Outside the Church There is No Salvation
Can non-Catholics be saved? It is a big question, with a nuanced answer. Let us begin in 3rd Century Carthage. St. Cyprian coined the following perennial adage of the Church: “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” which means “outside the Church there is no salvation.” This phrase was oft-repeated by the Church Fathers.
How are we to understand this? Certainly, this statement is true and has been acclaimed by the Church since the time of Christ, for no one is saved without Christ, and, by extension, without the Church.
Baptism of Desire: An Internal Union With The Catholic Church
The Ecclesiastical Canons declare clearly: “Catechumens who, through no fault of their own, die without Baptism, are to be treated as baptized.” (Note: a catechumen is one who is learning the faith and has the intention to enter the Church fully and receive the Sacraments of Initiation).
St. Ambrose speaks of this desire for Baptism in the 4th Century when he says,
“I hear you express grief because he [Valentinian] did not receive the Sacrament of Baptism. Tell me, what else is there in us except the will and petition? But he had desired to be initiated… and expressed his intention to be baptized… Surely, he received [it] because he asked [for it].” This is, by far, the most manifest of what would be called Baptism of Desire.
When a person who is not baptized manifestly makes known his or her desire to be baptized, but dies before they can receive it, this is Baptism of Desire. In this way, the catechumen has an internal union with the Catholic Church, even if it has not yet been realized externally.
In Canon 4 of “Canons on the Sacraments in General” of the Council of Trent, the Church declared,
“If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for for salvation, but are superfluous, and that although all are not necessary for every individual, without them or without the desire of them (sine eis aut eorum voto), through faith alone men obtain from God the grace of justiflcation; let him be anathema.”
Session 6, Chapter 4 of the “Decree on Justification” of the Council of Trent likewise says,
“In these words a description of the justification of a sinner is given as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the ‘adoption of the Sons’ (Rom. 8:15) of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior and this translation after the promulgation of the Gospel cannot be effected except through the laver of regeneration or a desire for it, (sine lavacro regenerationis aut eius voto) as it is written: ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter in the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5).”
Baptism by Blood: Martyred for the Sake of Christ
In the circumstances of persecution, someone who is not baptized might be given the opportunity to give their very life for love of Christ and the Church. Through this witness, this martyrdom, they are baptized into Christ, because by the giving of their life they have entered into a deep union with the suffering Christ on the Cross. Truly, all who are baptized into Christ are baptized into His death, so that they might come to share in His Resurrection. Someone who gives their life freely to be martyred for the sake of Christ will surely be saved.
What Does Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus Mean?
So, what does extra Ecclesiam nulla salus mean? Simply put, it means this: “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (CCC 846).”
The Second Vatican Council clearly teaches,
“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 (LG 14).”
But they go on to add this:
“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.”
In his encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore in 1863, Pope Pius IX wrote,
“We all know that those who are afflicted with invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law that have been written by God in the hearts of men, if they are prepare to obey God, and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can attain eternal life by the power of divine light and grace.”
Invincible ignorance is such that a person could not remove their ignorance through the reasonable diligence in coming to an answer. You cannot know what you do not know until you have discovered it or it has been revealed to you. Vincible ignorance, on the other hand, is when reasonable diligence can lift the cloud of ignorance.
So, those with invincible ignorance are not guilty of turning their back on truth or on the Gospel, and thus can come to salvation through Christ and His Church through the mystery of God’s love and mercy. Those of vincible ignorance, however, bear culpability for rejecting the truth.
God Desires All Men to Be Saved
God “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tm 2:4).” In ways unknown to us, God makes Himself known to the heart and soul of every human person who has the opportunity to explicitly or implicitly makes his or her desire for God known. For those who through no fault of their own have never had the Gospel proclaimed to them, God will reveal Himself to that unique and unrepeatable person in a likely unique and unrepeatable way. But if they are saved, in the end, it is only by the ministry of the Church and the Headship of Christ.
This mystery of salvation cannot be understood apart from the mission of evangelization. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“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 848).”
I will leave us to contemplate the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s masterful document Dominus Iesus:
“‘God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God’s universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary (CCC 851)’… Indeed, the Church, guided by charity and respect for freedom, must be primarily committed to proclaiming to all people the truth definitively revealed by the Lord, and to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ and of adherence to the Church through Baptism and the other sacraments, in order to participate fully in communion with God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (DI, 22).”
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