One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic Church is this one:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation” (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus).
Those trying to grasp the meaning of this teaching often struggle with its formulations by various Church Fathers and Church Councils down through history. Of course, to understand an isolated formulation of any Church teaching, one must study the historical context within which it was written: why it was written, what was going on in the Church at the time, who the intended audience was, and so on. One must discover how the magisterium (teaching office) of the Church understands its own teaching. If someone fails to do this and chooses, rather, to simply treat a particular formulation as a stand-alone teaching, he runs the risk of seriously misunderstanding it.
In recent times, the Church has recognized that its teaching about the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation has been widely misunderstood, so it has “re-formulated” this teaching in a positive way. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins to address this topic:
“How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).
In keeping with the Church’s current spirit of ecumenism, this positive reformulation comes across less harshly than previous negative formulations. Even so, it remains quite controversial. So, let’s see how this new formulation squares with Scripture.
Jesus, the Way
The first part of the reformulated teaching—”all salvation comes from Christ the Head”—is quite easy for all Christians, even non-Catholics, to understand and embrace. It echoes Jesus’ own words recorded by John: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). So, Christians unanimously agree on this first part. But is this all that needs to be said about how one may be saved? The Catholic Church has historically recognized the importance of explaining further the means through which salvation is offered through Christ.
When speaking of salvation, Jesus offered more details than just his words quoted above. For example, consider these three verses:
He who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mk 16:16)
[U]nless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Lk 13:3)
[H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (Jn 6:54)
Notice that in these three verses Jesus associated salvation with baptism, confession, and the Eucharist, respectively. Catholics recognize that these sacraments are administered through the Church. In fact, in the case of the latter two, a validly ordained priest is necessary for their administration, so the sacrament of ordination must also be associated with salvation. A primary role of the Catholic Church in conjunction with salvation is becoming quite clear.
This brings us to the second part of the Catechism’s formulation of the doctrine being considered: “. . . through the Church which is his Body.”
With Him or Against Him
Since the sacraments are the ordinary means through which Christ offers the grace necessary for salvation, and the Catholic Church that Christ established is the ordinary minister of those sacraments, it is appropriate to state that salvation comes through the Church.
This is not unlike the situation that existed prior to the establishment of the Catholic Church. Even before it was fully revealed that he was the Messiah, Jesus himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). He pointed the woman of Samaria to the body of believers existing at that time, through which salvation would be offered to all mankind: the Jews.
In a similar fashion, now that the Messiah has established his Church, Jesus might say, “salvation is from the Catholics”!
Recognizing this, we can see why the Church, especially during times of mass exodus (such as has happened in times when heresies have run rampant), has been even more forceful in the way it has taught this doctrine. Instead of simply pointing out how God offers salvation from Christ, through the Church, the Church has warned that there is no salvation apart from Christ, outside his Church.
Since Jesus established the Catholic Church as necessary for salvation, those who knowingly and willingly reject him or his Church cannot be saved. We see this in Jesus’ teaching: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30). Also: “[I]f he [a sinning brother] refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:17). Paul warned similarly: “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Ti 3:10-11).
Having said all this, we must recognize that this doctrine is not as far reaching as some imagine it to be. People will sometimes ask, “Does this means non-Catholics are going to hell?” Not necessarily.
The Church recognizes that God does not condemn those who are innocently ignorant of the truth about his offer of salvation. Regarding the doctrine in question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, 16) states:
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. (CCC 847)
Vatican II document Gaudium Et Spesteaches similarly on the possibility of salvation:
All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.(22)
This teaching is consistent with Jesus’ own teaching about those who innocently reject him: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin” (Jn 15:22).
But once a person comes to know the truth, he must embrace it or he will be culpable of rejecting it. We see this in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (Jn 9:41). Paul taught likewise concerning the Gentiles:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.(Rom 2:14-16)
Notice Paul’s carefully chosen words: “their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” Paul did not say that those who are innocently ignorant of the truth will be saved; he simply keeps open the possibility of it.
Similarly, he wrote: “[I]s God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith” (Rom 3:29-30).
Necessary for Salvation
As we have seen, God introduced salvation to the world through his chosen people, the Jews. God’s revelation to the Jews found its fulfillment in Christ, the Messiah, who established the Catholic Church. The grace necessary for salvation continues to come from Christ, through his Church. Those who innocently do not know and embrace this might still attain salvation but those who knowingly and willingly choose to reject it, reject salvation on God’s terms.
The Catechism (once again quoting Lumen Gentium) summarizes all this as follows:
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 846)