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Christ to Catholicism


X. No Salvation Outside of the Church

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Shortly before his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Cardinal Newman wrote to a friend who was concerned about his rumored change of allegiance from Anglicanism to the Church of Rome. His sentiments offer a graphic insight into the subjective and human side of the doctrine, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. "As far as I know myself, Newman told his correspondent, "my one paramount reason for contemplating a change is my deep, unvarying conviction that our Church is in schism, and that my salvation depends upon my joining the Church of Rome. I may use argumenta ad hominem to this person or that; but I am not conscious of resentment, or disgust, at anything that has happened to me. I have no visions of hope, no schemes of action, in any other sphere more suited to me. I have no existing sympathies with Roman Catholics; I hardly ever, even abroad, was at one of their services; I know none of them, I do not like what I hear of them." [1] And two months later, on the eve of his reception he asked himself "the simple question: Can I be saved in the English Church? Am I in safety, were I to die tonight." [2]

By implication all converts to the Catholic Church have something of the same convictions, which may be overlayed with other motives; and though "born Catholics" are generally spared the necessity of making a decision on the subject, they are always conscious, however vaguely, that salvation depends on their continued profession of the true faith.

The Ancient Tradition

There is a correct sense in which the absolute necessity of the Catholic Church may be found in the Gospels. "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit," Christ told Nicodemus, "he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." [3] In context, the kingdom is two-fold, on earth as the visible society of which Christ is the invisible Head, and in heaven, as the consummation of human destiny in the beatific vision. Consequently the Church is as indispensable for salvation as baptism, wherein souls are cleansed of original sin and are made participators of the fruits of redemption.

When schism and heresies arose in the early centuries, ecclesiastical writers emphasized the duty of belonging to the true Church by remaining faithful to her teaching and legitimate rulers. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Philadelphians about the year 100, is the most ancient witness outside the Scriptures. The problem in Philadelphia was a spirit of resistance to episcopal authority and dalliance with strange doctrine. "All who belong to God and Jesus Christ," they were reminded, "are with the bishop. And those, too, will belong to God who have returned, repentant, to the unity of the Church so as to live in accordance with Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, brethren. No one who follows another into schism inherits the kingdom of God. No one who follows heretical doctrine is on the side of the Passion." [4]

A century later, this time in Africa, Origen developed a concept of the Church as an ensemble of Christ's disciples scattered over the face of the earth, yet never to be confused with the rest of the human race. It is the home of the elect. "Let no one deceive himself. Outside of this habitation, that is, outside the Church, no one is saved. He who leaves it is responsible for his own death." [5]

About the same time, in nearby Carthage, Cyprian wrote his famous treatise On the Unity of the Church, to combat the schismatic propensities of a rival bishop in his own diocese and, according to many scholars, to meet the challenge of a concurrent rivalry in the See of Rome. If his language seems a bit harsh, we should recall it was leveled against formal schismatics who had personally severed their ties with the body of the faithful. "The Spouse of Christ," he described the Church, "cannot become wanton. She is a virgin and chaste. She knows one house, and guards the sanctity of one bridal chamber with chaste reserve. She keeps us for God. She appoints to the Kingdom the sons to whom she has given life. Whoever has been separated from the Church is yoked with an adulteress, is separated from the promises made to the Church. Nor shall he who leaves Christ's Church arrive, at Christ's rewards. He is a stranger, he is sacrilegious, he is an enemy. Who has not the Church for mother cannot have God for his father. If anyone outside the ark of Noah could escape, then may he also escape who shall be outside the Church." [6] Words could scarcely be clearer, and to this day Cyprian's formula, "Habere non potest Deum patrem qui Ecclesiam non habet matrem," is the most concise expression of the doctrine under consideration.

A final testimony from the patristic age is St. Augustine's classic description of those who may have all the apparatus of Catholicism but unless they belong to the true Church they cannot be saved. In 418 Augustine visited Caesarea in the western province of Mauretania, where the Donatist bishop, Emeritus, had ruled since about 385. Augustine invited him to come into the Catholic basilica to discuss the reunion of the Donatists with Rome. While Emeritus sat in silence, Augustine asked the people to pray for the bishop's conversion and then expatiated on the need of belonging to the Church of Christ. "No one can be saved," he declared, "except in the Catholic Church. He can have everything but salvation outside the Catholic Church. He can have honors, he can have the sacraments, he can sing 'Alleluia,' he can answer 'Amen,' he can hold the Gospels, he can have faith and preach in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But nowhere except in the Catholic Church will he find salvation." [7] There is no evidence that Emeritus was converted, but at least the people were sufficiently convinced to drive the Donatist bishop out of town. Augustine's sermon was only a dramatic restatement of his favorite theme, that "a Christian must fear nothing so much as separation from the Body of Christ. Once he is separated he is no longer a member of Christ; and if he is not a member of Christ, he is no longer animated by the Spirit of Christ," without which there is no salvation. [8]

Teaching of the Church

Following the tradition of the Fathers, the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church” was first repeated in the current papal documentation and finally, as occasion arose, solemnly defined by the Church’s magisterium.

Already in the fifth century, the Athanasian Creed or Quicumque was authorized for the sacred liturgy as a preparation for baptism. “Whoever wishes to be saved,” the Creed begins, “must, above all, keep the Catholic faith. For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire he will undoubtedly be lost forever.” [9] Curiously, the Church of England has retained the Quicumque in the Book of Common Prayer and one of the thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican communion prescribes its recitation. In America, the more liberal and logical Episcopalian Church has dropped the Athanasian Creed.

Unchallenged during the early Middle-Ages the necessity of the Church was defined by the Fourth Lateran (twelfth ecumenical) Council in 1215 A.D. While directly concerned with the Albigensian heresy, the council also formulated a profession of faith which began with the declaration, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved and in which the priest himself, Jesus Christ, is the victim, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the appearances of bread and wine.” [10]

Early in the next century, Boniface VIII issued what is probably the most controverted document in papal history, the Bull Unam Santam. Issued to meet the caesaro-papalism of Philip IV, King of France, the bull so aroused the monarch that he ordered the pope’s residence to be broken into and the pontiff abused and taken captive. Boniface died shortly after being delivered by the townspeople of Anagni where he had fled from his enemies. Whatever controversy was provoked by the pope’s assertion of his right to depose erring kings, he made very sure that one of his statements would be expressed in the fullness of apostolic power. “We declare,” he concluded, “say, define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” [11] Taken in conjunction with an opening sentence of the bull, “Outside this Church thee is no salvation and no remission of sins,” the meaning of the definition cannot be misunderstood.

The last of a triad of definitions was made at the Council of Florence in 1442, where, after a breach of four centuries, the Eastern and Western Churches were temporarily reunited. On February 4 of that year, Pope Eugenius IV published a profession of Catholic belief to which the oriental dissidents (specifically the Jacobites) were required to subscribe. It is doubtful if a more uncompromising document has ever been issued by the Holy See.

“The holy Roman Church believes, professes and preaches that no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before the end of life they are joined to the Church. For union with the body of the Church is of such importance that the sacraments of the Church are helpful to salvation only for those remaining in it; and fasts, almsgiving, other works of piety, and the exercise of Christian warfare bear eternal rewards for them alone. And no one can be saved, no matter how much alms he has given, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.” [12]

Even a cursory reading of this profession of faith will confirm the opinion that it is “the ne plus ultra of Catholic intransigence” and a most unequivocal statement of the Church’s indispensability.

