Why does the Catholic Church teach that there is “no salvation outside the Church”? Doesn’t this contradict Scripture? God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Peter proclaimed to the Sanhedrin, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Since God intends (plans, wills) that every human being should go to heaven, doesn’t the Church’s teaching greatly restrict the scope of God’s redemption? Does the Church mean—as Protestants and (I suspect) many Catholics believe—that only members of the Catholic Church can be saved?
That is what a priest in Boston, Fr. Leonard Feeney, S.J., began teaching in the 1940s. His bishop and the Vatican tried to convince him that his interpretation of the Church’s teaching was wrong. He so persisted in his error that he was finally excommunicated, but by God’s mercy, he was reconciled to the Church before he died in 1978.
In correcting Fr. Feeney in 1949, the Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a document entitled Suprema Haec Sacra, which stated that ” extra ecclesiam, nulla salus” (outside the Church, no salvation) is “an infallible statement.” But, it added, “this dogma must be understood in that sense in which the Church itself understands it.”
Note that word dogma. This teaching has been proclaimed by, among others, Pope Pelagius in 585, the Fourth Lateran Council in 1214, Pope Innocent III in 1214, Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, Pope Pius XII, Pope Paul VI, the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Dominus Iesus.
Our point is this: When the Church infallibly teaches extra ecclesiam, nulla salus, it does not say that non-Catholics cannot be saved. In fact, it affirms the contrary. The purpose of the teaching is to tell us how Jesus Christ makes salvation available to all human beings.
Work Out Your Salvation
There are two distinct dimensions of Jesus Christ’s redemption. Objective redemption is what Jesus Christ has accomplished once for all in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension: the redemption of the whole universe. Yet the benefits of that redemption have to be applied unceasingly to Christ’s members throughout their lives. This is subjective redemption. If the benefits of Christ’s redemption are not applied to individuals, they have no share in his objective redemption. Redemption in an individual is an ongoing process. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling; for God is at work in you” (Phil. 2:12–13).
How does Jesus Christ work out his redemption in individuals? Through his mystical body. When I was a Protestant, I (like Protestants in general) believed that the phrase “mystical body of Christ” was essentially a metaphor. For Catholics, the phrase is literal truth.
Here’s why: To fulfill his Messianic mission, Jesus Christ took on a human body from his Mother. He lived a natural life in that body. He redeemed the world through that body and no other means. Since his Ascension and until the end of history, Jesus lives on earth in his supernatural body, the body of his members, his mystical body. Having used his physical body to redeem the world, Christ now uses his mystical body to dispense “the divine fruits of the Redemption” (Mystici Corporis 31).
The Church: His Body
What is this mystical body? The true Church of Jesus Christ, not some invisible reality composed of true believers, as the Reformers insisted. In the first public proclamation of the gospel by Peter at Pentecost, he did not invite his listeners to simply align themselves spiritually with other true believers. He summoned them into a society, the Church, which Christ had established. Only by answering that call could they be rescued from the “crooked generation” (Acts 2:40) to which they belonged and be saved.
Paul, at the time of his conversion, had never seen Jesus. Yet recall how Jesus identified himself with his Church when he spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus: “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4, emphasis added) and “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Years later, writing to Timothy, Paul ruefully admitted that he had persecuted Jesus by persecuting his Church. He expressed gratitude for Christ appointing him an apostle, “though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him” (1 Tim. 1:13).
The Second Vatican Council says that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church and the mystical body of Christ “form one complex reality that comes together from a human and a divine element” (Lumen Gentium 8). The Church is “the fullness of him [Christ] who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Now that Jesus has accomplished objective redemption, the “plan of mystery hidden for ages in God” is “that through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:9–10).
