Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Can Outsiders Be Insiders?

by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas


This article by Fr. Stravinskas explains what the Catholic Church mean by its doctrine "Outside the Church there is no salvation".

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Publisher & Date

Envoy Communications, Sept/Oct 1998

What does the Catholic Church mean by its doctrine "Outside the Church There Is No Salvation"? Does this mean that non-Catholics can't be saved? What's the official Catholic teaching, past and present, about the Church's mission to evangelize non-Catholics and bring them into eternal life in Christ? A noted theologian answers these and other crucial questions.

Slogans can be dangerous. For example, "Remember the Alamo!" rings out with calls for vindictive revenge. To many, the phrase "The immemorial Tridentine Mass" implies that other forms of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (such as the order of the Mass promulgated since Vatican II) just don't cut it historically, doctrinally or liturgically. The phrase, "active participation of the faithful" has been used to justify frenetic activity and odd and even illicit forms of lay involvement in the action of the Sacred Liturgy. Or how about the often heard "We are Church" catch-phrase, which is a mischievous expression usually used to lend an aura of credibility to those who dissent from the authentic doctrine of the divinely ordained teachers of the Church. It's a blatant appeal to American principles of political equality.

The truth is that slogans can be useful, so long as we know that they generally conceal as much of the truth as they reveal. In other words, like all shorthand expressions, slogans have value as far as they go, and as long as those using them realize their limitations.

And so it is with the theological slogan, extra ecclesiam nulla salus (Latin for "outside the Church, no salvation"). This is a doctrine of the Catholic Church, one that's found in every age of Catholic history, and it's held to by the Church's best and most influential minds. Understood properly, its dogmatic truth is beyond question. The problem arises, however, when this slogan is given a life of its own. And so it was in the 1940s with Fr. Leonard Feeney.

For those who don't know, Fr. Feeney was a brilliant and popular chaplain at Harvard University. Unfortunately, he began to preach and teach an extreme form of extra ecclesiam which the then Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, found problematic. When asked either to modify his position or to be silent, Fr. Feeney responded by accusing the Archbishop himself of heresy, leading to an investigation of Feeney's work by the Holy See, with the attendant decision by the Jesuit Order to silence him. When he refused to accept this decision, he was dismissed from the Society of Jesus and eventually excommunicated, taking with him many men and women whom he formed into a community of religious and laity — all committed to his rigorist interpretation of extra ecclesiam.

Though later reconciled to the Church himself, Fr. Feeney has many followers today who continue to stand by his original position. Their rhetoric is often angry, decrying what is, in their view, the corruption of authentic Catholicism. For them, there is no salvation for anyone outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church; to deny this is to deny a consistent teaching of the Church. Their claim is a troubling one: If indeed, the Church at one time taught as infallible dogma a notion it now rejects, then the Catholic assertion of ecclesial infallibility is a myth, disproved by history. This is the question I will address. Did the Church reverse a doctrine it once proclaimed as truth? I should note at the outset, my indebtedness to Jesuit Father Francis A. Sullivan, for his magisterial study on this topic in Salvation Outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response (Paulist Press, 1992).

I enthusiastically recommend this work of Father Sullivan's to any who desires a more in-depth analysis than what I can provide in this brief overview.

One of the earliest expressions of our doctrine was made by St. Peter. Standing before the Sanhedrin, he proclaimed, "There is salvation in no one else [that is, Jesus Christ], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Very soon, however, Christians began asking questions, based on another scriptural insight in the First Epistle of St. Paul to Timothy. In the letter, Paul wrote that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). So, how does one reconcile the unique role Christ plays in salvation with the Father's will to save all men — and this with the realization that many millions of people had been born and died before the Father sent His Son into the world?

The fate of those who lived before Christ was not a particularly troubling one. By earnestly seeking the Lord and following what they knew to be His will, they could have been saved in anticipation of His sacrifice. St. Justin Martyr made this point in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. But what about those who lived during and after the Christian era?