Statement of the Problem

If we had only the doctrine of the Church’s absolute necessity to guide us, we should be tempted to conclude with Calvin that God has, indeed, predestined some for heaven and others for hell, irrespective of their virtues or misdeeds. What else could we say when we see the millions of people in pagan countries who never had the gospel preached to them and therefore the opportunity of entering the Church of Christ, and other millions who are living where the church is established but psychologically have no chance of learning the true faith or embracing its sacred obligations?

We are not left to our own speculation, however, because there is another dogma which balances the foregoing. If it is true that no salvation is possible outside the Church, it is equally true that God wants all men to be saved and that Christ died for the universal salvation of mankind. Already in the ninth century, a provincial council approved by the pope decreed that “Almighty God wishes all men without exception to be saved, though all may not attain salvation. For those who are saved it is a gift of the Savior, for those who are lost it is the guilt of the fallen.” [13] In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent defined the universal salvific will of God. And in modern times, when the Jansenists began to teach, “It is Semi-Pelagian to say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men without exception,” they were condemned as heretics. [14]

The problem is how to reconcile the apparent limitation of God’s salvific will to those who belong to the Catholic Church, with the non-limitation of this will as declared in the sacred writings. Before undertaking a solution, however, one question must be definitely answered: is it possible for a person to be saved without actual membership in the Catholic Church? The answer is in the affirmative and traceable to the earliest Christian tradition: it has also been confirmed by the authority of the Holy See.

Salvation Without Actual Membership

Parallel with the emphasis on the Church as the ark of salvation, professed by all the Fathers, is an equally distinct though less frequent admission that under certain conditions a person can be saved even if he dies without having been a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. The evidence that follows has not been chosen at random. It could not be because while the stream of tradition on this point is decisive and very ancient, until recent times the Church’s concern with the problem was quite minimal and overshadowed by the larger and more important question of safeguarding and propagating the true faith.

St. Ambrose on the Death of Valentinian. For a variety of reasons the practice in the early Church was to defer the baptism of prospective converts for a much longer time than now. Several years was not too long, or even waiting until shortly before death. The roman Emperor Valentinian II had been taking instructions in the Catholic faith and planning to be baptized when death suddenly overtook him before he actually entered the Church. St. Ambrose preached his funeral oration, in which he raised the issue of Valentinian’s salvation. “I hear you are grieving,” he told the audience, “because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. But tell me what else is in our power except our will and desire? For a long time and even before he came to Italy, he wanted to be received into the Church and said he wished to be baptized by me in the near future….Did he, then, not have the grace he desired? Did he not receive what he sought? Surely he obtained what he asked for, as we read, ‘The just man, though he die early, shall be in rest.’ Why should not he who had your spirit, receive your grace? If it is objected that the sacrament of baptism was not solemnly administered, then even the martyrs do not attain glory if they die as mere catechumens, on the assumption there is no heaven for the unbaptized. On the other hand, if they are cleansed of their sins by the shedding of blood, then also his piety and good will saved Valentinian.” [15] In this earliest patristic evidence for the salvation of non-Catholics the concession is severely limited. Valentinian was under instruction and professed belief in the Catholic Church. Consequently though dying before actual reception he was saved by a baptism of desire which may be equated with martyrdom for the faith.

St. Augustine and Catholic Catechumens. St. Augustine followed his teacher in the same indulgence towards catechumens, while extending the concept of baptism by desire and even preferring, on occasion, a virtuous candidate for the sacrament to an unfaithful Catholic. “I have no doubt that a Catholic catechumen, possessed of divine charity, is better than a heretic who received baptism. Even in the Catholic Church we prefer a good catechumen, possessed of divine charity to a wicked person who is baptized….For the centurion Cornelius, not yet baptized, was better than Simon Magus, already baptized; since the former was filled with the Holy Spirit before baptism, while the latter, even after baptism, was inflated with the spirit of the devil….The more I think about it, the more I believe that not only suffering for the name of Christ, but also faith and conversion of heart can supply what is wanting on the part of baptism if perchance, for lack of time the mystery of baptism cannot be approached.” [16] Augustine, therefore, goes beyond Ambrose. Where the latter spoke of an isolated case, Augustine generalizes. He sees no difficulty in sanctifying grace being infused anterior to baptism, and identifies faith (along with conversion of spirit) with actual martyrdom as an instrument of justification. But like Ambrose, he postulates an explicit desire for baptism and entrance into the Church before divine charity is received.

Priority of Faith to Baptism According to St. Ambrose. Up to the Middle Ages there seems to have been no further development on the doctrine of Ambrose or Augustine. But in the twelfth century St. Bernard of Clairvaux was asked by Hugh, the abbot of St. Victor in Marseilles, to settle a theological problem created by the so-called Ecclesiastical Dogmas, falsely attributed to St. Augustine. Among other strange doctrines, it was said that “no catechumen has life everlasting, although he has died in good works.” Bernard refuted this rigorism by invoking the authority of Ambrose and Augustine. “With these,” he said, “I am willing to err or to be right, believing that a man with the desire of receiving the sacrament (of baptism) can be saved by faith alone, if death should prevent him from fulfilling his desire or any other invincible force stands in the way. Was not this perhaps why the Savior, after He had said, ‘He that believes and is baptized shall be saved,’ carefully and prudently did not add, ‘but he that is not baptized,’ but only, ‘he that does not believe, shall be condemned.’? ---suggesting that at times faith alone is sufficient for salvation, and that without it nothing avails.” [17] This is an advancement on Ambrose and Augustine. Besides unexpected death which prevents a catechumen from being baptized, Bernard allows “any other invincible force (vis invincibilis) that stands in the way.” The implication is that faith alone, minus the express desire to become a Catholic, may be enough to merit salvation.

Baptism of Desire in the Summa Theologica. By the end of the thirteenth century, the concept of justification without baptism by water was firmly established in Catholic theology. In the Summa Theologica (written between 1271 and 1274), Thomas Aquinas crystallized all the preceding tradition when treating of the effects of baptism. He asks himself “whether grace and virtue are bestowed through baptism.” and answers with St. Augustine that since “the effect of baptism is to incorporate the baptized into Christ as His members,” and all grace and virtues flow from Christ, it logically follows that we receive grace and virtue in the sacrament. But if this is true, he objects, how could the centurion Cornelius be called religious and a God-fearing man according to the Acts of the Apostles? He answers that “a man receives the forgiveness of sins before baptism in so far as he has baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly; and yet when he actually received baptism, he receives a fuller remission, as to the remission of the entire punishment.” [18] Parallel passages in the Summa are amplified in De Veritate, where St. Thomas is treating of faith and handling the problem of a pagan living out of contact with Christianity. If explicit faith in certain truths revealed by God is absolutely necessary, how can the pagan be saved? Thomas answers that “divine providence will provide whatever such a person needs for salvation, as long as he places no obstacles in the way. If a man of that kind followed the dictates of natural reason in doing good and avoiding evil, it is certain that God would either reveal by internal inspiration what he has to believe, or send someone to preach the faith to him.” [19]

Here we see a further clarification of the traditional belief of non-Catholics can be saved, with an accent on two elements that are intrinsic to the whole problem: baptism of water or desire, and the latter explicit or implicit, confers sanctifying grace; and faith, which must be explicit, is provided (if need be) by a miraculous revelation from God.

