “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is paragraph 841, which is given to us under the heading: “The Church’s Relationship with the Muslims”:
The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day.
“See? Here the Church says Muslims can be saved. What up with that?”
Well, this has to be understood in the context of what the Catechism says else where, and as I quoted it above: Those Muslims (and as we will see in more detail, anyone of any religion, or even the non-religious could be included here) who are not responsible for their ignorance of the Catholic Faith can indeed be saved.
Now, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, CCC 841 is not saying “anyone who is a good Joe will go to heaven.” A Jewish person will not make it to heaven by being a good Jew, or a Muslim by being a good Muslim, a Protestant by being a good Protestant, etc. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man can come to the Father except by me.” He seems to be quite plain in this text that he is essential to the equation. And not only is Christ essential to the equation, but also Christ speaking through his Church. “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). The Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). The Church is Christ in the world. It is almighty God who willed “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). To reject the Church is to reject Christ because it was Christ who gave authority to the Church and declared:
If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18).
In a nutshell, you cannot separate rejecting the Church with rejecting Christ according to Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, one cannot just create his own religion and follow the “Jesus” of his own creation and choosing without there being eternal consequences.
Breaking it Down
As an apologist, I find the real issue here to be a conceptual disconnect between the dogma—extra ecclesiam nulla salus—and the idea that some people who are not formally Catholic can be saved. And this is understandable. One way I have found some success in helping folks to bridge this divide is to note what I mentioned in brief before, i.e., the Church teaches the possibility of salvation for people who do not have what we call a formal relationship with the Church, i.e., they are not on the registry at a local Catholic parish, yet they do indeed have a salvific relationship with the Church.
So then, the question is: “What does this mean?”
To get a clear picture, let’s begin with the necessity of salvation in Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of St. John, and in the very next chapter after Jesus makes his famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6), which I quoted above, this same Jesus also said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22; see also John 9:41). Jesus presents a very important principle here. A person is not responsible for what they could not have known. The implication is it is possible to have a salvific link with Christ without knowing him formally. If this is so, and it is, according to Scripture, then it stands to reason that in the same way, one can have a salvific relationship with the Church without knowing the truth that the Church is the fullness of Christ on this earth (see also the case of Cornelius the centurion in Acts 10:1-4, 34-35).
What I mean by a “formal relationship” with the Church is that a person has been formally baptized into Christ and has made a profession of faith in the one, true faith of the Catholic Church (assuming he has reached the age of accountability). However, a person can possibly have a salvific link with Christ and his Church in various ways some of which are known to God alone. This can be via the valid sacraments they may have, e.g., all seven with the Orthodox, or two with Protestants (baptism and matrimony). Or, it may be via what the Council fathers called “the images and shadows” of truth that the various world religions possess. Indeed, even “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to lead a good life” will not be denied by Divine Providence what the Council fathers called “the helps necessary for salvation” (Lumen Gentium,16).
Thus, the Council fathers are here unequivocal on the possibility of salvation for the invincibly ignorant, but we must also note they balance this message with a stern warning:
But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings 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 this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
With St. Paul, we leave the judging of who is invincibly ignorant and who is not to God (I Cor. 4:3-6). We evangelize everyone!
So Why Preach the Gospel at All?
In some quarters the possibility of salvation for those who are not formally Catholic has been taken to such an extreme that it has led to a religious indifferentism—one religion, even Catholicism, is no better than another—that is condemned by the Church. This is extremely dangerous for the salvation of souls.
Now, James 1:17 assures us that “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Truth is truth anywhere it is found and, ultimately, Jesus Christ is the truth. So, if folks outside of the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are truly seeking the truth and have not rejected the fullness of the truth found only in the Catholic Church, they can be saved. However, Lumen Gentium 14 also emphasizes the fact that the truth of the Catholic Faith is not simply a nice option. It is binding on those who see its veracity. “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.”
Moreover, I must emphasize again, because someone is “invincibly ignorant” of the truth, this does not mean they will be saved. It means they have the possibility of salvation. Perhaps Pope Pius XII explains best the necessary balance between membership in the Church Jesus established and the possibility of salvation to those who are not formal members in his Encyclical of June 29, 1943, Mystici Corporis:
Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. "For in one spirit" says the Apostle, "were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free." As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the [Catholic] Church, let him be considered - so the Lord commands - as a heathen and a publican (22).
But his Holiness then goes on to say that others outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church can be “related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire” (para. 103). He makes clear that these can be saved, but “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church,” and are, unfortunately, in a “state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation.”