We see in the early Church Fathers near unanimous consent that those living in the Christian era while refusing to be Christian themselves had no hope for salvation. Thus it is with Ignatius of Antioch who, in 110, condemned both "a maker of schism" and anyone who follows such as being ineligible to "inherit the Kingdom of God." St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa martyred in 258, addressed himself to the Gnostics and warned them that their disobedience to legitimate ecclesiastical authority put them outside the Church and that "there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church."

In his treatise, On the Unity of the Church, Cyprian gave us the classic line, "You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother." As strong as these statements are, they address only the issue of Catholics who apostatized from the Church, falling into heresy or disbelief. There is no mention yet of the fate of those who never heard the Gospel message.

Around the time of Constantine, a new moment arrived in Christian history: the Roman persecutions ceased and Christianity found itself the favored religion of the Empire. What also changed was the presumption that some peoples hadn't heard the Gospel preached. No longer could non-Catholics claim ignorance of the requirements for salvation; the Good News, it was believed, was known throughout the world. And so, we find a Father like St. Ambrose of Milan grounding his negative judgment on their salvation in the fact that "the faith has been spread to all peoples." Similarly, the Eastern Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, argued that since "the call has gone out to all, how can we deem some to be invincibly ignorant of the Gospel message?"

St. John Chrysostom used similar logic. His denial of salvation to non-Catholics rested on an important assumption. He believed firmly that anyone who rejected Christ did so with full understanding and intent. In other words, since Jews and Gentiles alike had now ample opportunity to hear the proclamation of the Gospel, their refusal to enter the Church could only be judged as obstinacy or hardness of heart. In short, damnation was their fault. The great St. Augustine too held this position: No salvation for Christian heretics or schismatics, no salvation for Jews or pagans living since the beginning of the Christian era and no salvation for any unbelievers, even those who never heard the Gospel preached. On this last point, one of Augustine's followers, St. Prosper of Aquitaine, distanced himself from his master. Prosper appears to have known of some distant lands where the light of the Gospel had not yet reached, making him conclude that "we have no doubt that in God's hidden judgment, for them also a time of calling has been appointed, when they will hear and accept the gospel which now remains unknown to them" (De vocatione, 2:17).

Despite Augustine's tremendous influence, several of his opinions never gained acceptability in the Church. Among them, we can list the following theories: that God would condemn unbaptized infants to hell, simply because of the inheritance of original sin; that God would justly condemn adults who had never had the chance to be presented with the Gospel, again, due solely to original sin's hold on them; that some people would suffer eternal damnation for no other reason than God's lack of interest in saving them! As we reflect on these Augustinian positions, we must recall the fact that just because someone is a saint or even a doctor of the Church does not make his entire body of teaching acceptable; only the Church's Magisterium can decide what is and is not consonant with Her understanding of the truth of Christ.

The patristic position on extra ecclesiam continued into the middle ages, with St. Thomas Aquinas. For the Angelic Doctor, only the Church provided both faith and the sacraments, and hence, salvation. Like the early Fathers, Aquinas held that non-Christians were so because of obstinacy to the Gospel message. This was the case even for those in non-Christian areas, for God, in His power, could provide such individuals with some type of extraordinary revelation, thus giving them the opportunity to respond. If they refused, they rejected the direct appeal of God.

While Aquinas stressed the necessity of Church membership for entrance into eternal life, he also envisioned some people, unable to be baptized into the Faith, who nonetheless had a desire either to be baptized or at least to be saved and were essentially willing to do whatever God wanted them to do for salvation. The reason he gives for what we have come to term "baptism of desire" is quite instructive. He says that such a one "can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of the person's desire for baptism, which desire is the outcome of faith that works through charity, whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies a person inwardly" (Summa Theologiae III, q.68, a.2). This insight must be deeply appreciated: God is not bound to the sacraments. What does Aquinas mean? That the Lord Who established the Church and instituted the sacraments as the ordinary means of salvation remains sovereign in His judgments and actions. He Who made sacraments is likewise free to bestow His grace in other ways.