St. Thomas’ doctrine was incorporated into the Decrees of the Council of Trent, which defined justification as “a passing from the state in which a man is born a son of the first Adam, to the state of grace and adoption as sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Savior. Since the gospel was promulgated, this passing cannot take place without the water of regeneration, or the desire for it.” [20] Although the council did not qualify the baptism of desire by explicit or implicit, theologians commonly agree that both kinds are covered by the Tridentine decree.

Pius IX on Invincible Ignorance. For centuries before the Protestant revolt the concentration in theology was to clarify the divine mandate of incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ. Even Robert Bellarmine, the father of modern ecclesiology who coined the now familiar re and voto adherence to the Church, was not interested in defending the condition of those who had broken with Catholic unity, except to expose their errors and appeal to their better judgment to return to the one true Church, outside of which no one can see God.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, it was seen that, while traditional principles on Church membership were immutable, they needed to be re-examined. New conclusions had to be drawn from the ancient truths to meet the current problem, notably the delicate question of how millions of apparently sincere non-Catholics could be saved. Fundamentally it was a problem of how to relate these people to the Catholic Church. They were born and educated outside the true faith and, although living among Catholics, never entered the Church, and, perhaps, were never baptized. How are they saved?

In less than a century after the Council of Trent, when a new generation of born-Protestants was established in the western world, the problem entered theological circles and opinions were expressed that ranged from rigid formalism to the most extreme laxism. The rigorist school found support in certain statements of the Fathers and in the relative silence of the Church. They held that since the promulgation of the gospel became world-wide soon after the death of Christ, explicit faith in Christ and actual baptism, or at least the explicit desire to be baptized, was necessary for all to be saved. With the laxist school even a natural act of faith in the existence of God, implicitly containing everything else, including the desire for baptism and entrance into the Church, was enough for salvation. [21]

Not until Pius IX do we have what appears to be the first ex officio pronouncement of the Holy See on the condition of non-Catholics in good faith, who are living not only among pagans but also in countries where the Church is established. Pius IX has been called the greatest defender of the Church since Gregory the Great. [22] At least nine of his official documents, quoted in the sources of Canon Law, repeat and defend the necessity of belonging to the Catholic Church. However, in two of these, and both before the Vatican Council, the pope deals with the complementary problem of how it is possible for a person to be saved without actually professing the true religion.

The day after his solemn definition of the Immaculate Conception, he gave an allocution to the several hundred bishops who had assembled in Rome for the occasion. First he exhorted them to oppose the error which claims that we can hope for the salvation of those who “in no way” belong to the true Church of Christ. Then he explained how “time and again” he was asked to declare “what is going to the fate and condition after death of those who have never yielded themselves to the Catholic faith.” Without presuming “to establish limits to the divine mercy, which is infinite,” we must hold it as certain that “those who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if that ignorance is invincible, will never be charged with any guilt on this account before the eyes of the Lord. Who is there that would arrogate to himself the power to point out the extent of such ignorance according to the nature and variety of peoples, regions, talents, and so many other things?” [23]

Nine years later, during the wars of unification, Pius IX issued a strong appeal to the bishops of Italy for a more concerted effort to stem the tide of immorality and indifference that was sweeping over the peninsula. “I must reprove a most serious error into which some Catholics have fallen,” he warned. “They imagine that men living in errors and apart from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain to eternal life.” They cannot. “It is known to us and to you that those who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion, and who, carefully 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 workings of divine light and grace, attain eternal life. The reason is because God, who clearly sees, searches and knows the mind, intentions, thoughts and habits of all, will, by His supreme goodness and kindness, never allow anyone who has not the guilt of willful sin to be punished by eternal sufferings.” On the other hand, “those who are contumacious against the 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.” [24]

Papal documentation has never gone beyond the point set forth by Pius IX when he extended the possibility of salvation not only to catechumens, as in Ambrose and Augustine, or to pagans out of touch with Christianity, as in Thomas Aquinas, but to all men of good will throughout the world, not excluding those living among Christians and in psychological contact with the Catholic faith.

Vatican Definition of Salvific Faith. The subject of the salvation of sincere non-Catholics was on the agenda of the Vatican Council. For this purpose the two documents of Pius IX on invincible ignorance were quoted in extenso and the essential terms were fully explained. “By the words, ‘those who labor in invincible ignorance’ is indicated the possibility that a person may not belong to the visible and external communion of the Church, and yet may attain to justification and eternal life.” [25] Moreover the saving clause on invincibility was incorporated into a proposed definition, namely, “It is a dogma of faith that no one can be saved outside the Church. However, those who labor in invincible ignorance of Christ and His Church are not to be punished for this ignorance with eternal pains, since they are not burdened with guilt on this account in the eyes of God, who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth, and who does not deny His grace to the person who does what he can, to enable him to attain to justification and eternal life. But this salvation no one attains, who leaves this life culpably separated from the unity of faith and communion of the Church.” [26] Consequently, although the doctrine of Pius IX remained part of the unfinished business of the Vatican Council and was not formally defined, it is certainly definable and may be called proxima fidei or “practically of faith.”

However, the council did manage to express itself more directly on the subject in another context. The final draft of the Constitution on the Faith (infallibly defined) includes two successive statements. First an exposition of the object of faith, that “by divine and Catholic faith all those things must be believed which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which are proposed by the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by her ordinary magisterium, as having to be believed.” Then a declaration on the necessity of faith, that “Since without faith it is impossible to please God and attain to the fellowship of His children, therefore, without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end.” [27] The essential word in the second statement is evidently “faith.” But what kind of faith is meant. If it means an explicit Catholic faith, then Pius IX is wrong; if it means anything less, then his position on the prospective salvation of non-Catholics is implied in a solemn conciliar definition. Fortunately we do not have to resort to conjecture because the proceedings of the Vatican Council settle the question beyond dispute.

In the original draft of the dogmatic constitution, the pertinent passage, describing the necessity of faith, was logically connected with the preceding paragraph on the scope of Catholic belief. After giving the object of the Catholic faith, the document continued: “This is that faith without which it is impossible to please God and attain to the fellowship of His children. Wherefore, just as without it justification never comes to anyone, so, no one, unless he shall have persevered in the same unto the end, will obtain eternal life.” [28]

But before the final and definite form was drawn up and presented to the council for acceptance, an important emendation was made and the reason for the change explained to the assembly by the delegate for the Commission De Fide. “We have made a substitution,” he said, “in the paragraph which begins, ‘This is that faith…’ The emendation of the beginning of this paragraph is the following, namely, that instead of the words, ‘This is that faith…’ there be substituted the following words, ‘Since, without faith, it is impossible to please God…Unless he shall have persevered in faith unto the end.’ I explained to you yesterday, Most Reverend Fathers, our reason for this change. The reason, to repeat in brief, is this: to remove the close connection between this and the preceding paragraph, lest it appear that an act of the Catholic faith is necessary for salvation, for all people. For this is false. I ask you, therefore, to accept the formula modified by us.” [29] They accepted the revised formula, verbatim, and the reason for the change, we may infer, was also accepted by the Vatican Council to be solemnly confirmed by Pius IX, that a person can reach heaven by professing that faith without which no one can please God, but not necessarily the explicit faith of the Roman Catholic Church.