The bottom line is: the straight and narrow road that leads to heaven is not an easy road to begin with, even for those gifted with the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church alone (see Matt. 7:13; I Peter 4:18). But without the Church and sacraments Christ has provided as the ordinary means for our sanctification, it is even more difficult. In fact, beyond the obvious advantages for the overcoming of the “sin which does so easily beset us” that Catholics enjoy in the sacraments, the Church has also taught there must be three things present in order for salvation to be possible for those who are not in a formal relationship with the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter of August 8, 1949, by direction of Pope Pius XII, said in this regard:
But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrew 11:6).
One can never know if he has attained to “perfect charity” in this life. That is a high standard. It is possible to be sure, but it is a high standard. This should make very clear that we must evangelize everyone so that they can have the certainty of hope that only comes to us fully via the sacraments and union with the Church Jesus founded, the Catholic Church.
There are six key points that I believe we need to remember here:
1. No one who knowingly and deliberately rejects the truth will be saved. It doesn’t matter how good of a Muslim, Jew, Baptist, or anything else he may be. If anyone rejects the truth of Christ and his Church—even one definitive teaching—they will be lost.
2. Religions that have as tenants of their respective faiths the rejection of Jesus and his Church have no power to save anyone. It is “the truth that makes us free” (cf. John 8:32), not falsehood.
3. In the case of one who is ignorant of the truth of the Catholic Faith, “through no fault of [his] own,” he can be saved, if he is truly “invincibly ignorant, [is] given the supernatural virtue of faith and [has] perfect charity in [his heart]” (cf. Instruction of Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949).
4. We must remember that we are not the judges of salvation. God is the sole and final judge. We do not know who is truly “invincibly ignorant” and who is not. Therefore, we must be careful to “evangelize all men” as the Catechism commands us and leave the judging to God.
5. “Whatever good or truth is found amongst [other world religions] is considered by the Church to be ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’” (Lumen Gentium 16). And if they seek the true God given the light they have received, they have the possibility of salvation.
6. This does not mean they are not in need of the Eucharist! Without the grace that comes from the sacraments, one is at a decided disadvantage to get to heaven. And if one has rejected the truth, then there is no way he can merit heaven apart from repentance and the acceptance of the truth. The Church makes very clear: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (CCC 1445).
If anyone makes it to heaven apart from what the Church refers to as “the ordinary means of sanctification that comes through the sacraments,” or a “formal union with the Church,” they will only do so through a salvific link with the Church that comes via extraordinary means.
Some Final Questions:
I often get two very poignant questions that will most often come from people who have a profound personal interest in the answer. That “personal interest” is usually rooted in their having had loved ones leave the true Faith.
1. “What about Catholics who have left the Faith? Are they okay, or are they lost?”
Anyone who knowingly and deliberately rejects the Church will be lost, as I said above. So it would be the height of presumption to say that someone who has left the Faith “is okay.” Now, it may well be that a person who left the Faith may have had such a distorted notion of what the Church truly is and what she teaches that there may not be culpability. Again, we don’t know. However, it may well be that they are culpable. And no amount of “church” attendance or prayer apart from the Church Jesus established, the Catholic Church, will get them to heaven if that is the case. One might even “deliver [one’s] body to be burned” (I Cor. 13:3), but it will “profit nothing” apart from union with Christ and his Church because it is only the divine life and charity of Christ in us that can save us. So we must take extremely serious anyone who has left the faith or anyone who is not in union with the Church because objectively speaking, (barring invincible ignorance, etc.) souls are on the line!
2. “What about the question of those who are in the process of converting to the Catholic Faith? If only the sacraments can take away the sins of those who are fully aware of their efficacy, what about these?”
The Council of Trent declared that either the actual sacraments or a “desire thereof” is sufficient to take away sins. In Session Seven, “On the Sacraments in General,” canon 4, the Council declared:
If any one saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation, but superfluous; and that, without them, or without the desire thereof, men obtain of God, through faith alone, the grace of justification;-though all (the sacraments) are not indeed necessary for every individual; let him be anathema.
Similarly, the Council of Trent declared, specifically concerning baptism, in Session Six, Chapter 4:
By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated,-as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.
And with regard to the Sacrament of Confession, in Chapter 14 of that same Session Six, the Council declared:
Whence it is to be taught, that the penitence of a Christian, after his fall, is very different from that at (his) baptism; and that therein are included not only a cessation from sins, and a detestation thereof, or, a contrite and humble heart, but also the sacramental confession of the said sins,-at least in desire, and to be made in its season,-and sacerdotal absolution; and likewise satisfaction by fasts, alms, prayers, and the other pious exercises of a spiritual life; not indeed for the eternal punishment,-which is, together with the guilt, remitted, either by the sacrament, or by the desire of the sacrament…
Thus, the desire for the Sacraments of catechumens suffices until such a time as they can actually receive them.