Two extremely important Church documents were released during this time period. Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, facing fierce political opposition, found it necessary to state, in the strongest terms, the supremacy of the papacy over temporal rulers. It is in this light that we must interpret his famous Unam Sanctam. Therein, we read, "We declare, state and define that for every human creature it is a matter of necessity for salvation to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." It needs to be noted that this line from Boniface's bull is but a direct quotation from Aquinas' Contra Errores Graecorum (Latin for "Against the Errors of the Greeks"), wherein he is simply equating subjection to the pope with membership in the Church of Christ.

In like manner, the proceedings of the Council of Florence (1431), convoked to heal the rift between the Churches of the East and West, contained the following article: "[The holy Roman Church] . . . firmly believes, professes and preaches that no one outside the Catholic Church, neither pagans, nor Jews, nor heretics, nor schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life . . . And no one can be saved, no matter how much he has given in alms, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church." A careful reading of the text reveals that the Council Fathers had in mind not an outright condemnation of those invincibly ignorant of the gospel, but of those who were obdurate in their rejection of it. Surely, it would never have dawned upon a medieval Christian that the way Jews and Moslems were approached with the Gospel (all too often, under political and physical duress) did little to convince them of the truths of Christianity. At any rate, the conventional wisdom of the era presumed that the Christian message was indeed sufficiently known and that refusal to accept it constituted the sin of unbelief, deemed worthy of eternal damnation. Theology never develops in a vacuum, and that is clearly the case with the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

Onto the scene of theological surety just described came the discoveries of "new worlds" during the 15th and 16th centuries, causing a "seachange" in thinking as old certainties flew out the window, once people realized that there yet remained millions of people who had never heard the name of Jesus Christ. What was one to make of them and their eternal salvation, let alone that of their forebears?

The Dominican Francisco de Vitoria rooted his evaluation in the earlier conclusions of Aquinas. And so, we read: "As St. Thomas says, however, if they [pagans in these newly discovered lands] do what in them lies, accompanied by a good life according to the law of nature, it is consistent with God's providence that He will illuminate them regarding the name of Christ" (De Indis et de Iure Belli Relectiones). Vitoria went even farther to suggest that if the native peoples were not converting of their own volition, one should not be surprised, given the maltreatment they received all too often at the hands of the conquistadors who were perceived, frankly, as the hands, the heart and the voice of Christ by the would-be converts.

Albert Pigge, writing in the middle of the 16th century, underlined the other issue that arose through the new land discoveries: "If you say that by now the Gospel of Christ has been sufficiently promulgated in the whole world, so that ignorance can no longer excuse anyone — reality itself refutes you, because every day now numberless nations are being discovered among whom, or among their forefathers, no trace is found of the Gospel ever having been preached . . ." (De libero hominis arbitrio, lib. X, fol. 181 r-v).

With great insight and sensitivity, he went on to make a specific example of the followers of Islam: "I grant that the Moslems have heard the name of Christians. But they have been so educated that they think that our Faith is false and mistaken, while the faith in which they have been educated is the true faith . . . They do not know anything about divine revelation; they have not seen signs or miracles that would prove their religion false, nor have they heard of them in such a way that they would be truly obliged to believe those who told them of such things." All this led him to this conclusion: "Therefore, erroneous faith does not condemn, provided the error has a reasonable excuse and that they are invincibly ignorant of the true Faith" (Ibid).

The Jansenists in the 16th and 17th centuries were rigorists in many ways, especially in that area of theology which concerns us here. A spiritual forefather of them was the Belgian, Michael DeBay; among many of his propositions condemned by Pope St. Pius V in 1567 are the following: "All the works of infidels are sins, and the virtues of the [pagan] philosophers are vices" (DS 1925).