According to John Paul II, in order to properly understand the Church’s teaching about its role in Christ’s scheme of salvation, two truths must be held together: “the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all humanity” and “the necessity of the Church for salvation” (Redemptoris Missio 18). John Paul taught us that the Church is “the seed, sign, and instrument” of God’s kingdom and referred several times to Vatican II’s designation of the Catholic Church as the “universal sacrament of salvation”:
- “The Church is the sacrament of salvation for all humankind, and her activity is not limited only to those who accept her message” (RM 20).
- “Christ won the Church for himself at the price of his own blood and made the Church his co-worker in the salvation of the world. . . . He carries out his mission through her” (RM 9).
- In an address to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (January 28, 2000), John Paul stated, “The Lord Jesus . . . established his Church as a saving reality: as his body, through which he himself accomplishes salvation in history.” He then quoted Vatican II’s teaching that the Church is necessary for salvation.
In 2000 the CDF issued Dominus Iesus, a response to widespread attempts to dilute the Church’s teaching about our Lord and about itself. The English subtitle is itself significant: “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” It simply means that Jesus Christ and his Church are indivisible. He is universal Savior who always works through his Church:
The only Savior . . . constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: He himself is in the Church and the Church is in him. . . . Therefore, the fullness of Christ’s salvific mystery belongs also to the Church, inseparably united to her Lord (DI 18).
Indeed, Christ and the Church “constitute a single ‘whole Christ’” (DI 16). In Christ, God has made known his will that “the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity” (DI 22). The Catholic Church, therefore, “has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being” (DI 20).
The key elements of revelation that together undergird extra ecclesiam, nulla salus are these: (1) Jesus Christ is the universal Savior. (2) He has constituted his Church as his mystical body on earth through which he dispenses salvation to the world. (3) He always works through it—though in countless instances outside its visible boundaries. Recall John Paul’s words about the Church quoted above: “Her activity is not limited only to those who accept its message.”
Not of this Fold
Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus does not mean that only faithful Roman Catholics can be saved. The Church has never taught that. So where does that leave non-Catholics and non-Christians?
Jesus told his followers, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). After his Resurrection, Jesus gave the threefold command to Peter: “Feed my lambs. . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17). The word translated as “tend” (poimaine) means “to direct” or “to superintend”—in other words, “to govern.” So although there are sheep that are not of Christ’s fold, it is through the Church that they are able to receive his salvation.
People who have never had an opportunity to hear of Christ and his Church—and those Christians whose minds have been closed to the truth of the Church by their conditioning—are not necessarily cut off from God’s mercy. Vatican II phrases the doctrine in these terms:
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 consciences—those too may achieve eternal salvation (LG 16).
Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery (Gaudium et Spes 22).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
Every man who is ignorant of the gospel of Christ and of his Church but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity (CCC 1260).
Obviously, it is not their ignorance that enables them to be saved. Ignorance excuses only lack of knowledge. That which opens the salvation of Christ to them is their conscious effort, under grace, to serve God as well as they can on the basis of the best information they have about him.
The Church speaks of “implicit desire” or “longing” that can exist in the hearts of those who seek God but are ignorant of the means of his grace. If a person longs for salvation but does not know the divinely established means of salvation, he is said to have an implicit desire for membership in the Church. Non-Catholic Christians know Christ, but they do not know his Church. In their desire to serve him, they implicitly desire to be members of his Church. Non-Christians can be saved, said John Paul, if they seek God with “a sincere heart.” In that seeking they are “related” to Christ and to his body the Church (address to the CDF).
On the other hand, the Church has long made it clear that if a person rejects the Church with full knowledge and consent, he puts his soul in danger:
They cannot be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or remain in it (cf. LG 14).
The Catholic Church is “the single and exclusive channel by which the truth and grace of Christ enter our world of space and time” (Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, 179). Those who do not know the Church, even those who fight against it, can receive these gifts if they honestly seek God and his truth. But, Adam says, “though it be not the Catholic Church itself that hands them the bread of truth and grace, yet it is Catholic bread that they eat.” And when they eat of it, “without knowing it or willing it” they are “incorporated in the supernatural substance of the Church.”
Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus.