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The Church: Who's In and Who's Out?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 20, 2007

An ancient Catholic dictum has been brought back to center stage by the recent clarifications of Vatican II’s teaching on the Church by the CDF. I refer to the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). My email has been fairly hammering with confusion about what this means.

The Mystery of the Church

The Church is a great mystery, and part of that mystery is that she has both visible and invisible aspects. The Catholic Church certainly has a visible structure, and this visible structure alone identifies the one body constituted by all the gifts granted by Christ for salvation. Nonetheless, these gifts are found not only within the visible structure of the Church. For example, some of the sacraments are operative beyond the Church’s borders, as is Sacred Scripture. And of course the Spirit of Christ (that is, the Holy Spirit) exists wherever He chooses to act.

The Magisterium has officially and formally taught on numerous occasions that there is no salvation outside the Church, but she also teaches that salvation is possible for those who never become members of the visible Church, even for those who may never be sacramentally baptized. To name just two related concepts with which most Catholics are familiar, baptism by blood and baptism by desire may provide alternatives to sacramental baptism. Also, Vatican II clearly taught that all those goods which constitute the Church, but which sometimes operate outside her visible structure, actually impel those who receive them toward Catholic unity.

Moreover, Vatican II taught that even those “who, without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium, #16). Obviously, they receive none of the visible goods of the Church, but they can still receive the Spirit of Christ. Indeed, St. Paul had already taught this from the earliest times. God, Paul said, is not only the God of the Jews but also of the Gentiles (Rm 3:29), and “the Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the works of the law. They show the work of the law written on their hearts” (Rm 2:14-15). He makes clear that they will be judged according to their response to what they have received in this way, “on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rm 2:16).

If we can find this idea in St. Paul, then those who claim that Vatican II’s teaching is novel are obviously incorrect. Although this is an area of doctrine which has been developing rapidly over the past century, we find precedents and hints of these developments in earlier magisterial teaching, and indeed they are already widely present in the Fathers. For example, many of the Fathers were convinced that the great pre-Christian Greeks (such as Socrates) were saved by their adherence to the “logos”, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, St. Paul tells us that what is necessary for salvation is Faith (a concept Luther understood very badly). According to the late Scripture scholar Fr. William Most, who was also supremely attentive to the ecclesial Magisterium, Paul defines faith throughout his writings as having three elements: (1) Reading and believing what the Spirit writes in our hearts; (2) Having confidence in it; and (3) Obeying it.

Mystery and Membership

How, then, can we reconcile these ideas, so clearly stated by the Second Vatican Council, with other magisterial teachings which emphasize that those outside the Church cannot be saved. Clearly, the solution lies in the recognition of the full mystery of the Church—that it has both visible and invisible elements. Those who are outside the Church’s visible structure will certainly not be saved because of any other creed they may profess or any other church they may be in, but they can be saved in spite of these things by their response to the Spirit of God writing in their hearts, which somehow invisibly joins them to the Church. In other words, they are joined to the Church, and somehow “within” her, by putting their faith in Christ insofar as aspects of Christ and His goodness are written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

It is not clear exactly what terminology is best to describe this invisible joining to the Church. Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis (1943), which emphasized the Church’s character as a mystical body, spoke of “being ordered to” the Church by “an intense desire [desiderio ac voto] of which they are unaware” (#103). Vatican II, and the clarification of the CDF, stated that the constitutive goods of the Church “impel toward Catholic unity” wherever they are found, so that (presumably) anyone who responds properly is somehow joined to the Church, even if he has no opportunity to participate in her visible structure. Eugenius IV, as far back as 1442 in Cantate Domino (a text often cited in support of a very restrictive view), actually said that those outside could not be saved unless “before the end of their lives” they are “added to” the Church.

Those reading this essay may or may not live long enough to see further precision achieved by the process of legitimate doctrinal development. John Paul II, in Redemptoris Missio (1990), spoke of salvation being accessible to those envisioned in Lumen Gentium “by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church” (#10). Following his lead, some theologians have called this mysterious relationship “substantial membership” as opposed to “formal membership,” which has measurable institutional requirements.

Many Questions Illuminated

Now, when we stop to think about it, this understanding of what is necessary for salvation, and of how those outside the visible structure of the Church can be saved, actually clears up a great many problems to which we have become very sensitive in modern times. Our increased understanding of human psychology has made us painfully aware that no two people respond to the proclamation of the truth in the same way, and that the motives involved in the varied responses may be very different than they seem. We are aware of all sorts of impediments, which we do not necessarily attribute to personal decisions. We know that a person who appears to embrace the truth may have unworthy motives, while another may reject the truth without subjective fault. The problem of invincible ignorance also fits in here. And what of those who are mentally impaired?

Deep at work beneath all these questions is the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Who alone knows how much He has written in each heart and Who alone knows each heart’s capacity to respond. This is why we must leave final judgment to God, and trust in His mercy—the One who “desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4).

We cannot quite leave the topic here, however, because it is necessary to address a great fear, often even a complaint, expressed by those who think the teaching of the Church has “changed” on this point. They claim that all of this causes the Church to lose her importance in the process of salvation, and so eliminates the impetus for evangelization, missionary work and conversion in general.

The Importance of the Church

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Church remains central for three extremely important reasons. First, the Church is absolutely essential because, being constituted by the complete set of Christ’s gifts for our salvation, and being the very mystical body of Jesus Christ, she is the source and fountain of grace in the world. Indeed, she is the leaven which raises the whole loaf. Moreover, as the very extension of Christ through time, she is the mystical point of departure for the Holy Spirit in all His mighty works.

Second, the Church is far and away the most sure means of salvation. In Mystici Corporis Pius XII, while expressing the possibility of salvation for those who do not belong to the “visible bond” of the Church, wrote that they should nonetheless strive to remove themselves from “that state in which they cannot be sure of their own eternal salvation” so that they might no longer “lack so many and so great heavenly gifts and helps which can be enjoyed only in the Catholic Church.”

Third, the Church is the most effective and complete means for drawing into union with God. By some flaw in our modern sensibilities, we often frame this entire question exclusively in terms of “salvation” as if salvation is the primary focus of religion. Ever since Lutheranism was founded by a man who was neurotic about his own salvation, a sort of skewing of religious reality has to some degree infected all Christians (one scholar has called this the problem of the ego in faith). In reality, the primary focus of all true religion is to give glory to God. We do this first and foremost by responding to His invitation to draw into the closest possible union with Him. It is precisely this union which gives Him glory. And it is precisely into the Church that God has poured all the means of union.

The Church, then, is not ultimately about protecting our right to superior pay as workers who have labored all day in the scorching heat, or our role as self-satisfied sons while we watch the despised prodigals squander their inheritance. The Father goes out from his vineyard to issue his summons at every hour of the day, and he even spies the prodigal from afar and rushes out to meet him before he reaches home. In the same way, the Church is about glorifying God by helping as many souls as possible to draw into the closest possible union with Him. All the means of union form the very constitution of the Catholic Church. The desire to share the great gift of the Church, then, becomes the most powerful impetus for good example, witness, preaching, evangelization, catechesis, apologetics, missionary work, and every form of charity. In all this there can be no lack of motive for the Catholic. Sharing the Church is simply at the core of what it means to be in love with God.

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