The Father William Most Collection
No Salvation Outside the Church
[Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study.]
It is a defined doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church. Yet, as the Holy Office pointed out in condemning L. Feeney (DS 3866) we must understand this the way the Church means it, not by private interpretation.
First we find that the Church insists many times over that those who through no fault of their own do not find the Church, but keep the moral law with the help of grace, can be saved:
Lumen gentium §16 says: "For they 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." John Paul II in his Encyclical on the Missions in §10 says the same [emphasis added]: "For such people [those who do not formally enter the Church, as in LG 16] salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church." We italicize the word "formally" to indicated that there may be something less than formal membership, which yet suffices for salvation. A similar thought is found in LG §14 which says "they are fully incorporated who accept all its organization...." We will show presently that there can be a lesser, or substantial membership, which suffices for salvation.
What should we say about a line in LG §8: "This Church, in this world as a constituted and ordered society, subsists in the Catholic Church... even though outside its confines many elements of sanctification and truth are found which, as gifts proper to the Church of Christ, impel to Catholic unity."
We must not overlook the words in LG §8 which speak of "this one and only [unica] Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed...." Similarly the Decree on Religious Liberty in §1 says that" it [this decree] leaves untouched the traditional Catholic doctrine about the duty of men and societies to the true religion and the one and only [unica] Church of Christ."
So there really is only one true Church. But it seems that some think that protestant churches are as it were component parts of the Church of Christ. And they think that follows from the words about "subsisting in" and the statement that elements of sanctification can be found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church.
This does not mean that there are other legitimate forms of Christianity. Pope Gregory XVI (DS 2730. Cf. Pius IX, DS 2915 and Leo XIII, DS 3250) condemned "an evil opinion that souls can attain eternal salvation by just any profession of faith, if their morals follow the right norm." So although people who do not formally join can be saved, as LG §16 says, and Redemptoris missio §10 also says, they are not saved by such a faith. It is in spite of it.
Yet we can account for the words about subsisting in and about finding elements of salvation outside. For this we need the help of the Fathers of the Church.
In this way we find a way of filling in on what the Magisterium teaches:
We begin with St. Justin the Martyr who c. 145 A.D. in Apology 1. 46, said that in the past some who were thought to be atheists, such as Socrates and Heraclitus, who were really Christians, for they followed the Divine Logos, the Divine Word. Further, in Apology 2. 10 Justin adds that the Logos is in everyone. Now of course the Logos, being Spirit, does not take up space. We say a spirit if present wherever it produces an effect. What effect? We find that in St. Paul, in Romans 2:14-16 where he says that "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." and according to their response, conscience will defend or accuse them at the judgment.
So it is the Logos, the Spirit of Christ, who writes the law on their hearts, that, it makes known to them interiorly what they need to do. Some then could follow it without knowing that fact. So Socrates: (1) read and believed what the Spirit wrote in his heart; (2) he had confidence in it; (3) he obeyed it. We see this obedience in the fact that Socrates went so far as to say, as Plato quotes him many times, that the one who seeks the truth must have as little as possible to do with the things of the body.
Let us notice the three things, just enumerated: St. Paul in Romans 3:29 asks: "Is He the God of the Jews only? No, He is also the God of the gentiles." It means that if God made salvation depend on knowing and following the law of Moses, He would act as if He cared for no one but Jews. But God does care for all. Paul insists God makes salvation possible by faith for them (cf. Romans chapter 4). Faith in Paul includes the three things we have enumerated which Socrates did.
So in following that Spirit of Christ Socrates was accepting and following the Spirit of Christ, But then, from Romans 8:9 we gather that if one has and follows the Spirit of Christ, he "belongs to Christ". That is, He is a member of Christ, which in Paul's terms means a member of the Mystical Body, which is the Church.
So Socrates then was a member of the Church, but not formally, only substantially. He could not know the Church. So he was saved, not by his false religious beliefs but in spite of them. He was saved by faith, and similarly protestants and others who do not formally join the Church today are saved not as members of e.g., the Baptist church, which some seem to think is an integral part of the one Church of Christ -- no, they are saved as individuals, who make use of the means of sanctification they are able to find even outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church.
Many other Fathers speak much like St. Justin. A large presentation of them can be found in Wm. Most, Our Father's Plan, in a 28 page appendix.
Lumen gentium also likes to speak of the Church as a mystery. This is correct, for it is a mystery, since it is only partly visible. It does have visible structure, and no one who knowingly rejects that can be saved. It has members visibly adhering. But it also has members who belong to it even without knowing that, and without external explicit adherence. Hence there is much mystery, to be known fully and clearly only at the end.
So all other forms of Christianity are heretical and/or schismatic. They are not legitimate.
The Decree on Ecumenism states that the worship and liturgical actions of other Christian bodies "can truly engender a life of grace and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation."
Here is the actual text of the Decree: "In addition, out of the elements or goods by which, taken together, the Church herself is built up and made alive, certain things, or rather many and excellent things can exist outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church: The written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope and love, and other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements: all these things, which come from Christ and lead to Him, belong to the one-only Church of Christ. Even not a few sacred actions of the Christian religion are carried out among the brothers separated from us... which beyond doubt can really generate the life of grace, and are to be said to be apt to open the entry into the community of salvation."
We notice the things mentioned: (1) Scripture -- Protestants read it. (2) the life of grace-- yes, one can reach the state of grace without formally entering the Catholic Church, as Lumen gentium 16 says: "They who without fault do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with a sincere heart, and try with the help of grace to fulfill his will, known through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation." Even pagans can do this. (3) faith - yes, outsiders can have faith, at least if they are not misled by Luther's great error on what faith is. (4) hope and love - again, even a pagan may attain these. (5) other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit-- yes, if outsiders reach the state of grace, they also have the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. (6) and visible elements - Baptism if validly given. BUT we must note the next words in the decree: "all these things... belong to the one-only Church of Christ." In other words, it is not a protestant church as protestant that can provide these things -these are things that belong to the Catholic Church, which the Protestants have not completely rejected. So some religious actions are carried out in protestantism which can really generate the life of grace. Yes, Baptism does that. Reading of Scripture, prayers, and other things enumerated above in the first 6 items can do that. But again, it is not protestant worship as protestant that gives grace -- it is things the protestants have retained even after breaking with the one-only Church of Christ. So the Decree continues in the next sentence cited above: "they belong to the one-only Church of Christ."