The Catholic Church teaches the dogma of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, or “outside the Church, there is no salvation.” The Catholic Church is indeed the sole source of salvation for any soul hoping to go to heaven, but this truth has been the topic of much debate and confusion, making more than a few family gatherings uncomfortable at times. However, it does not mean that anyone who is not a formal member of the Catholic Church has no hope whatsoever of obtaining a place setting at the heavenly banquet. Let’s look at the nuances of this teaching to help us navigate these conversations about how salvation is possible for anyone.

Before the Protestant Reformation, this topic was not an issue. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except by me” (Jn 14:6). For centuries, all those who believed in the truth of Jesus’ words were Catholic (excluding early heretics), and the dogma of no salvation outside the Church was understood. Even after the Great Schism, although the Orthodox churches separated from the Roman See, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that they still “possess true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist,” (Unitatis Redintegratio, Ch. III, Part I, 15). So, while they are not in full communion with the Church, they still profess belief in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” (Nicene Creed). As with many other Church teachings, questions about salvation outside the Church started coming up because the protestant reformers also believed Jesus’ words but had left the Church completely. This problem presented an opportunity to discuss salvation and how it might be made available to those outside the Church.

Before understanding how salvation can be obtained outside of the Church, we should understand why the Catholic Church is the exclusive means by which any soul can be saved. Jesus himself established the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and the sacraments through which he administers his sanctifying grace to us. The Catechism says of the Church:

In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. (CCC #830)

In other words, while other faiths may have elements of truth, to receive the fullness of what Jesus intended, you must be a formal member of the Catholic Church. As an aside, the Catholic Church is the only religion or denomination on earth to claim its founder is divine. All other religions and Christian denominations identify their founders as men, whether prophets (e.g. – Muhammad, Abraham & Moses, Joseph Smith), spiritualists (e.g. – Siddhartha Gautama, Aleister Crowley), reformers (e.g. – Luther, Calvin, Wycliffe, Zwingli, Wesley), or pastors (e.g. – Oral Roberts, David Wilkerson, Robert Morris), but none claim the divinity of Jesus Christ for themselves.                                                    ***Try this fun little experiment: Ask your favorite device or enter into a search engine “Who founded the ___ Church?” Try out a variety of religions and faiths. Then ask, “Who founded the Catholic/Orthodox Church?”

Knowing this truth can undoubtedly cause some anxiety for us as we all know and love people who have left the Church altogether or participate in different expressions of faith. We want assurance that these souls still have a pathway to salvation. Fortunately, as evidenced by the transformative nature of the sacraments, particularly in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, the Church recognizes the awesomeness of how God can work beyond our limited human understanding without contradicting the truth of what the Church teaches. For souls outside of the Catholic Church, the Catechism says:

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. Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men. (CCC #847-848)

In other words, only the Catholic Church holds the fullness of the truth, but people who might be ignorant of that fact due to various factors will not necessarily be turned away at the gates of heaven for their ignorance, noting that there is no such teaching regarding purgatory. So long as they are making a sincere effort to seek the truth, however misguided, and strive to live a good and moral life according to the truth, there is a possibility for salvation. In return, the Catholic Church is obligated to continue to proclaim the truth and evangelize the ignorant with the intention that they will find the truth they seek in the one, true Church. As formal members of the Church and the body of Christ, each of us shares a role in the mission of evangelization, which is why we continue to have conversations with our loved ones and live according to Church teaching.

While this teaching provides a source of hope, we should clarify what these nuances do not mean. The teaching says that salvation is possible, not guaranteed, which is also true for Catholics. Being a “good person” or a “good” practitioner of any chosen faith is not enough. There must be a sincere heart in seeking to know God and his will. This will look different depending on where a person is on his or her faith journey, and only God can see into the hearts of men. An atheist’s quest for truth will look different than a devout Baptist’s. Even amongst Catholics, our understanding of the truth changes and deepens. However, any mature adult of any faith should not become complacent in seeking truth and ought to take responsibility in asking questions and finding the answers through study, conversations, and looking at what the Catholic Church teaches through the Magisterium.

Similarly, the Church does not assign ignorance to those who know the Catholic Church contains the truth and willingly leave or reject the Church. Jesus says, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16). St. Paul establishes that the Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23) and “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Eph 3:10). Essentially, Jesus established the Catholic Church and entrusted her with the authority and responsibility to continue his mission on earth, so to reject the Church is to reject Jesus himself and the possibility of salvation. The nuance here is that many people reject the Catholic Church due to misunderstandings over doctrines and distorted perceptions of the Church for various reasons, perhaps reducing their culpability or the guilt for the errors. Again, only God can know and judge the interior of the human heart, and that is why we must fervently pray for the conversion of souls who have left the true Church and trust in God’s love for them.

If you are a formal and practicing member of the Catholic Church, take a moment to offer God a heartfelt prayer of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of his Church as the vehicle for your salvation and the gift of faith that shines a light on this truth. Identify one new way you can participate in the Church’s mission of evangelization using your unique gifts. Also, identify a Church teaching that you would like to understand more deeply. Seek that understanding in a way that is suited to helping you, such as reading the Catechism, Church documents, scripture, or asking a trusted priest or friend, etc. Finally, continue to pray for those unaware of their ignorance so the light of Christ will illuminate their paths to the truth.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, I recommend the book, Salvation Outside the Church: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response by Francis A. Sullivan S.J.

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