ASK FATHER: Our old, misused friend, “Ecclesia supplet”

From a  reader…


I attended a lecture today and it was about Ecclesiology

The author said that those who are outside the Catholic Church can be saved because of the overflow of graces via Ecclesia Supplet. Provided they have lived good lives and have not in any way gone against the Church who is the bearer of Truth and Salvation.


Ah, our old, frequently misused friend, Ecclesia supplet. Hauled out on a regular basis to cover up the faults and foibles of the all-too-human elements in the Church. Once again, used improperly. It’s probably better to get used to using the full phrase – ecclesia supplet facultatem. The Church supplies the faculty. The Church supplies jurisdiction. In certain situations when a minister of the Church acts improperly, the Church can supply the faculty that the minister was supposed to have.

The Church does not supply grace where grace is lacking.

The Church does not supply faith where faith is lacking.

The Church does not supply salvation where salvation is lacking.

The Church, despite having a divine foundation and divine guidance, is not God.

Are those outside of the Church saved? Was Boniface VIII wrong when he infallibly declared that outside of the Church there is no salvation? Was Our Lord joking when he said “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life within you” (John 6:53)? When he said, “No one can enter the kingdom of heaven unless He be born again of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) was he kidding around?

Certainly not. There is no salvation outside of the Church, and no one who is not a baptized member of the Church can be saved. That’s clearly the message of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ, and of the Church.

Yet, the same Jesus, who taught these things, turned to the thief on the Cross next to Him – the thief who had not been baptized of water and the Spirit, who had not eaten of the flesh of the Son of Man, nor drank of His blood – turned to this selfsame thief and said to him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

How does that square?

Remember that teacher in high school, or maybe college? A really tough teacher, of a difficult subject. But a good teacher. He told you at the beginning of the semester what you needed to read, what you needed to study, and what you needed to do to pass his class. He gave out good, detailed study guides for his tests. He was exacting, but fair. Remember him?

Remember earning whatever grade you got in his class – maybe an A, more likely a B, or even a C – and being grateful that you got that grade, but knowing that you got what you deserved, insofar as you followed his study guide and turned in well-written papers on time? Remember that one guy in class, who didn’t seem to follow the rules, who slacked off, and who failed? Remember that other guy who didn’t seem to get things right, turned in sloppy-looking work, and was always the last one in the room struggling with the exam, but who somehow managed to get a passing grade?

What was up with that guy? Did the professor relax his standards to let this guy through? Did he give him favors, or maybe find a way to give him extra credit that he didn’t give to others? Remember asking, and being told – it really isn’t any of your business?

I think it’s kind of like that with God. He’s given us a clear path to heaven. He’s told us what we need to do. Be born again of water and the Spirit, eat His Body, drink His blood, follow the commandments, be faithful to the Church, believe and trust in Him, and spread His Word, in season and out of season. Take up our cross and follow Him. It’s all there, laid out for us. That’s what we need to know.

And, He makes it clear that we are to strive to make sure that everyone else around us knows this too. If we want to see our friends in heaven, we have to do everything we can to make this message clear to them.

Are there those who are unbaptized who get into heaven? Well, we know of one – the Good Thief. Is he the only one? Honestly, I don’t know, but I would suspect he’s not. Is there, therefore, salvation outside of the Church? No, the Church has infallibly defined that dogma. How does this square?

Short answer, that’s not really my business. God is free to grant salvation as He chooses. I know what’s He’s said through His Gospel, through His Church. I can certainly hope that there is salvation for those who, through no fault of their own, don’t know Him. That would certainly square with my understanding of a loving and fair God. I also know that if other’s don’t know Him because I’ve failed in my duty to proclaim the Gospel to them, my own salvation is in grave jeopardy. Does the glimmer of a possibility of salvation being granted in ways other than the ordinary way Christ laid out give me the excuse to slack off on my missionary mandate to preach the Gospel? Pardon my English, but hell no!

