The Bible teaches that salvation is through Christ alone. In Acts 4:12, Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
The Catholic Church affirms the truth of this statement, yet also teaches that non-believers can be saved:
“Those also can attain to everlasting 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 help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).
In his recent encyclical Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II reiterates this message:
“Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. . . . For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation” (no. 10).
How do we reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable positions? For that matter, how does the Catholic Church reconcile its current position with the traditional teaching that “outside the Church there is no salvation“?
Consider the last question first. The Catholic Church still holds that the Church is necessary for salvation and that no one knowing this can reject it and be saved. Vatican II teaches:
“Whosoever knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium, no. 14).
The key to this passage is the word “knowing.” Lumen Gentium speaks of salvation for those who “through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church.” This is what Catholic theology calls invincible ignorance. (Ignorance here is used in a technical sense meaning lack of knowledge, not as an insult or put-down, and is called invincible to distinguish it from vincible ignorance, the latter being ignorance for which one is at least partly culpable.) Those who knowingly reject Christ or the Church he established can’t be saved.
Such a view squares perfectly with the Church’s traditional understanding of “outside the Church there is no salvation” since, as officially used, this phrase referred to those who knowingly rejected the truth or authority of Christ and his Church, not to those in invincible ignorance.
That this isn’t an innovation of Vatican II, contrived to fool unsuspecting Protestants or sell-out Tridentine Catholic orthodoxy, can be seen from Pius IX’s encyclical, Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (1863), which states, “We all know that those who suffer from invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law which have been written by God in the hearts of all men, if they are prepared to obey God, and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can, by the power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life.”
Pius IX goes on to attack indifferentism, the idea that one religion is as good as another and that there is salvation outside of the Church even for those who “obstinately oppose the authority of the definitions of the Church and who stubbornly remain separated from the unity of the Church,” but his point about invincible ignorance remains.
So the Church hasn’t reversed itself on the salvation of non- Catholics. Those who are not in visible communion with Christ’s Church may be invisibly united to it by their desire to do all they believe God asks of them and by their reliance on his grace to do so. Such people are, to use Ronald Knox’s expression, “unconscious Catholics.”
What about Acts 4:12? Doesn’t the Catholic teaching on “invincible ignorance” contradict this passage?
No, because the text says only that salvation comes through Christ, not that only those with explicit knowledge of and faith in Christ will be saved. As C. S. Lewis (admittedly not a Catholic) puts it in Mere Christianity, “We . . . know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know him can be saved through him.”
“But how,” it might be asked, “can one who doesn’t know Christ be saved through him?” In a sense, the question is irrelevant. Even if we couldn’t hazard a guess as to how God might pull it off, this wouldn’t mean salvation of non-believers couldn’t, wouldn’t, or doesn’t happen. God is free to save whomever he wishes without revealing the details of the procedure to us.
Still, what we do know about God and his plan of salvation tells us much about the question of the salvation of non-believers. We know, for instance, that Old Testament saints were saved through Christ, even though they may have had only an implicit faith in him, a faith which amounted to little more than a confidence that God would deliver his people. Nevertheless, they responded to whatever light God gave them and were saved.
We know as well that God desires all to be saved (Acts 10:35, 1 Tim. 2:4) and that he judges non-Christian Gentiles according to the light they receive and how they, in conscience, respond to it:
“All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when . . . God will judge people’s hidden works through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:12-15).
Paul says here that the Gentiles’ “conflicting thoughts accuse or defend them” before God, and he goes on to note that “those who are physically uncircumcised but carry out the law will pass judgment” on those who have the law but transgress it (Rom. 2:27).
These statements, together with Paul’s observation in Romans 2:14 (“For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law . . .”), imply non-Christian Gentiles are, by God’s grace, in some way capable of observing the law, and, therefore, in some way capable of being justified through Christ (Rom. 2:10, 13).
The statement that the Gentiles who observe the prescriptions of the law show “the demands of the law are written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14) is based on Jeremiah 31:33, which speaks of God writing his law in the hearts of the Israelites. That this is applied to non-Christian Gentiles means that they, too, are in some way part of God’s people.
The Bible says that knowledge of God has been given to man through creation so that “people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). By responding positively to whatever grace and truth they’ve received, non-Christians demonstrate an implicit faith in Christ and desire for him, “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9).
The idea, then, that those invincibly ignorant of the fullness of divine revelation in Christ might yet be saved through him with merely implicit faith in no way diminishes the force of Acts 4:12. It is consistent with what Scripture says about God’s universal will to save those who diligently seek him (Heb. 10:6). The necessity of accepting Christ once the truth about him is proclaimed and recognized remains (Luke 10:11), as does the Church’s mission to bring people to an explicit faith in Christ as savior and Lord.
As John Paul II puts it in Redemptoris Missio, “While respecting the beliefs and sensitivities of all, we must first clearly affirm our faith in Christ, the one savior of mankind, a faith we have received as a gift from on high, not as a result of any merit of our own. . . . Christian martyrs of all times have given and continue to give their lives in order to bear witness to this faith in the conviction that every human being needs Jesus Christ, who has conquered sin and death and reconciled mankind to God” (no. 11).