Tentative Solutions

We return to the original problem. If it is revealed truth that “outside the Church there is no salvation,” it is also true that people can receive sanctifying grace and attain the beatific vision without actually professing the Catholic faith. This question has vexed theologians ever since the Reformation. How to escape the dilemma of so rigidly interpreting the necessity of the Church that no one but a professed Catholic can be saved, or so freely allowing salvation to anyone on any terms that the Church’s necessity is compromised.

Melchior Cano. Within the lifetime of the original Reformers, one theory was proposed by the Spaniard, Melchior Cano (1590-1560), a conspicuous figure at the Council of Trent. Cano’s solution distinguished the concept “Church” in the doctrine Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. He felt “the Church can be understood in two senses: first there is (the Church) which is composed of the assembly of all the faithful from the beginning of the world to the end. In this sense catechumens (or non-Catholics in good faith) are most truly in the Church. But then that also is called the Church which is entered through baptism, in the name of Christ…and of this Church, catechumens (or non-Catholics generally) are not a part.” [30] His contemporary rival, Robert Bellarmine, criticized the solution as unsatisfactory because “since the coming of Christ there is no true Church except that which is properly called Christian.” So that if non-Catholics do not belong to this Church, they belong to none. Cano properly discriminated between his hypothetical Church of the faithful and the Church of Christ on the point of baptism. Real baptism of water, he admitted, is essential to become a member of the Church of Christ. But he dismissed the problem instead of solving it by excogitating another Church besides the one founded by the Savior, misled no doubt by certain statements in the Fathers about a “Church” that began with Abel in the Old Testament and includes all the predestined till the end of time.

St. Robert Bellarmine. Somewhat later than Cano, two other theories were proposed by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) whose ecclesiology has been so influential that, according to competent observers, “the definition of the Vatican Council on the pope hardly go beyond Bellarmines’ formulation and indeed are practically the same.” [31] His first theory follows St. Augustine, who described the Church as a living Body, in which there is a body and soul. The soul is the internal gifts of the Holy Spirit: faith, hope and charity. The body is the external profession of faith and communication of the sacraments. “Some people belong to both the body and soul of the Church, and are therefore united to Christ, the Head, both interiorly and exteriorly. These are most perfectly in the Church. They are like living members in the body, although among them, too, some participate more and some less (in the life of the body), and some have only the beginnings of life, having, as it were, sensation without movement, like those who have faith with charity. Others, however, are of the soul but not of the body (of the Church), as catechumens and those who have been excommunicated, who may have faith and charity, which is possible. Finally, some belong to the body and not to the soul (of the Church), like those who have no internal virtue, but yet out of hope or moved by some temporal fear, they profess the faith and share in the sacraments, under the rule of legitimate pastors.” [32]

According to this hypothesis, the soul of the Church means the Holy Spirit with His gifts of grace and internal virtue; the body is the eternal profession of the Catholic faith. Non-Catholics, whether actual catechumens or not, will belong to the soul if they have the gifs of the Holy Spirit. Professed Catholics, if they have any internal virtue at all, belong to the Church’s body and also to the soul, depending on the strength of their interior life. When the theologians at the Vatican Council examined this theory they followed its general tenor but modified one important element. While admitting the terminology of non-Catholics in grace belonging to the soul of the Church, this aggregation, whatever it means, cannot be understood as actual membership in the soul of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Bellarmine’s second explanation has become standard in Catholic theology, though much amplified and clarified especially since the Vatican Council. He began by admitting Cano’s presupposition, that baptism is the only way to become a member of the Church of Christ, as distinct from the Church of the faithful. This paved the way for his own thesis, that non-Catholics (for him, catechumens) can be saved, even without baptism of water or martyrdom, provided they die with a baptism of desire.

The argument runs thus:

  1. Baptism is the only entrance into the Church. But baptism can be actual (in Re) or intentional (in voto). Therefore entrance into the Church can be actual or intentional.

  2. The kind of association with the Church is determined by the kind of entrance a person makes. But there are two kinds of entrance into the Church, actual or intentional. Therefore: if a person enters the Church through actual baptism he becomes an actual member. But if he enters baptism by intention (in voto), he belongs intentionally (in voto) to the Church.

In Bellarmine’s own words, “When it is said that outside the Church no one is saved, this is to be understood of those who do not belong to the Church either in reality or in desire, as theologians commonly speak of baptism. However, since catechumens are in the Church, if not in reality, at least in desire, therefore they can be saved.” [33]

This concept of belonging to the Church really or intentionally became a milestone in dogmatic progress. Bellarmine was certainly not the first to distinguish baptism of water and desire. For centuries, theologians and finally Trent took account of unbaptized persons who could be saved by the baptisma flaminis. But not until Bellarmine’s Controversies do we have a clear application of the same principle with relation to the Church.

Non-Catholics Related to teh Church by Intention and Desire

The relation of non-Catholics to the Church and the prospect of their salvation have reached a high degree of development under Pope Pius XII. In the Encyclical on the Mystical Body, he invited “those who do not belong to the visible organization of the Catholic Church…to follow the interior movements of grace, and to look to withdrawing from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For although they may be related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by unsuspecting desire and intention (desiderio ac voto), they still remain deprived of so many precious gifts and helps from heaven, which one can only enjoy in the Catholic Church.” [34] The pope is here contrasting the intentional (voto) relation of non-Catholics with the actual (re) members of the Church, “who have been baptized and profess the true faith.”

Six years after the Encyclical on the Mystical Body, the Holy Office (whose prefect is the pope and whose function is to pass judgment on matters of doctrine) published a document on the “Boston heresy case,” dealing with the specific problem of how reputedly sincere non-Catholics can be saved. The cardinal issue was whether God withholds the grace of conversion from a person who is perfectly faithful to the divine will. It was contended that “because God has promised to bestow that gift on all men of good will, He cannot withhold it from any man, except if this man has wickedly resisted all the graces already given to him, and would also resist this grace. But this is not what liberal Catholics mean when they speak of faith as a ‘gift.’ What they mean is that God can and does keep in ignorance of the truth some people who are extremely virtuous and goodwilled. This erroneous opinion is due to the myth of the virtuous native who dies in invincible ignorance. The dogmas of the Faith absolutely preclude the existence of such a man.” [35]

Reacting to this rigorism, the Holy Office quietly but firmly reiterated the accepted tradition that God is master of His grace and not obliged to grant the gift of the Catholic faith to anyone, even to those who are perfectly faithful to the graces already received. Yet such persons can be saved, even if they die before actual incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ. The reason is that belonging to the Church can be looked upon in two ways as an instrument for entering eternal glory. Under both aspects, it is possible to attain heaven without actual membership in the Roman Catholic Church.

Necessity of the Church by Divine Mandate. The Church teaches, first of all, that she is the object of “a very strict command of Jesus Christ. In unmistakable terms He gave His disciples the command to teach all nations to keep whatever He had commanded.” Among these mandates, “not the least is the one which orders us to be united to Christ and His vicar, through whom He Himself governs the Church on earth in a visible way.” This precept is so binding that “no one who knows that the Church has been divinely established by Christ and, nevertheless, refuses to be a subject of the Church, or refuses to obey the Roman Pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, will be saved.” [36] On this level of necessity, therefore, actual profession of the Catholic faith, visible and participation in the sacraments and submission to the Roman Pontiff are required for salvation provided that a person has reached the age of discretion which enables him to recognize the law, that the divine mandate is clearly made known to him, and that he is not otherwise excused from obedience to a positive command of God, through circumstances that would make adherence to Catholicism a moral impossibility.

