In my last post I covered the Catholic Church’s position regarding the salvation of non-Catholic Christians. In this post I’ll review the teaching of the Church regarding the salvation of non-Christians.
For many other Christian groups, this topic is a non-starter. They will look to Sacred Scripture and John 14:6 where Christ says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” The conclusion is that only professed Christians will be saved, and believe when Catholics profess a hope of salvation for others we are much in error.
From the Catholic perspective there is much to be said here. First and foremost, we completely agree that nobody comes to the Father but through Christ. He is the only way.
The question we would consider though is whether or not we know all the ways in which a person may come to Christ? Sacred Scripture outlines for us what we could consider the “normative” way – a person hears the Gospel, is convicted of its truth by the Holy Spirit and then professes faith in Christ. It’s the plan God put into place for the Gospel to spread to the ends of the earth.
But is God Himself limited by this plan, and is this the only way a person may be brought to Christ? Did God really place the salvation of the souls of all peoples throughout time to have a dependency on the works of others? And He can’t work outside that? Catholics would reject that view for several reasons.
One reason is that to accept that this “normative” way to Christ is the “only” way is to embrace a form of Calvinism whereby God predestines some people to hell. If a person is born into a time and/or place where they never hear the Gospel and we believe they are automatically condemned, at its heart that supports Calvin’s view of Limited Atonement whereby Christ did not die for all but rather for only the elect. Instead, Catholics embrace the view that God truly does desire all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4). And we believe that if He desires all to be saved, He has provided a way for all to be saved regardless of whether they have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel and respond in the “normative” way.
Another consequence to believe that such people have no hope of salvation would mean that their salvation isn’t dependent upon Christ alone, but is also dependent upon the works of other people. As Catholics we would agree that in the “normative” way that God established for people to receive the Gospel we are very much dependent upon other people as “secondary” causes to work with Christ to save us. Somebody has to share the Gospel. But is God not capable of saving someone without us? Can He bring someone to Christ outside of the “normative” way He’s outlined for us to follow? We very much believe that yes, He can. The Catechism says that “in ways known only 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.” (CCC848)
“Through no fault of their own” is the key here. That would be “invincible” ignorance – that which they had no opportunity to correct. Consider the indigenous people of North America in the years before Europeans arrived here. Certainly they would qualify as being ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own. Catholics would reject that God pre-destined all of them to hell because of the time and place they were born, which again would be a form of Calvinism.
And Sacred Scripture supports the idea of “invincible” ignorance. Jesus spoke of those who would reject him in John 15:22 “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.” Paul told his listeners in Athens that “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). In the book of Romans he writes “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.” (Romans 2:14-16) And Paul wrote of himself in 1 Timothy 1:13-14 “though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” In God’s mercy we entrust to Him the souls of those who have never had the opportunity to either hear the Gospel or be convicted of its truth, and believe He does not abandon them. Through the law He has “written on their hearts,” they have the opportunity to find Christ and respond to him, even though they may not consciously recognize their response is to Christ.
This can sometimes raise the question then why evangelize at all if someone can go to heaven without formally professing Christ? But the Church would see this to be an erroneous view. The full quote from the Catechism above says “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.” (CCC848) In 1943 in his encyclical Mystical Body of Christ, Pope Piux XII wrote of those in a state of invincible ignorance “For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.” Just because someone may be saved in this manner doesn’t mean they will be. Making that journey within the visible body of the Church provides them with those gifts Christ provided to help us grow in holiness, the sacraments. That, along with the joy of knowing Christ in this life should always lead us to share our faith with those around us.
One example I find useful in this discussion is that of Helen Keller. Most of us are familiar with her story. She was left deaf, mute and blind from illness before the age of two. She had not yet developed the concept of language and its ability to enable communication. She truly lived in darkness and ignorance until Anne Sullivan arrived to be her teacher when she was seven. She is certainly an example of “invincible” ignorance – someone who had never heard the Gospel through no fault of her own. Would those who would automatically condemn the indigenous people of North America to hell also condemn Helen Keller if no one had ever broken into her world? It’s an interesting question to me. In reality there is no difference in the darkness between the two.
But Helen Keller very much teaches us something about the way God can work in that situation. At age 11 she met Bishop Phillips Brooks of Trinity Episcopal Church who was determined to teach her about God. And she was excited to learn. But she also communicated that she already knew about God, because she had always known she was not alone. She had just never known who was with her. She didn’t know His name, she didn’t even have a concept of a name. But God had penetrated the darkness of her isolation all those years and accompanied her, and she had responded. This is a tremendous testimony to the reality that God is not limited in ways to make Christ known to someone in a way they can respond.
So yes, the Catholic Church teaches that it’s possible for someone who never formally professed Christ to be saved, by ways known only to God. We reject any form of Calvinism and the idea that God creates some people who are pre-destined to hell with no hope of salvation. We believe that He truly does desire all people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4) and therefore has provided a way for them to be saved. While the “normative” plan He’s laid out uses people as secondary causes to proclaim the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22), He’s in no way dependent upon us to do so. We fully accept that it’s only through the merits of Christ their salvation occurs. But we do not limit the ways that God can bring someone to Christ. And in the final Word, it is God who will judge all people, not us.