Longer answer – about 20 centuries of theological speculation by minds much better than mine. Happy reading.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. excalibur says:

    All we can hope, and pray for, is God’s Mercy. No one knows the mindset at the hour of death of anyone.

    The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

  2. Pio Pio Pio says:

    “Ecclesia supplet”… we meet again.

    I remember the first time I heard this phrase almost exactly two years ago. My charismatic, hetero-praxical parish was having its yearly Advent mission. One of the nights, the priest who led the parish mission called those gathered to Confession. There were many priests stationed around the back of the Church to hear confessions, but this priest offered that penitents in his line should write out their sins on a piece of paper instead of confessing them to him verbally. He had a little bucket with a lit candle inside where penitents would throw their written-out sins into the fire so their sins could be “burned away.” The priest took penitents two-by-two, and, did not even read the sins confessed, only pronouncing the words of absolution over penitents, also two-by-two, announcing that every penitent in his line should also have the same penance—one Our Father. Completely shocked by this, I remember mentioning it to the resident seminarian over a couple beers at a local bar. “Ecclesia supplet!” exclaimed the jolly seminarian, almost as if himself absolving the priest of this heteropraxical theatricality.

    To this day, I still wonder if those penitents were absolved validly, and, since then, I have always remained skeptical of this phrase.

  3. Marion Ancilla Mariae II says:

    O Father, live forever!

  4. bwfackler says:

    The Good Thief may have been baptized. We don’t have evidence of it either way and he died and could have been saved under the old law anyway as a circumcised Jew. He’s not really a good example of salvation without baptism.

    [It seems to me that Our Lord saying so is enough.]

  5. OCDFriar says:

    It is undeniable that every soul in Heaven is fully a member of the Body of Christ; that is to say, they are saved in the Church. When and by what means in this life Christ draws them into His Divine Life and integrates them as members of His Bride, the Church, is of course the mystery of His Salvific Will.

    That said, it would be reckless to the extreme to disregard, for ourselves or others, the clear and proven means of salvation with which He provides us here on earth.

  6. Baritone says:

    I think what the Good Thief said to the Lord and to the bad thief is important too.

    “But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.”

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but the case of the Good Thief appears to have some rather sacramental aspects to it: 1) acknowledgment of guilt and apparent contrition (at least imperfect); 2) an act of faith; 3) profession (if not confession) before the Priest; 4) the unusual circumstances of danger of death, the physical inability of the Priest to baptize the Good Thief in the usual manner, and possibly ignorance of the need to confess all mortal sins in number and kind on the part of the Good Thief; 5) a rather difficult penance, to put it mildly; 6) the blood of Christ flowing as the Priest pronounces words that the man is saved.

  7. Rob83 says:

    Since all in heaven are part of the Church Triumphant, clearly anyone saved has in some way been saved through the Church, including all those Old Testament saints, though how remains a mystery. The only thing we can really be sure of is that the ones debating the question must make use of the ordinary means of getting to heaven.

  8. msmsem says:

    This doesn’t address the “Ecclesia supplet” part so much as the “Extra Ecclesiam” part, but…

    I explain it as: Those who are not within the Church (e.g. the “good Jew” or the “good Muslim” or the “good Hindu”) are not ipso facto excluded from the possibility of eternal salvation. [Perhaps. God can save whom it pleases Him to save, even without baptism.] Those who do somehow attain salvation however do so not *because* they followed their religion well but *despite* their religion. In other words, even though their religion placed obstacles in their way to accepting the fullness of Christ’s redemption, they were – literally, by the grace of God – able to do so at the hour of their death. [Those who earnestly seek what is good, true and beautiful are, in a sense, seeking God.]

    Perhaps this reasoning can even be extended regarding our separated Protestant brethren thusly: good Methodists or good Baptists are [perhaps] saved not because the Methodist or Baptist strain of Christianity provides an adequate path to salvation outside the Catholic Church established by Jesus Christ but because they – despite their lack of possessing the fullness of truth – lived their lives in a manner that kept them open to the grace of true conversion in their final moments. Again, they were [perhaps] saved not because they were good Methodists or Baptists but despite it.