Necessity of the Church as a Means of Salvation. There is another and deeper sense, however, in which the Church is necessary for salvation. “The Savior did not make it necessary merely by precept for all nations to enter the Church. He also established the Church as a means of salvation without which no one can enter the kingdom of heavenly glory.” [37] If we compare that two necessities, of precept and of means, the former is external and imposed from without (like the divine choice of Saturday as a day of worship, of the Church’s precept of Friday abstinence), the latter is intrinsic and part of the structure of a given function. Unless the given means are used, the end is simply not attained. Incapacity because of age, or ignorance or grave obstacles that stand in the say---all of which excuse from sin where only precepts are involved---do not apply where it is a question of means.

In the supernatural order, the end in view is always salvation or the beatific vision, and the means required are of two kinds. Some are necessary by strict internal necessity. Thus sanctifying grace, the infused virtues of faith, hope and charity, are so indispensable that nothing can supply for them. Without them salvation is impossible for anyone, before the time of Christ and ever since. Unless a person is raised to the family of God and his soul infused with supernatural life, he will never reach the beatific nature which is utterly beyond his native capacity as a creature. But these are not the only media salutis. There are others, established by God as vehicles or instruments by which the indispensable supernatural grace is obtained or retained, and may therefore be called instrumental means of salvation. Such are the sacraments of baptism and confession, and membership in the Catholic Church.

While absolutely speaking, God might have required that these instrumental means be used actually and physically as a condition for salvation, He did not do so. “Of those helps to salvation that are ordered to the last end only by divine institution, not by intrinsic necessity, God, in His infinite mercy, willed that such effects of those helps as are necessary to salvation can, in certain circumstances, be obtained when the helps are used only in desire and intention. We see this clearly stated in the Council of Trent about the sacraments of regeneration and penance.” The effects of these sacraments, which is remission of sin, may be obtained by the desire (expressed or implied) to receive baptism or penance, provided there is perfect contrition. “The same, in due proportion, should be said of the Church insofar as it is a general help of salvation. To gain eternal salvation it is not always required that a person be incorporated in fact as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and intention. It is not even necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When a man is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so-called because contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his will to be conformed to the will of God.” [38]

Meaning of Adherence to the Church by Implicit Intention. Examined psychologically, the desire to enter the Church, although implicit, requires a considerable degree of volitional generosity. It means that a person has that disposition of will which God sees would make him ready to embrace Catholicism if he recognized this as the divine will. Only because he fails to realize the obligation does he not become a Catholic. But this is not all. On the side of his supernatural condition, “it is necessary that the desire by which a man is related to the Church be informed with perfect charity. And an implicit desire cannot have its effect unless a man has supernatural faith.” [39] Consequently, knowledge of the natural law is not enough. There must be divine obedience to the voice of conscience sufficient. There must be correspondence with actual grace to the point where perfect contrition is aroused for past sins and an act of the perfect love of God is placed.

It should be clarified that this relationship to the Church by desire does not constitute membership. While theological writers on occasion speak of real (re) and intentional (voto) members of the Mystical Body, ecclesiastical documents carefully distinguish between the two. Only professed Catholics are credited with membership. Non-Catholics in good faith (and in the state of grace) are variously described as related (ordinare) or adhering (adhaerere) to the Church. The terms are significant. Ordinare in classic theology means the movement of an object towards a preconceived end, implying that the end is not yet achieved. So when Pius XII says that non-Catholics may be related (ordinentur) to the Mystical Body, he implies two things: that they are not yet members of the visible communion of the true Church; but they are moving towards membership if they sincerely wish to accomplish the entire will of God. In most cases, no doubt, the incorporation will not be attained until the Mystical Body in heaven; but whether on earth and / or in heaven, their relationship is a dynamic progress towards a divinely recognized end.

Adherence to the Church also implies the absence of real membership, which technically would be inherence, because when an object adheres to something the supposition is that the two are really distinct. But otherwise than relationship (ordinare) or active movement towards the Church, adherence (adhaerere) suggest an active influence from the Church, even on those who are not incorporated in the Mystical Body. As might be expected, the amount of this influx will be greater or less depending on the degree of volitional response to the advances of Jesus Christ. In our study of the Mystical Body we saw that the body of the Church is reductively the personal effort of the human beings who compose the visible society founded by Christ; and the soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit, animating this effort by His grace. By analogy, we may speak of sincere non-Catholics as adhering to the Church and deriving grace from the Holy Spirit, who is the soul of the Mystical Body, according to the measure of their generosity in cooperating with the will of God, fully manifested in the doctrinal and sacramental structure of the Roman Catholic faith. Thus we may legitimately conclude that the dissident Orientals who have a valid priesthood, the seven sacraments and most of the doctrines of the true Church, adhere more closely (and hence efficaciously) to the Mystical Body than others who profess only the skeleton of Christian teaching and perhaps are not even baptized.

We might ask how the readiness to do God’s will can include the desire to enter the Church, even where a person is quite oblivious of Christ’s mandate to that effect. The fact is that God’s will, objectively, includes this commandment and therefore a disposition to obey God in all things implicitly means a willingness to obey Him also in the injunction regarding the Church.

The Church as an Instrument of Grace for Non-Catholics

If we analyze the matter closely, we shall find that all the preceding explanation about intentional or voto adherence to the Church still leaves the fundamental problem unsolved. The fact that non-Catholics can be saved without actual membership may be taken as established. Under given circumstances, as described, God may accept their fidelity to His will as an implicit desire to become Catholics, and they are saved accordingly. But the critical problem is how the Church is responsible for their salvation, as it must be if the dogma Extra Ecclesiam is to be adequately explained. Granted it does not mean that only professed members can be saved; but how do others reach the beatific vision? What influence must the Church exert on anyone who attains eternal glory? This is not an academic question, as indicated by the recent warning of Pope Pius XII against the tendency in some circles to “reduce to an empty formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain salvation.” [40]

We have already seen that Christ established the Church as “a means of salvation,” which is another way of saying that she is an instrument or vehicle of divine grace and without grace glory is unattainable. For although by His absolute power God can infuse supernatural life into souls without human cooperation, in the existing order of providence He does not do so. He has, so to speak, tied-in the bestowal of grace with very definite instrumentalities. If these are operative, grace is obtained; otherwise it is not received. Some of the means are visible or at least sensibly communicated, and need to be used; others are perfectly invisible and may be identified with the person of Christ, Head of the Mystical Body and universal source of supernatural life for the human race.

Knowledge of the Minimal Essentials of Salvation

At the bedrock of the supernatural order is the obligation under which mankind has been placed to recognize and accept God’s intervention in the world, by communicating to man certain truths to be believed, precepts to observe and rites to practice as instruments of his salvation.

