To begin, I want to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blog – Thank you. I have always struggled with the teaching of “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus”. Is this doctrinal? My thoughts always go to seemingly sincere and good Christians of other denominations and how it can be that in their error, they are damned. Any thoughts you an share would be appreciated.
A good deal of ink has been spilled over this concept, rooted in Holy Scripture and the consistent tradition of the Church.
We know from the Gospels that Our Lord established the Church as His vehicle for the salvation of humanity.
He ordered us to preach the Gospel to all nations, and taught that baptism is essential for salvation.
St. Cyprian of Carthage (+258) wrote, “Salus extra ecclesiam non est” (ep. 72, Ad Iubaianum de hereticis baptizandis). Even earlier, Origen, wrote, “Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved.” (Homily on the Birth of Jesus). Clearly from both the Fathers and from the Magisterium of the Church we have a consistent teaching that the Church is THE vehicle of the salvation.
The Church still maintains that and teaches, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His Body.” (CCC 846)
This is a positive formulation of the doctrine, in contrast to the flip side, “there is no salvation outside the Church”.
The Church has always taught that we do not know the inscrutable ways of God.
Can those who appear to be visibly outside of the Church attain heaven?
Not through their own merit. None of us attains heaven through our own merit. We have the example of Christ Himself, who stated that, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven (John 3:5). That’s pretty straightforward. But then, on the Cross, He informed the Good Thief that He would be in paradise (Luke 23:43).
How do we square those things? There’s no indication that the Good Thief was “born of water and the Spirit”, yet we know he attained heaven.
If baptism is the entrance into the Church, and outside the Church there is no salvation, how can we say that the Good Thief is in heaven?
We also have the consistent teaching of the Church on the concept of invincible ignorance. There are those who, through no fault of their own, have not heard the Gospel message. Are they all guaranteed to be damned? No. St. Augustine commented in a homily once on the sheep who are outside of the flock and the wolves who are within (tr. eu. Io. 45.12). Bl. Pius IX wrote
“It must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God.
Now in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For in truth, when released from these corporeal chains, ‘we shall see God as He is’ (1 John 3:2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this moral mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is ‘one God, one faith, one baptism’ (Ephesians 4:5); it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry. But just as the way of charity demands, let us pour forth continual prayers that all nations everywhere may be converted to Christ; and let us be devoted to the common salvation of men in proportion to our strength, ‘for the hand of the Lord is not shortened’ (Isaiah 9:1) and the gifts of heavenly grace will not be wanting to those who sincerely wish and ask to be refreshed by this light.” (Allocution “Singulari quadam” 9 December 1854).
Is it possible to be saved outside of the Catholic Church? No. It is not.
Salvation comes through the Church.
Is it possible that those who seem to be outside of the Catholic Church end up in heaven?
God’s mercy and judgment are such that His understanding of salvation in and through the Church is on a different plane than ours is in this life.
It is possible for those who, due to invincible ignorance, appear to remain outside the Church are, somehow, saved in and through the Church. This possibility should, in no way, shape, or form, allow us to relax our efforts to work and pray for the spread of the Gospel and for seeking to get as many of our brothers and sisters as we possibly can into the Ark of Salvation, the Holy Catholic Church.
Bottom line: God is not limited by our understanding. God can save whom it pleaseth Him to save. Can He save people who are not visibly and formally within the embrace of Holy Catholic Church, and not even baptized? Yes. He can. We don’t know how He might do that, but He can, whether we understand it or not. In any event, any person who is saved, is saved through the merits of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and that salvation and those merits are mediated – somehow – through the only Church that He found, the Catholic Church.
Also, I want to remind everyone what the Second Vatican Council said in Lumen gentium 14:
“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.”
Moderation queue is ON.