The Catholic Church and Salvation, Part 2
St Peter Enthroned

The Catholic Church and Salvation, Part 2

Part 1 documented that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” has been a consistent Catholic teaching for many centuries. The essay quoted thirteen popes from Innocent III to John Paul II, named five prominent scholar-saints who supported the teaching, and noted that some contemporary Catholic writers consider it both definitive and infallible. In closing, I said the idea of denying the Beatific Vision to billions of remarkable people, many of whom loved Jesus with all their hearts, confounds the mind and depresses the soul.

Some Catholics who commented on the essay said they had never realized the Church held this position on salvation, others said they were familiar with it but embarrassed by it. Still others suggested I had my historical facts wrong and offered one or another article to help me get them right. One fairly typical article from a Catholic publication offered the following explanation, here condensed from the original:

The teaching that “there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church” has long been “misunderstood,” so the Church has “re-formulated” it to be “more positive.” In this re-formulation, the Church teaches that it plays a “primary role” in salvation by teaching that “there is no salvation apart from Christ, outside his Church.”

The term “misunderstood” implies there was nothing at all questionable about the doctrine, just about those who failed to grasp it. That notion is an insult to the billions of non-Catholics who for centuries were told, “If you aren’t Catholic, you’re going to hell.” The terms “re-formulated” and “more positive” create the impression that the newly tweaked doctrine will be clearer. But the reference to the Church playing a “primary role” in salvation is hardly clear—it implies that something plays a secondary role and (perhaps) something else a tertiary role—but never specifies what the something or somethings might be.

A longer article that was recommended to improve my understanding included a claim and then repeated it in the next paragraph:

“The Catholic Church teaches infallibly, extra ecclesiam nulla salus,’ or, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation.’ But as with all dogmas of the Faith, this has to be qualified and understood properly”  . . . There is no salvation apart from Christ and his One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Again, this is an infallible teaching and not up for debate among Catholics.” [Bold mine in both cases.]

Note the author’s double use of “infallible” and his reminder that the issue is closed. I have two difficulties with this passage. First, he says the teaching needs qualification, yet does not mention that the qualification comes many centuries after the teaching was introduced, which raises the question of whether a materially altered teaching can be infallible. Secondly, he states that salvation is from Christ, which non-Catholic Christians don’t question, and from the Church, which they do question. Then a few paragraphs later he returns to the older formula, minus Christ, saying, “The Church is very clear here. There is no salvation apart from a salvific union with the Catholic Church.”

Still later, the author writes: “If anyone rejects the truth of Christ and his Church—even one definitive teaching—they will be lost.” And again (this time quoting the Catechism, 1445), “Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.”

Both omissions of Christ could be explained by mere carelessness. But the difference in wording is no small matter—after all, Protestants have historically been denied salvation not because they rejected Christ’s centrality to salvation, but because they rejected the Catholic Church’s exclusive role. (Today many believe in the Church’s role, but define “church” as all who believe in Christ as their savior.)

I do not fault the authors of these articles because there is more confusion than ever about the doctrine “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” However, the problem is not ambiguity about what the Church has historically taught on the matter. That teaching is not ambiguous at all. (See the numerous examples of papal statements identified in Part 1 of this essay.)

What, then, is the cause of the confusion? It is that in recent decades the magisterium has simultaneously tried to soften the teaching and reinforce it. This has led Catholic publications to follow contradictory themes such as these:

The Church’s teaching that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” has always been clear versus the lack of clarity in the teaching has led people to misinterpret it.

The Church’s teaching on salvation has never changed versus the Church’s teaching has been “re-formulated” or “deepened.”

Salvation is through Jesus alone versus salvation is through Jesus and the Catholic Church.

The Church’s teaching on salvation is infallible and therefore not open to discussion versus no such classification.

Confusion has also resulted from the intellectual engagement of recent popes with the doctrine of salvation. For example, the following two statements of Saint John Paul II. [The emphasis in both is mine]:

In 1981: The mystery of salvation is revealed to us and is continued and accomplished in the Church…Like Brother Francis we have to be conscious and absorb this fundamental and revealed truth, consecrated by tradition: ‘There is no salvation outside the Church.’ From her alone there flows surely and fully the life-giving force destined in Christ and in His Spirit, to renew the whole of humanity, and therefore directing every human being to become a part of the Mystical Body of Christ. Radio Message, October 3, 1981, L’Osservatore Romano, October 12, 1981.

In 1991: The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation. Redemptoris Missio, 10

It is impossible to miss the significant contrast between the “only through the Church” theme in the first statement and the “not only through the Church” theme of the second, which is expanded by the reference to a special grace mysteriously related to the Church but yet distinctive, and “accommodated” to non-Catholics’ spiritual situations. The second statement comes about as close as possible to suggesting that salvation is not restricted to those within the Church.

Pope Francis has also spoken about salvation in a different way from most of his predecessors, notably in Placuit Deo. Though he speaks about the subject throughout the letter, he never mentions salvation through the Church alone. All his references are to Christ. This compilation of excerpts reveals this emphasis and its tone:

The teaching on salvation in Christ must always be deepened. . . . [The Christian faith] proclaims Jesus as the only Savior of the whole human person and of all humanity . . . The present Letter wants to reaffirm that salvation consists in our union with Christ, who, by his Incarnation, death and Resurrection has brought about a new order of relationships with the Father and among human persons     . . . The good news of salvation has a name and a face: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior . . . He has united Himself in some fashion with every man and woman” and has established a new order of relationships with God, his Father, and with all humanity in which we can be incorporated in order to participate in the Son of God’s own life . . . Salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity . . . Christians must also be prepared to establish a sincere and constructive dialogue with believers of other religions, confident that God can lead “all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way” towards salvation in Christ.

It has been common for centuries for any papal document touching on salvation to mention the historic teaching, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Perhaps the fact that Placuit Deo did not is merely a coincidence, without any deeper meaning,  But a dramatic incident early in 2018 makes one wonder. A young child named Emanuele whispered in Pope Francis’ ear, “Is my atheist father in heaven?” Francis answered, “God has a father’s heart, your dad was a good man, he’s in heaven with him, I’m sure.”

Is it possible that the current confusion about salvation is a sign that the Holy Spirit is prompting the Catholic Church toward a significant reform of its teaching?

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

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  • (ἐκκλησία) ecclasia – the Denomination known as the Roman Catholic Church is not the sole referent of the idea or reality of the fellowship of believers