I have visited internet message boards with a somewhat anti-Catholic flare and have been interested to find multiple threads discussing what Catholics believe about salvation regarding those outside the Catholic faith. Some claim that Catholics believe only Catholics will be in heaven. Others claim that Catholics believe you don’t even have to be Christian to be in heaven. I’ve even witnessed the same individuals making both of those points, without seemingly any awareness they were advocating two conflicting points of view.
It’s important for Catholics to know what the Church teaches in this regard and how to articulate our beliefs. I’m going to begin in this post with how the Catholic Church views other Christians.
The Catholic Church professes that Christ founded a Church, and that Church subsists, or continues in the Catholic Church. This premise is the foundation for how the Church views other Christians.
There is also a long time saying within the Church that “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” What that is interpreted to mean has been adapted through time in order to reflect specific circumstances that have occurred. We have to remember that the origin of that phrase is St. Cyprian of Carthage in the third century. At that time there had been a few competing heretical sects like the gnostics that had entered the picture. But there had been no schisms or break in apostolic authority. The Church was truly one.
But what happens when valid apostolic authority, legitimate successors of the apostles break in schism? The first notable splits like this occurred in the fifth century with the Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodox. What does “Outside the Church there is no salvation” mean in that light, and in the subsequent division with the Eastern Orthodox and then with Protestantism down the road? Remember here we are speaking to the Catholic perspective rooted in our premise that the Church Christ founded persists in the Catholic Church, united to the successor of St. Peter, the Pope.
The Catechism expresses in this way:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
CCC846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
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.
The key word here is “knowing.” There are indeed people who have been convicted by the Holy Spirit that the Catholic Church is who she proclaims to be. Yet for various reasons they set aside that conviction and remain apart from her. According to the Church this is a most precarious place for one’s soul.
But while other Christians may have heard the Catholic teaching on this, they may be far from “knowing” this truth as expressed by the Church. What about them? The Catechism also says this:
CCC838 “The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter.” Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church.” With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.”
There is a certain analogy I believe applies here. Consider the patriarch of a family with his children and grandchildren all gathered at his table as one family. They share a common heritage, meal and family story. And then consider that one particular son and his father have a dispute, which causes a break in fellowship between the son with his father and the rest of the family. Because of this division the son now becomes his own family patriarch. He takes with him much of the heritage of his family, to include the record of the family story. But the common heritage and story are told a bit differently around his table.
The question becomes, is this son and the family he develops still part of the original family? From the Catholic perspective, the answer is yes. You can break fellowship, but you can’t really “leave” the family you were born into. And many generations into the future, long after the first break in unity, there are still family bonds in place whether they are recognized by all or not.
Catholics believe that through Baptism we become members of Christ’s body, his Church. We are born into the family of the Catholic Church. So when someone is validly baptized (proper form, matter and intent) outside of the visible confines of the Church, they become part of our Catholic family, whether or not that family bond is recognized by them. Hence it is indeed an “imperfect” communion as the Catechism says. Yet one that exists nonetheless, and we believe can offer salvation.
So do Catholics believe that other Christians can be saved? Yes, absolutely. Do Catholics believe by default that all others who profess Christ will be saved? That belongs to Christ’s domain to judge. That applies to Catholics as well.
There are some who want to profess that the Church “softened” or changed her position on this with Vatican 2, and prior to that council in the 1960s we taught that if you weren’t visibly within the confines of the Catholic Church you could not be saved. That is not true. We can go back to the Council of Trent that was the Church’s response to Protestantism in the 16th century. Canon 4 on Baptism from the Council recognized the validity of Baptisms performed outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church. This is why, in general, we do not re-baptize someone who comes into the Church from another Christian faith tradition. They were already part of our family, they’re just coming fully home from our perspective. The catechism from the Council of Trent cites the same benefits of Baptism we have always recognized — remission of sin, remission of all punishment due to sin, grace of regeneration, infused virtues of faith, hope and love and incorporation into Christ, and it opens the gates of heaven to us — in other words, SAVED provided that with the help of God’s grace they persevere in faith and charity.
And we can consider the case of Fr. Leonard Feeney a decade before Vatican 2. Fr. Feeney, a Jesuit priest was excommunicated in 1953 for teaching that only baptized Catholics can go to heaven. The Vatican issued a document about what “no salvation outside the church” meant that aligns with our current catechism and the Council of Trent. His views were deemed to be heretical and false by the Church.
Not all non-Catholic Christians are warm to the idea that we really see them as Catholics – part of our family yet no longer in fellowship at our common Eucharistic table. But again, we are speaking here about the Catholic perspective. And we are thankful for the truths that we do share with other Christian believers.
Others may ask the question if we believe that non-Catholic Christians can be saved, doesn’t that mean it doesn’t really matter if you’re Catholic or not? To that, we would respond that it matters very much indeed. Protestantism left behind much of the fulness of the faith handed on by the apostles, to include the sacraments which were given to the Church for the benefit of our growth in holiness. Our union with Christ at the Eucharistic table is a profound grace, and our desire should be that all truly be one, as Jesus prayed (John 17:21). Our lack of unity also hinders our ability to effectively proclaim the Gospel, and especially when a lack of charity toward each other is displayed. But perhaps the bottom line reason for anyone to be Catholic is that we are called to live our lives in spirit and in truth, and in the Catholic Church is found the truth in its totality as revealed to us by Christ.
My next post will cover the Church’s view regarding the salvation of non-Christians.