Indispensable Acceptance of Revelation. It may be assumed that some form of knowledge of God is necessary for all who have reached the age of reason, if they are freely to work out their eternal destiny. But merely rational knowledge, derived from reflection on created things, is not sufficient. Such knowledge would indeed suffice as the foundation for natural religion and natural beatitude after death; that is, if we had not been elevated to a supernatural order whose terminus is the beatific vision. However, since we have been so elevated, God requires that besides knowing Him from pure reason, we also believe in Him and accept the truth which He communicated to us by revelation. The Council of Trent laid down as the first necessity for justification fides ex audito, strict faith in the promises revealed; and while maintaining such a conception of faith (as against the blind trust of the Reformers) it did not hesitate to close all avenues of escape, insisting on the Pauline assertion that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In the last century, the Vatican Council repeated this necessity against the errors of rationalism, declaring that “we are obliged to render by faith a full submission of intellect and will to God when He makes a revelation,” and “this faith is the beginning (or basis) of human salvation.” [41]

Theologians commonly agree that the absolute minimum that any adult must believe to be saved is what St. Paul described in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that “without faith it is impossible to please God. For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder to those who seek Him.” [42] Consequently unless the existence of God as a rewarder of those who serve Him is believed on the word of God, there is no salvation. As commonly explained, this means that a necessary and objective link is established between a true historical revelation---primitive to our first parents, or Judaic in the Old Law, or Christian till the death of the last Apostle---and the mind of the believer. How the revelation comes to him or how clear the subjective motives for accepting it, are matters of legitimate speculation. But, in the framework of ordinary providence, there must be an objective communication, via human instruments, from God the revealer to man the humble believer.

Since all who have reached the age of reason are held by this injunction, we may ask whether, historically, all those who are not Catholic have access to divine revelation without the assistance of the Catholic Church.

We can safely dismiss from consideration the relatively small number of Jews who subscribe to the Mosaic law and the prophets, also the millions of dissident Orientals, believing Protestants and faithful Mohammedans who derive their fundamental beliefs from the Judaeo-Christian revelation. But we still have more than half the human race to account for: like the Buddhists, whose founder did not teach a personal deity; the Hindus, with a “bewildering polytheism of the masses”; and, in the western world, the multitude of professed unbelievers who may admit some sort of deity but positively reject any notion of revelation or supernatural faith in God. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is correctly regarded as the most influential figure in contemporary non-Catholic Christianity. His impact on Protestantism has been fairly compared with that of St. Thomas in Catholic theology. And Kant not only omits divine faith from the concept of religion but opposes any religious body that goes beyond the limits of pure reason. “A church,” he says, “lacks the most important mark of truth when it bases itself on revealed faith…For such a faith can never produce conviction.” [43] More recently and closer to home, Julian Huxley, international figure and first Director General of UNESCO, summarized his lifetime of militant agnosticism in a popular volume that is part of the Thinker’s Library. “I have called this book Religion without Revelation in order to express at the outset my conviction that religion of the highest and fullest character can co-exist with a complete absence of belief in revelation in any straightforward sense of the word, and of belief in that kernel of revealed religion, a personal god.” [44] To anyone familiar with the principles of Einstein and Haldane in natural science, of Dewey in the philosophy of education or of Camus and Sartre in modern literature, Huxley’s diatribe against the “soporific” of revealed truth is the expression of a widespread attitude of mind.

Any estimate of the number of people who do not accept an objective historical revelation would be speculation. Among oriental pagans there are no doubt vestiges of the primitive revelation which some theologians say may suffice, though overlaid with superstition and believed to emanate from a false deity. In western nations, when the Judaeo-Christian revelation is denied, we are forced on psychological grounds to question if such people retain the minimum essentials of faith necessary for salvation. If they do not have these requisites, and are to be saved, the communication of revealed truth must come from somewhere. It may, of course, directly come from other agencies than the Catholic Church, which alone has the divine commission to spread the word of God. But ultimately even these agencies inherited revealed truths from Catholic Christianity. The Catholic origins of revelation among the Eastern dissidents and Protestant churches are evident; but also Mohammedanism (though a crude mixture of Christianity and Judaism) owes a great deal to pre-Islamic monotheism among Christian Arabians, to the point where Mohammed considered himself third in a line of the great prophets of Allah, following Moses and Jesus Christ.

Therefore, non-Catholics who believe in a historical revelation are beneficiaries in large measure, if not exclusively, of the Catholic and apostolic Church. Those who once had but lost their supernatural belief in God depend, again in large measure, on the Catholic Church to bring them at least the minimum essentials of faith, without which it is impossible to please God.

We may admit the Church’s necessity to bring and preserve the basic deposit of faith among all peoples, is not absolutely universal because we allow for the perdurance of primitive and Mosaic revelation. But this necessity becomes more and more imperative when we realize that, since the time of Christ, only the Catholic Church is divinely assisted not merely to proclaim the word of God but to confirm this preaching (as did Christ) with signs and wonders that make the belief in revealed doctrine rationally acceptable.

The Obligation of Baptism. Comparable to the Church’s function of giving non-Catholics the minimal requisites of faith is the precept she keeps alive in the world for the necessity of baptism. By a positive divine law, Christ instituted baptism as the sacrament of regeneration, to be received actually or in desire by the entire human race, once the gospel is duly promulgated.

While baptism of desire, based on faith and actuated by the perfect love of God, is possible for adults, infants require baptism of water. Under the Church’s guidance, theologians commonly teach there is no other means of salvation positively instituted by Christ, and therefore contrary theories have been rejected. The best known is that of Cajetan (1469-1534), who wrote what is still considered the classic commentary on the Summa Theologica. He expressed the opinion that infants dying in the mother’s womb may be justified by the prayers of the parents. A blessing of the unborn child in the name of the Trinity, he thought, would secure salvation. Disapproved by the Fathers at the Council of Trent, the opinion was ordered by St. Pius V to be expunged from the writings of Cajetan. Similar views were held by others, but regularly discouraged by the Church’s authority.

Only one apparent exception to the universal law seems tenable, namely, that in lands untouched by the gospels their position remains the same as in the old dispensation. Thus a so-called “sacrament of nature” or religious rite which God accepted as the equivalent of Christian baptism, would remit original sin and make the child eligible for the beatific vision. This could be similar to the provision for girl infants under the Mosaic law, for whom an external ritual animated by faith in the coming Messias, supplied for circumcision and infused sanctifying grace. With rare exception, apologists hold that the gospel has already been promulgated throughout the world, and therefore the “sacrament of nature” no longer obtains anywhere. A few still favor the more liberal view and allow a substitute for baptism in remote regions where the preaching of Christ has not penetrated.

However, in any hypothesis, where Christianity has been preached, there is no substitute for baptism by water for those who die before the age of reason. And as with faith, only more so, the Catholic Church is needed to proclaim this divine mandate to a world that has either rejected Christ or is unwilling to accept His message. Fortunately among Christians outside the Catholic fold, baptism is generally practiced and providentially the right matter and form are also employed. But few if any of the Protestant Churches require baptism for salvation. After inheriting the custom from Catholic origins, they have lost the belief in its power to remit sin. Hence the parallel necessity of the Church for infants, as previously for adults; here to reveal and keep alive the duty of sacramental regeneration as before to teach the indispensability of faith. Once the gospel has been propagated, there is no substitute for baptism; and whatever knowledge exists among the nations on the practice and necessity of this sacrament comes uniquely from the Catholic Church.

