Monday, January 23, 2006

On Salvation Outside the Catholic Church (Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.)

[originally uploaded on 15 June 1998; from The Catholic Catechism, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1975, 234-236]


The Catholic Church makes claims about herself that are easily misunderstood, especially in the modern atmosphere of pluralism and ecumenism. Among these claims, the most fundamental is the doctrine of the Church's necessity for salvation. Not unlike other dogmas of the faith, this one has seen some remarkable development, and the dogmatic progress has been especially marked since the definition of papal infallibility. It seems that as the Church further clarified her own identity as regards the papacy and collegiality, she also deepened (without changing) her self-understanding as the mediator of salvation to mankind.

The New Testament makes it plain that Christ founded the Church to be a society for the salvation of all men. The ancient Fathers held the unanimous conviction that salvation cannot be achieved outside the Church. St. Ireneus taught that "where the Church is, there is the spirit of God, and where the spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace." (35 ) Origen simply declared, "Outside the Church nobody will be saved." (36) And the favorite simile in patristic literature for the Church's absolute need to be saved is the Ark of Noah, outside of which there is no prospect of deliverance from the deluge of sin.

Alongside this strong insistence on the need for belonging to the Church was another Tradition from the earliest times that is less well known. It was understandable that the early Christian writers would emphasize what is part of revelation, that Christ founded "the Catholic Church which alone retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth; this, the home of faith; this, the temple of God." (37) They were combating defections from Catholic unity and refuting the heresies that divided Christianity in the Mediterranean world and paved the way for the rise of Islam in the seventh century.

But they also had the biblical narrative of the "pagan" Cornelius who, the Acts tell us, was "an upright and God-fearing man" even before baptism. Gradually, therefore, as it became clear that there were "God-fearing" people outside the Christian fold, and that some were deprived of their Catholic heritage without fault on their part, the parallel Tradition arose of considering such people open to salvation, although they were not professed Catholics or even necessarily baptized. Ambrose and Augustine paved the way for making these distinctions. By the twelfth century, it was widely assumed that a person can be saved if some "invincible obstacle stands in the way" of his baptism and entrance into the Church.

Thomas Aquinas restated the constant teaching about the general necessity of the Church. But he also conceded that a person may be saved extra sacramentally by a baptism of desire and therefore without actual membership by reason of his at least implicit desire to belong to the Church.

It would be inaccurate, however, to look upon these two traditions as in opposition. They represent the single mystery of the Church as universal sacrament of salvation, which the Church's magisterium has explained in such a way that what seems to be a contradiction is really a paradox.

Since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 defined that "The universal Church of the faithful is one, outside of which no one is saved," there have been two solemn definitions of the same doctrine, by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302 and at the Council of Florence in 1442. At the Council of Trent, which is commonly looked upon as a symbol of Catholic unwillingness to compromise, the now familiar dogma of baptism by desire was solemnly defined; and it was this Tridentine teaching that supported all subsequent recognition that actual membership in the Church is not required to reach one's eternal destiny.

At the Second Council of the Vatican, both streams of doctrine were delicately welded into a composite whole:

[The Council] relies on sacred Scripture and Tradition in teaching that this pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation. Christ alone is the mediator of salvation and the way of salvation. He presents himself to us in his Body, which is the Church. When he insisted expressly on the necessity for faith and baptism, he asserted at the same time the necessity for the Church which men would enter by the gateway of baptism. This means that it would be impossible for men to be saved if they refused to enter or to remain in the Catholic Church, unless they were unaware that her foundation by God through Jesus Christ made it a necessity.

Full incorporation in the society of the Church belongs to those who are in possession of the Holy Spirit, accept its order in its entirety with all its established means of salvation, and are united to Christ, who rules it by the agency of the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops, within its visible framework. The bonds of their union are the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government and fellowship. Despite incorporation in the Church, that man is not saved who fails to persevere in charity, and remains in the bosom of the Church "with his body" but not "with his heart." All the Church's children must be sure to ascribe their distinguished rank to Christ's special grace and not to their own deserts. If they fail to correspond with that grace in thought, word and deed, so far from being saved, their judgment will be the more severe. (38)
Using this conciliar doctrine as guide, we see that the Church is (in its way) as indispensable as Christ for man's salvation. The reason is that, since his ascension and the descent of the Spirit, the Church is Christ active on earth performing the salvific work for which he was sent into the world by the Father. Accordingly, the Church is necessary not only as a matter of precept but as a divinely instituted means, provided a person knows that he must use this means to be saved.