And, "the purely negative infidelity of those to whom Christ has not been preached, is a sin" (DS 1968).

More than a century later, during the reign of Pope Alexander VIII, the Holy Office condemned theological positions with strong echoes of DeBay. These erroneous positions include: "pagans, Jews, heretics and others of that kind receive no influence at all from Jesus Christ, hence one rightly concludes that their wills are naked and defenseless, totally lacking sufficient grace" (DS 2305); "an infidel necessarily sins in every work" (DS 2308); and "everything that does not proceed from supernatural Christian faith, working through love, is sinful" (DS 2311).

The condemnation of these Jansenist teachings by the Holy See is an indication of a willingness to accord some measure of saving grace to those invincibly ignorant of the Christian message. Taking our time machine up to the 19th century, we find no less a stalwart defender of Catholic orthodoxy than Pope Pius IX making this most nuanced statement in Singulari Quadam: ". . . it is also a perfectly well known Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church, and that those who are contumacious against the authority and the definitions of that same Church, and who are pertinaciously divided from the unity of that Church and from Peter's successor, the Roman Pontiff, to whom the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior, cannot obtain eternal salvation."

The operative words, to be sure, are "contumacious" and "pertinaciously." No surprise, then, that in the very same document, we find a clear expression of the possibility of salvation for those outside the Church through no fault of their own. And so, we read: "It is known to Us and to you that those who labor in invincible ignorance concerning our most holy religion and who, assiduously observing the natural law and its precepts which God has inscribed in the hearts of all, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life can, through the working of the divine light and grace, attain eternal life." Pius IX obviously took seriously the theological discussions of the previous centuries and encapsulated them in his letter.

The ball was now back in the court of the theologians to explain how that might happen. The Jesuit Cardinal Johann Franzelin, a contemporary of the pope, took up the challenge and saw the process working in this way: "Since justification occurs only through supernatural faith and, as St. Paul teaches, 'faith comes through what is heard' [Romans 10:17], the saving message must be proclaimed — the task of the Church. Furthermore, faith orients a person to the Church and even if that person will not be joined to the Church on earth, he is oriented toward the eschatological Church, to which the earthly Church is intimately and indissolubly bound. Beyond that, those not in communion with the Catholic Church, by virtue of their desire for salvation, have at least an implicit desire for such membership. In short, anyone who is destined for salvation, achieves that goal through the Church and by a relationship with her" (Theses de Ecclesia Christi, Thesis 24). This analysis found its way into the first draft of the constitution on the Church proposed at Vatican I; due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, however, this document was tabled as the Council adjourned.

Between the two Vatican Councils, theologians once more sought to develop the Church's understanding of extra ecclesiam. Some fell back on a distinction formed by St. Robert Bellarmine, between those who partook in the visible structure of the Church as the Church's "body" and those who, by their interior dispositions, participated in her life of grace and charity as belonging to her "soul."

The Jesuit Father Emile Mersch began to work out a coherent theology of the Church as "the Mystical Body of Christ."

The Dominican Father Yves Congar, however, saw pitfalls in this approach which could appear to separate the Church into two different realities. The synthesis of Congar was to argue that "elements" of the one true Church existed outside Her visible boundaries. Another theologian who proceeded along Congar's lines was Henri de Lubac. Interestingly, both men ended up as official periti (Latin for "experts") at Vatican II, and both were eventually named cardinals by Pope John Paul II.

In 1943, Pope Pius XII's Mystici Corporis was released. Eighty years after Pius IX's encyclical, Pius XII made this important contribution to the issue: "We urge each and every one of [those outside Catholic unity] to be prompt to follow the interior movements of grace, and to seek earnestly to rescue themselves from a state in which they cannot be sure of their own salvation. For even though, by a certain unconscious desire and wish, they may be related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they remain deprived of so many and so powerful gifts and helps from heaven, which can be enjoyed only within the Catholic Church."