Belief in the Trinity and Incarnation. Similar to the obligation of baptism and subject to the same conditions is a theological position that requires explicit faith in the Trinity and Incarnation as a requisite for salvation for those who reach the age of reason. After centuries of discussion, moralists are not agreed whether the duty is binding as an indispensable means or only as a dispensable precept. St. Alphonsus Ligouri, the Church’s greatest moralist, favors the more severe position. “The first opinion,” he says, “which is more common and seems more probable, teaches that they must be believed by a necessity of means.” [45] In practice, since the question involves the essentials of salvation, the safer (and hence more strict) opinion must be followed. Accordingly the Church requires that those who have charge of souls always teach them the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation, and, except in case of necessity, they are not to baptize or absolve adults who are ignorant of these mysteries, even when their ignorance is invincible. Two decisions of the Holy See clarify the Church’s solicitude. In answer to a query whether a dying pagan adult must have all the mysteries of the Christian faith explained to him, especially if this would or might disturb him; or whether it would be enough if he merely promised to learn these truths should he enough if he merely promised to learn these truths should he recover—the Holy Office replied that “A promise is not enough. The missionary is obliged to explain the mysteries of faith necessary by a necessity of means, although the person is dying and unless he is absolutely incapable of learning. These mysteries are especially the Trinity and the Incarnation.” [46] Another decision in the same year prescribed that “A missionary cannot baptize a person who does not explicitly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; but is required to instruct him in everything necessary with the necessity of means, according to the capacity of the one to be baptized.” [47]

As with the knowledge of baptism so with belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation, without the Catholic Church these truths would not be known anywhere in the world. It was to the Church alone that Christ committed their revelation, and through her, ultimately, that anyone believes in them and (if they are indispensable) is saved because of this faith.

Universal Source of Supernatural Grace

The Church’s necessity for salvation goes beyond the bare essentials of revelation which she furnishes to those outside of her fold. She is not only a visible instrument of grace by giving to the people the minimal principles of faith, but, in union with her invisible Head, is literally responsible for whatever divine influx is received either within her communion or among those who are actually outside the Mystic Body.

What the Vatican Council planned to define was the Church’s universal indispensability. “Let all understand,” the proposed definition schema read, “how necessary a society the Church of Christ is for obtaining salvation….In the order of salvation established by Providence, the communication of the Holy Spirit and the participation of truth and life is not obtained except in the Church and through the Church of which Christ is the Head.” [48]

Communication of the Holy Spirit. Using synonymous terms, the Vatican theologians described the Church as a necessary source for the communication of the Holy Spirit, and for the participation in truth and life. Communication more directly refers to the uncreated gift of the Holy Spirit received by the soul at the moment of justification. “By grace,” explains Leo XIII, “God resides in the just soul as a temple, in a most intimate and personal manner….This wonderful union, which is properly called ‘indwelling,’ differs only in degree or state from that with which God beatifies the saints in heaven.” [49] Participation, on the other hand, refers rather to the created gifts of grace, whether actual before justification, or actual and sanctifying once the soul has been justified.

Only in and through the Church of Which Christ is the Head. It is a commonplace in theology to say that all the grace of salvation that anyone receives is the grace of Christ. As God He is the creator of His gifts, as man He merited them on the Cross, and as Head of the Mystical Body He distributes them to all of mankind. The last function calls for some explanation.

There is no difficulty accepting on faith the mystery of sanctification, wherein the members of the Mystical Body are animated by the Spirit of Christ and from Him receive all the blessings of the supernatural life. Did He not say, “I am the vine, you are the branches. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it remain on the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me.” [50] But can we extend the concept to include also those who are not actually in the Body of Christ? Do they also depend on the invisible Head of the Church for all the graces they receive? They must, since there are not two Christs, one who is Head of the Mystical Body and another who is not.

We go a step further. Is there a legitimate sense in which non-Catholics derive supernatural grace not only from Christ who is Head of the Church but from Christ precisely as Head of the Mystical Body? While the answer is affirmative, it needs to be carefully distinguished. When we speak of Christ as Head of the Church we mean the Savior in His capacity of governing the society of human beings of which His own divine Spirit is the animating principle. He governs this society in two ways: the first by imparting sanctity to individual persons and the second by uniting these individuals into a living organism that is destined to last for all eternity. The two are quite distinct. A person can be in the Mystical Body and not be in sanctifying grace, as he can be in the state of grace without being an actual member of the Church. But in the latter case, he obtains justification only because he is somehow in conjunction with the Church. For an infant this means baptism by water, for an adult that degree of response to the divine will which God recognizes as implying the desire to be incorporated in His Body. It matters little that psychologically a non-Catholic is not aware of the full implications of his generosity; ontologically God sees the implications and credits the soul accordingly.

Equally important and more subtle is the second way that Christ operates as Head of the Mystical Body. We are liable to forget that personal sanctification is not the only purpose of the redemption. In the plan of God, we are not only to be personally sanctified but also united with Christ and each other in union whose intimacy is incomprehensible to the natural man. If a person is in the state of grace but not actually in the Church, Christ’s function will be to draw him into ever closer approximation to actual membership, until (at least after death) he is fully incorporated into the Body of Christ.

Consequently the teaching of the Vatican Fathers stands firm: “there is no communication of the Spirit except in the Church.” i.e., in relation to her by some kind of volitional response to her teaching, either actual profession or such generosity as objectively (though unwittingly) includes the desire to become a Catholic. Also “there is no communication of the Spirit except through the Church,” i.e. through her invisible Head, who sanctifies individuals wherever He finds the necessary good will, and incorporates them into Himself. The very analogy with a human organism permits us to see how the Body of Christ can be active beyond its own physical self, by radiating power that affects others besides its own members and by assimilating elements from the outside for its growth and amplification.

However, we are not to suppose that Christ acts independently of the Church in His action of sanctifying and incorporating non-Catholics to Himself. He uses the Church on every level of her ministration, especially the Sacrifice of the Mass and the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful.

Sacrifice of the Mass for All Mankind. The most important medium in the Church for the salvation of the non-Catholic world is the Sacrifice of the Mass. On the altar is renewed the oblation of Calvary because it is the same Priest and Victim who offered Himself on the Cross. Moreover, the appointed ends are the same, notably the expiation of sin and impetration of grace from Almighty God.

To be emphasized is the universality of the fruits of the Mass. “No one was better fitted,” wrote Pius XII, “to make satisfaction for all the sins of mankind than Christ. Therefore He desired to be immolated upon the Cross as a propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for those of the whole world. In like manner, He daily offers Himself upon our altars for our redemption.” [51] These are the sentiments of the Church in her liturgy, where at every offertory of the Mass she prays that “the chalice of salvation may ascend for our salvation and that of the whole world,” thus anticipating before the consecration the worlds of Christ Himself at the Last Supper: “This is the chalice of My blood, of the new and eternal covenant, which shall be shed for you and for many, unto the remission of sins.” The expression, “for many,” has always been understood to mean “for all mankind.”

As far back as we go in the Church’s tradition, she always recognized the Mass as a universal instrument for the salvation of the gentiles who were still outside the City of God. One of the most eloquent comes to us from the fifth century under the authority of the then reigning pontiff, St. Celestine. When priests “fulfill the sacerdotal office entrusted to them, they are pleading the cause of the human race before the divine clemency, and while the whole Church mingles its sighs with theirs, they beg and pray that faith may be given to the infidels, that idolaters may be freed from the errors of their impiety, that the light of truth may appear to the Jews, that heretics may return to wisdom with the true comprehension of the Catholic faith, that schismatics may receive the spirit of charity once more revived in them and that those who have relapsed may be given the remedy of repentance.” [52] This doctrine, says the pope, “was handed down from the Apostles,” and therefore represents the mind of Christ, whose prayer for unity at the Last Supper is perpetuated in every Sacrifice of the Mass.

