IS SALVATION POSSIBLE OUTSIDE THE CHURCH?

And so my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For God is the one who, for His good purpose works in you both to desire and to work.  
Philippians 3:12-13

The Catholic Church has always taught that Jesus Christ is the only path to heaven.  In Acts 4:12, St. Peter affirms this teaching, There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.     Another verse clearly stated is John 14:6 "Jesus said to him, I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."  Jesus gave us His Church as the means by which we are to learn to know, love, and serve God and as the vehicle for our salvation.  Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses these statements from Sacred Scripture and affirms this teaching in CCC article #432 by quoting St. Peter in Acts 4:12: The name "Jesus" signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins.  It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation, so that "there is not other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

Down through history the Catholic Church as affirmed that the means given to humanity by which the human race comes to salvation is through the self-sacrificial death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote: It is therefore a revealed truth that there is salvation only and exclusively in Christ.  The Church inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ, is simply an instrument of this salvation (p.136).  John Paul II went on to write that people are saved through the Church, they are saved in the church, but they always are saved by the grace of Christ.  Besides formal membership in the Church, the sphere of salvation can also include other forms of relations to the Church. Paul VI expressed this same teaching in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, when he spoke of the various cycles of the dialogue of salvation which are the same as those indicated by the Vatican Council as the spheres of membership in and of relation to the Church.  This is the authentic meaning of the well-known statement "Outside the Church there is no salvation" (pp 1140-141).

This is a teaching that reaches back to the earliest years of the Church.  Writing in the 3rd century AD St. Cyprian firmly declared: Outside the Church there is no salvation.  This is a statement which has echoed down through the centuries:  it was repeated by the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, the Council of Florence in 1442, the Council of Trent a century later, and by the Second Vatican Council and by the 20th century AD Magisterium in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  In the Catechism just above article #846 in bold type is the quotation Outside the Church there is no salvation.  #846 addresses this affirmation and #847-848 expands on this statement by giving the exceptions to possible salvation by those who have never heard the Gospel which is covered in Scripture in Romans 2:12-16 in which Paul relates those who never heard the law but live it according to their own consciences with be judged by their consciences.  But to obtain salvation under those conditions is very difficult.  Who is ever really entirely true to their consciences and without confession of and forgiveness from mortal sin attaining heaven is extremely precarious if not impossible.

Returning to the statement "Outside the church there is no salvation", the Catechism restates positively that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the church which is His Body.  What this statement does not mean is that you have to be a member of a Catholic Parish to be saved.  We are bound by Christ's sacraments and commands but He is not bound by His own rules, laws, and pronouncements.  He can extend His mercy to whoever He wishes.  This concept was affirmed by the Vatican's Holy Office in 1949.   The book Catholic Replies sums up the teaching of the Church concerning what it means to be "saved" through the Church: What the doctrine of no salvation outside the Church does mean is that everyone is saved through the Catholic Church either as faithful members of that Church, or as members of churches which contain some significant elements of truth and sanctification found in the Catholic Church, or as persons 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 (Catechism n 847).  Those churches which contain some elements of truth would be, for example, protestant churches that practice Trinitarian baptism.

But just because the Church recognizes the validity of Baptism in some Christian churches it does not mean that all Christian denominations are equally true as stated in the Decree on Ecumenism.  Even though the Catholic Church states that those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are brought into a certain, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic Church (Decree on Ecumenism, n.3), the Church in the documents of Vatican II stops short of calling these separated Christians as members of the "Body of Christ," mindful of the statement issued in the 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII On the Mystical Body (Mystici Corporis):  Only those are to be included as real members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith and have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body or been excluded from it by legitimate authority for serious faults.

But these statements and documents recognizing certain other religions as "valid faiths" in no way mitigates the claim of the Catholic Church to be the One, true Church; nor does it mean that all Catholics are automatically saved (see CCC#846).  Vatican II emphasizes that merely membership in the Catholic Church is not enough to be saved but it also warned that Catholics wishing to go to heaven must possess the "Spirit of Christ," accept the "entire system and all the means of salvation" given to the church, and "preserve in charity."  In other words, "cafeteria Catholics" are on very shaky ground!

Some people are opposed to the statement of "One true Church" because they maintain that is smacks of "triumphalism."  It would be wrong to make this claim if it was a false claim. But the claim is accurate, as Vatican II made clear in the Declaration on Religious Freedom which stated: God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness.  We believe that this one true religion subsists in the catholic and apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men.  (Declaration on Religious Freedom, n.1).  The Baltimore Catechism also expresses a very strong statement concerning this issue on # 121 to the Question:  "Are all bound to belong to the Church?"  The answer given is, All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it cannot be saved.  The Baltimore Catechism continues by adding that this statement is not addressed to pagans who have never heard of Jesus or God's plan of salvation.

For more information on the Church and non-Christians see CCC #839-856; especially #841 addressing salvation and Muslims.   Paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium from Vatican II says that Muslims who worship in the religion of Abraham may share in salvation.  There is further clarification of this in Vatican II's Declaration on the relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (see paragraph 3 relating to Muslims). Basically this document states that the plan of salvation includes not only practicing Catholics, but also those who acknowledge the Creator and who strive wholeheartedly to live up to His decrees like Jews and Muslims.  There is still the same problem of mortal sin and the goal of salvation for those who follow those faiths is extremely limited because of the absence of the graces that flows from the sacraments instituted by Christ and that such salvation does not come from the false salvation as spelled out by their other-than-Christian- faiths.  Their salvation without water baptism is possible through the "baptism of desire" but after affirming the legitimacy of "baptism of desire" Pope Pius XII writes in 1943 , On the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ:  concerning those who do not belong to the body of the Catholic Church but who are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire, and these he by no means excludes from eternal salvation, but on the other hand states that they are in a condition "in which they cannot be sure of their salvation since they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.

There are good and sincere persons in all religions across the face of the earth, and God will reward those just and righteous persons accordingly.  However, their sincerity cannot change what is objectively false.  God has revealed the truth of certain teachings to us.  Will He give His approval to those who say that it really doesn't matter what we believe?  Saying that every religion offers "a form of salvation" and that "one religion is as good as another" is called religious "indifferentism."  Pope John Paul XXIII addressed this false doctrine in his 1959 encyclical letter AD Petri Cathedram (Near the Chair of Peter): To reckon that there is no difference between contraries and opposites has surely this ruinous result, that there is no readiness to accept any religion either in theory or in practice.  For how can God, who is Truth, approve or tolerate the heedlessness, neglect, and indolence of those who, when it is a question of matters affecting the salvation of us all, give no attention at all to the search for and the grasp of the essential truth, nor indeed to paying the lawful worship due to God alone?"  The Catholic Church clearly reproves both those who exclude from eternal salvation all united to the Church only by implicit desire, and those who falsely assert that men can be saved equally well in every religion. 

In his Credo of the People of God, Pope Paul VI wrote: the divine design of salvation embraces all men; and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the prompting of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation. The Second Vatican council said much the same thing and then added:  Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation 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.  Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the gospel.  She regards such qualities as given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. (Constitution on the Church n.16).

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2003 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.