Note the critical lines, "they cannot be sure of their own salvation," and, "they remain deprived of so many and so powerful gifts." What was he saying? Well, at a minimum, he was acknowledging that although they cannot be certain of their eternal salvation, neither they nor we are certain of their eternal damnation. And further, that while they are deprived of "many" gifts leading to salvation, they are not deprived of all such gifts.

Six years later, this encyclical formed the basis for the response of the Holy Office to the teaching of Father Feeney. And so, the following paragraph gives an official interpretation to the teaching of Pius XII: "With these prudent words [of Pius XII], the Pope censures those who exclude from eternal salvation all men who adhere to the Church only with an implicit desire; and he also censures those who falsely maintain that men can be saved equally well in all religions" (Letter of the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing, 1949). Judged unacceptable were both a facile condemnation of those outside the Church through no fault of their own and a facile religious indifferentism.

We now come to the Second Vatican Council, where nearly 1900 years of theological development was crystallized. Referring to non-Catholic Christians, the Decree on Ecumenism stated, "The brethren divided from us also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in ways that vary according to the condition of each church or community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can be rightly described as capable of providing access to the community of salvation . . . It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects already mentioned, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church."

Let us highlight a few points here. First, don't miss the word "fullness," which makes the critical distinction between the possession by the Catholic Church of all that is needed for salvation, while still allowing for aspects of that fullness to be present elsewhere. Second, the Council Fathers were very careful to refer to "churches and communities," to underscore the fact that not all non-Catholic Christian bodies have the same degree of what we might dub "churchiness." To qualify as a "church," a body must have apostolic succession which ensures valid Orders and thus a valid Eucharist; those lacking that reality are called "communities." Third, unabashedly, the decree makes the Catholic Church the norm, the standard and the source of whatever is good and holy in any other Christian community. Simply put, to the extent they have retained the vestiges of Catholicism, they are more or less participants in the life of grace which exists in its fullness only in the Catholic Church.

Quite logically, then, that very same Council gives in Lumen Gentium this sober assessment: "Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this sacred synod] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. For Christ, made present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique Way of salvation. In explicit terms, He Himself affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through Baptism as through a door men enter the Church." In shorthand form, we see the ongoing doctrinal commitment to the necessity of the Church in salvation. And then, the follow-up: "Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her, could not be saved." So, we are face to face with the traditional doctrine, made with the accompanying qualifying remarks about a conscious refusal to join or remain within the one Church of Christ.

Having surveyed the history of extra ecclesiam nulla salus, we stand in a position to see how this doctrine has developed over the centuries. And indeed, a close look at history shows that the doctrine has developed, and not reversed. The earliest uses of the slogan were aimed at those who apostatized from the Good News and who were thus fully conscious in their rejection of it. As the Faith spread across the world, many Catholics assumed all had heard the Gospel, and those who remained non-Christian did so from obstinacy and sin. Though their general assumption was incorrect, it pointed to an important truth: those who consciously reject Christ are barred from salvation. When the New World was discovered, however, the old assumptions had to be revised; clearly, there were people who had not heard the Gospel preached. With that came the understanding that God could, in His mercy, save those who never knew of Christ, but nevertheless sought to follow God. None of these points contradict the doctrine enunciated in the Second Vatican Council.

Valid doctrinal development involves the gradual growth in understanding of a core, unchanging truth. At the heart of extra ecclesiam nulla salus is the fundamental dogma that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation. Through Christ's body, God's grace is channeled into the world. In the words of Lumen Gentium, the Church is the "universal sacrament of salvation." All salvation comes through Christ's Church; apart from that grace, there is no hope for eternal life. This point has been understood in different ways throughout the history of Christianity, and yet the doctrine has remained intact. Those who claim the Church has changed its stand on extra ecclesiam fail to recognize this core truth in the midst of its various interpretations. In doing so, they ignore the development that occurs in the doctrinal life of the historic Church.

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