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Salvation for Non-Catholics: Not a New Idea

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 05, 2010

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) cites St. Paul’s letter to the Romans when it asserts the possibility for salvation for non-Catholics and even for non-Christians. The assertion is made in the process of explaining the stages of Revelation. I’ve argued many times that this possibility has always been held by the Church. Indeed, the Letter to the Romans shows that a proper understanding of the question was already outlined in Sacred Scripture itself.

I was reminded of the controversy when I summarized Dei Verbum earlier in the week, though I passed over it in the interests of brevity. I return to it now because so many seem to misunderstand it. The passage in question occurs early in the first chapter where the Council discusses God’s preliminary self-revelation through created things. The fathers state:

God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after the fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7).

The text then proceeds to the call of Abraham, the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets, and finally to the coming of Christ Himself.

Now, from the quoted passage in this Dogmatic Constitution, we see the Church asserting again that even non-Christians can be saved (as many Traditionalists and Feeneyites have flatly denied) and that, furthermore, they can be saved without a last-minute chance to accept Christ and the Church through a private revelation offered to those deemed sufficiently oriented toward the good (as some modern Feeneyites, struggling to hold a position more compatible with Catholic teaching, now argue). Rather, the Council states that it is simply part of God’s Providential care for man to give eternal life “to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation”.

It goes without saying that the salvation of every person of whatsoever condition is made possible only by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. One must be incorporated somehow into Christ to be saved, and this includes a real if mysterious joining to His mystical body the Church, even for those who are not juridical members. Pope John Paul II called this “substantial” rather than “formal” membership, and I do not question it. But here we are talking about what God requires for salvation from those who have been given very little, and in fact what he requires is that they “perseveringly do good in search of salvation” according to whatever understanding of the Good and God they have been given, even if this is only from creation itself. It is this response to whatever grace the Holy Spirit has written in their hearts which alone suffices to join them to Christ in an invisible way.

The Conciliar reference, again, is to Romans 2:6-7. St. Paul is rebuking Jews who think they will be saved by the Law while those without the Law will, by that fact alone, be damned. This is very similar to the case of those who trust in juridical (external) membership in the Church, as if all formal members are pleasing to God and all those beyond the bounds of formal membership are reprobate. But Paul says this is not how God works:

For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. (Rom 2:6-8) (portion cited by the Council in italics)

The rest of the relevant verses in chapter 2 are equally instructive:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 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. (Rom 2:8-16)

It is not at all a new idea, then, that salvation is possible to those who do not know Christ or His Church. The equally certain teaching that “outside the Church there is no salvation” refers to the fact that all those who respond properly to whatever grace they are given are mysteriously joined to Christ, and in fact are substantial if not formal members of the Church, as several Popes have taught using various terms to express the idea. Clearly, then, anyone who understands what the Church is and knowingly rejects her cannot be saved. But those who, despite their unfortunate ignorance, “perseveringly do good in search of salvation” can be.

The conscious opportunity to draw into union with God using the totality of graces and teachings present only in the Church is an incomparable gift. The beauty and wonder of this gift is only magnified by the fact that salvation is also possible without it. Of course, this too has its dangers, for to whom much has been given, from him much will be demanded (Lk 12:48). But nowhere in the relevant Magisterial texts down through the centuries is there any teaching that—for those who have been given little—something they have not been given will be required.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: pro_bono - Aug. 15, 2010 10:25 AM ET USA

    Related to this is the issue of "The Number of the Elect". I've always wondered how and why Catholic thought and theology evolved from the idea that very few people are saved (e.g. the very frightening sermon of St. Leonard of Port Maurice which is frequently quoted on traditionalist websites) to the more optimistic views from the 19th century onwards (e.g. Fr. Faber, Garrigou-Lagrange, Vatican II). Would Dr Mirus be so kind as to address this topic?

  • Posted by: UncleBlobb - Aug. 08, 2010 9:32 AM ET USA

    It also puts me in mind of the dilemma about what happens for example to babies who die without Baptism, and the whole question of Limbo as a place for them to go. Would you agree Dr. Mirus that this reasoning would apply here to remove any "need" for Limbo in this case?

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Aug. 08, 2010 12:40 AM ET USA

    The problem is a de facto universalism. Very few are teaching that hell is a real, and according to Scripture, common possibility. Or that souls in Purgatory really need our prayers for a reason. Indeed, many of the actions in connection with the scandal, as well as tolerating poor catechesis and dissent among priests and religious, simply do not seem possible if a person sincerely believes that eternal souls are at stake.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Aug. 06, 2010 7:32 AM ET USA

    You seem to give short shrift to the question of imputable ignorance. Someone who "knowingly rejects" the Church cannot be saved, indeed, but presumambly also someone whose ignorance of the Church is deemed imputable by God will also be damned, regardless of the number or type of good works to their credit. Ignorance must be invincible to avoid hell.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 06, 2010 2:12 AM ET USA

    Well articulated, but the concern here is much more one of indifferentism versus one of denying the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics or non-Christians. When 911 happened I heard a SSPX priest speak from the pulpit about the heroic martyrs who certainly were in heaven as a consequence of their actions that day- regardless of creed. The heart of the problem is readily identified in the writings and actions of Card. Kasper and many others who promote indifferentism and false ecumenism.

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