    I think this allows us to maintain an appropriate level of respect for other faiths (for example, religious plurality in a society) while not minimizing our responsibility to spread the faith.

    Is that a fair presentation? Or should I correct my errors before further spreading heresy? :)

  9. Imrahil says:

    I think the dear msmsem meant with a “good Baptist”, a “good Methodist”, and the like, not (necessarily) such as were held good by Baptist or Methodist standard, but such as were good in fact.

    In which case, yes, they are saved, because if they aren’t, they weren’t good in the first place.

    (It is true that we have no easy means to make out, for ourselves, what exactly it takes.)

  10. Credoh says:

    Does “saved” refer exclusively to Heaven or does it also refer to Limbo? I had thought that the Paradise of the Good Thief meant (since the gates of Heaven were not yet open) Abraham’s Bosom, ie Limbo the place of sublime happiness of Dom Bosco’s dream, but not the ineffability of the Beatific Vision. Nonetheless, as nothing is impossible for God, when I pray for the “faithful departed” I also add “and the dying”, and ask Him to baptise them… somehow… Should I drop this specificity and just trust in God’s Mercy In general? …Does the Great High Priest Himself baptize the unbaptised? …Is this perhaps what He did when He descended into Hell?

  11. robtbrown says:

    bwfackler says:

    The Good Thief may have been baptized. We don’t have evidence of it either way and he died and could have been saved under the old law anyway as a circumcised Jew. He’s not really a good example of salvation without baptism.

    The sources of theology are Scripture and Tradition–there is no indication in either that he was Baptized.

    To say that the Old Law could have saved him is to say that the Church only exists for non Jews. Only the New Law is Salvific. The Old Law, however, is related to the New Law as the antetype. Thus, it is not salvific in itself but in its relation to the New Law.

    The good thief is not only a good example of salvation without Baptism, he is probably the best example, along with the Holy Innocents.

  12. Grant M says:

    I suppose it is for God to save Cato and Ripheus as he wills. (See the Commedia.) It is for us to follow the orders given to us in the last two verses of Matthew’s Gospel (as far as personal circumstances and state in life allow).

  13. marybiscuit says:

    I have an Orthodox Christian friend tell me he once heard a priest say ‘we know where the church is but we don’t know where the church isn’t.’ That was his way of trying to make sense of this issue. It is a confusing one for me. I recently read this description from the Hillbilly Thomists website quoting Flannery O’Connor: “In 1955, the southern author Flannery O’Connor said of herself, “Everybody who has read Wise Blood thinks I’m a hillbilly nihilist, whereas. . .I’m a hillbilly Thomist.” She said that her fiction was concerned with the ways grace is at work among people who do not have access to the sacraments. The Thomist (one who follows the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas) believes that the invisible grace of God can be at work in visible things, just as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, in the person of Christ.” After I read this I once again pondered the mystery of salvation of those outside of the sacraments. Thank you for this post.

  14. Jacques says:

    The Dogma is “No salvation outside the Church”.
    It is not forbidden to think that many non-catholic people will be saved, possibly even all men.
    But that is not our business. It’s only God’s business.
    Saying aloud to those outside the RCC that they will be saved anyways is a double sin against love:
    – It is suggesting that the sufferings and the death of Jesus were useless and that He lied us when he insisted on being baptized to be saved.
    – It is comforting them in their false religions, thus putting their souls in jeopardy of being lost forever.

  15. Josephus Corvus says:

    This is also what makes the doctrine of Purgatory so comforting. You have a friend who tries to live a good life, but is not part of the Church (or for that matter any faith). Without the Church’s guidance, their moral code is a lot looser and so they do not need to think as indepthly about their actions. You can’t see them as evil necessitating eternal separation from God, but a free ticket in doesn’t seem right either when you know others who struggled to follow the Catholic life.

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