Actual incorporation into the Church takes place by baptism of water. Those who are not actually baptized may, nevertheless, be saved through the Church according to their faith in whatever historical revelation they come to know and in their adequate cooperation with the internal graces of the Spirit they receive.

On both counts, however, whoever is saved owes his salvation to the one Catholic Church founded by Christ. It is to this Church alone that Christ entrusted the truths of revelation which have by now, though often dimly, penetrated all the cultures of mankind. It is this Church alone that communicates the merits won for the whole world on the cross.

Those who are privileged to share in the fullness of the Church's riches of revealed wisdom, sacramental power, divinely assured guidance, and blessings of community life cannot pride themselves on having deserved what they possess. Rather they should humbly recognize their chosen position and gratefully live up to the covenant to which they have been called. Otherwise what began as a sign of God's special favor on earth may end as a witness to his justice in the life to come.



35. St. Ireneus, Adversus Haereses, II, 24, 1.

36. Origen, Homilia In Jesu Nave, 3, 5.

37. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, IV, 30, 1.

38. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, II, 14.


bibliaytradicion said...

Mr. Armstong:
Is it correct to consider Lactantius (Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius) as an heretic?
See (catholic source):
And (non catholic source):
Thank you very much for your help.

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't know, but there is some reason that "saint" is not attached to his name, so he presumably taught some erroneous things. I don't know enough to say, myself, without looking into it further, and I don't have the time.

ToS said...

On both counts, however, whoever is saved owes his salvation to the one Catholic Church founded by Christ.

Right. Hence anyone who is "saved outside" the Church has actually been Incorporated into the Church somehow, in some way, unknown to use but through God's mercy. And the failure of some modern apologists is to push this point through which results in a formula that to a normal listener or reader seems to contradict itself. The contradiction is solved once the ambiguity is removed:

If that hypothetical person who has an obstacle to the Church placed in his way that cannot be overcome and has committed no natural mortal sins known to him he may be saved but only if he is joined to the Church before he dies in some way which God through His mercy makes possible. Even VII and the CCC render this point ambiguously and sadly I have seen to many people err on this one as a result.

Dave Armstrong said...

I wish people spent one-tenth of the energy used on this topic (which is discussed endlessly, ad nauseum) to actually go out and evangelize. Then we'd be in great shape.

Maroun said...

Hi Dave .

You said . I wish people spent one-tenth of the energy used on this topic (which is discussed endlessly, ad nauseum) to actually go out and evangelize. Then we'd be in great shape.

I could`nt agree more . You cannot immagine how many people nowadays including priests also , because they want to have an easy life and would rather stay where they are ,they keep saying that it`s enough to be a good person and even if that person is not a Christian , is not baptized and does not belong to the Church , if that person is a good person then because God is good and God is love and God is merciful,then that person will definitly be saved...This way they dont have to evangelize ....Quite confortable right?As our late pope John Paul II said , that people nowadays only want the horizontal relation (man-man) and they want to ignore and forget the vertical relation (God-man) . Believe me if i tell you Dave , that i heard many priests on TV from Lebanon (orthodox and Catholics ) saying for example that where they live in Beirut , they are the only Christians in that building but still they dont have any problems at all with the muslims because they dont speak with the muslims about Jesus and the muslims dont speak with them about Mohammed , this way they say they dont offend the others and the others dont offend them. is`nt that great?According to these so called priests this is the solution not to speak with the others about Jesus because we should not offend the others...They have forgotten their duties and their mission .
When i remember all the sacrifices which the saints and martyrs did and had , how much they have suffered and so on just to preach the good news to everyone because they loved everyone . And they even suffered martyrdom because of that and still they did not care because they wanted to save at least one person if possible . How much hardship and so on . And today , these modern disciples (and i want to put myself among them because we all are responsible)what do we say?what matters is that they are good people and God will save them...The same with infants , nowadays many are saying that because God is love then even unbaptised infants will definitly go to heaven even unbaptized . The Church by the way never said that , in fact the Church said that we could hope and there is a huge difference between having the permission to hope and saying definitly ...
Si i agree with you 100% , we should do our duty , what we have to do (evangelize and preach the good news ) and let God do what He wants . we should not be lazy and pretend to be just so wise ...

Dave Armstrong said...

Great thoughts, Maroun. We need to be wise and thoughtful in the methods we use to evangelize, but in any event, it is our duty.