Prayers and Sacrifices for the Non-Catholic World. Correlative with the Mass are the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful, impetrating from Christ the graces which He dispenses outside the Mystical Body. As with the Mass, the tradition goes back to the early Church and is based on the dogmatic principle that the fruits of the Redemption are applicable to all the members of the human family. Following the example of his Maser, Stephen prayed for his persecutors and Paul for the recalcitrant Jews, even to becoming anathema if this were necessary to win their salvation.

However, besides the salvific will of God another principle is also operative in this tradition of apostolic prayer and sacrifice in favor of the non-Catholic world. While believing that conversion to Catholicism and especially final perseverance is a gift of divine liberality, we recognize the corresponding need of human activity antecedent to the reception of grace, notably the necessity of prayer. It may be the prayer that a person says for himself, asking for divine guidance and strength to follow the will of God; it may also be the prayer that others say in addition to his own or in his stead. For Catholics as well as non-Catholics the latter, altruistic prayer is indispensable. We need the prayers of the living members of the Mystical Body of Christ to reach our heavenly destiny.

In a famous letter that St. Augustine wrote against the Pelagians we have all the essentials of this doctrine with reference to those who are eventually converted to God. Augustine pleads with his correspondent to recognize the Church’s duty of praying for those outside of her fold. “Surely you will not forbid the Church to pray for unbelievers that they may be believers, for those who refuse to believe that they may be willing to believe, for those who are at variance with God’s law and doctrine, that God may give them what He promised by the prophet, ‘A heart for understanding Him and ears for hearing.’” He argues from the practice of St. Paul in favor of the unbelieving Jews, saying that “my prayer to God is for them unto salvation.” [53] As a general principle, therefore, “these and other divine testimonies prove that God by His grace takes away the stony heart from unbelievers and forestalls merit in men of good will…. This is shown both by thanksgiving and by prayer: prayer for unbelievers; thanksgiving for believers. Prayer is to be made to Him that He might do what we ask; thanksgiving is to be offered when He has done it.” [54] Both would be useless and “a mockery,” unless the prayers of the Church effected the sanctification of those estranged from God and thanksgiving were demanded in gratitude for the Church’s prayers having been answered.

In our own day, Pope Pius XII gave voice to the same tradition when, in his capacity as Vicar of Christ, he declared that “We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible body of the Catholic Church,” and united with “the prayers of the whole Church… We desire nothing more ardently than that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” [55]

If we couple the individual prayers of the faithful with the public worship of the Church, and add to these the sacrifices and sanctity of the whole Mystical Body of Christ, we have in cosmic outline the ultimate basis for the Church’s necessity for the salvation of all mankind. By divine ordinance she is the great sacrament through whom graces are dispensed to the entire human race. Within her Body, members receive these gifts as by a special privilege to which, by God’s mercy, they have a supernatural title. But even outside her Body, whoever is eventually saved, must credit his salvation to the instrumentality of the Catholic Church, whose invisible Head is the fountain of all life and holiness and of whose fullness anyone who is sanctified must have received.

Chapter X - References

  1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Chicago, 1930, p. 260.

  2. Ibid., p. 262.

  3. John 3:5.

  4. St. Ignatius of Antioch, "Letter to the Philadelphians," The Fathers of the Church, New York, 1947, p. 114.

  5. Origen, "Homilia III," MPG 12, 841.

  6. St. Cyprian, "De Catholicae Ecclesiae imitate," MPL 4, 502.

  7. Augustine, "Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesiae plebem," MPL 43, 695.

  8. St. Augustine, "Tractatus in Joannem," XXVII, num. 6, Corpus Christianorum, Turnhold, 1954, pp. 272-273.

  9. Denzinger, 39.

  10. Ibid., 430.

  11. Ibid., 468.

  12. Ibid., 714.

  13. Ibid., 318. Council of Quiersy, in France, convened in 853 A.D., and confirmed by Pope St. Leo IV.

  14. Ibid., 1096.

  15. St. Ambrose, "De Obitu Valentiniani Consolatio," (492 A.D.), MPL 16, 402-403.

  16. St. Augustine, "De Baptismo," MPL 43, 172-173.

  17. St. Bernard, "Epistola seu Tractatus de Baptismo," MPL 182, 1036.

  18. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, III, q. 69, art. 4.

  19. St. Thomas, De Veritate, quaest. 14, art. 11.

  20. Denzinger, 796.

  21. Among others, Pere Berruyer was condemned by ecclesiastical authorities because his L'Histoire du Peuple de Dieu suggested that faith based on revelation was not absolutely necessary for salvation.

  22. Giuseppe Pelczar, Pio IX e il suo Pontificato, vol. I, Torino, 1909, p. 5.

  23. Pius IX, Allocution, "Singulari Quadam," December 9, 1854, Codicis Turis Canonici Fontes, vol. II, Roma, 1924, p. 894.

  24. Pius IX, Encyclical, "Quanto Conficiamur Moerore," August 10, 1863, op. cit., p. 972.

  25. Acta Concilii Vaticani, Collectio Lacensis, vol. VII, col. 591.

  26. Ibid., col. 569.

  27. Denzinger, 1792-1793.

  28. Acta Concilii Vaticani, col. 73.

  29. Ibid., coll. 177-178.

  30. Melchior Canus, De Locis Theologicis, Paris, 1678, vol. I, p. 187.

  31. Cuthbert Butler, The Vatican Council, London, 1930, vol. I, p. 38.

  32. St. Robert Bellarmine, De Ecclesia Militante, cap. 2.

    To safeguard the Church's visibility, Bellarmine here seems to defend actual membership in the Church for occult heretics, i.e., those who externally profess to be Catholic but internally reject the Church's teaching. Other passages in Bellarmine make it doubtful whether he really held this theory.

  33. Ibid., cap. 3.

  34. Mystici Corporis, pp. 242-243.

  35. From the Housetops, Cambridge, 1949, vol. III, No. 2, p. 18.

  36. American Ecclesiastical Review, October 1952, p. 308. The decision of the Holy Office is dated August 8, 1949.

  37. Ibid.

  38. Ibid., pp. 308-309.

  39. Ibid., p. 309.

  40. Pius XII, Encyclical "Humani Generis," Aug. 12, 1950, Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XLII, p. 571.

  41. Denzinger, 1789.

  42. Hebrews 11:5-6.

  43. Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Chicago 1934, p. 100.

  44. Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation, New York, 1957, p. 1.

  45. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Opera, Roma, 1905, "De Praecepto Fidei," pp. 295-296.

  46. Response of the Holy Office to the Bishop of Quebec, January 25, 1703, Acta Santae Sedis, 1897-1898, p. 700.

  47. Ibid., Response dated May 10, 1703.

  48. Acta Concilii Vaticani, Collectio Lacensis, col. 577.

  49. Leo XIII, Encyclical "Divinum Illud." May 9, 1897, Acta Sanctae Sedis, vol. XXIX, p. 652.

  50. John 15:4-5.

  51. Piux XII, Encyclical "Mediator Dei," Acta Apostolicae Sedis, vol. XXXIX, p. 549.

  52. St. Celestine, "Epistola ad Episcopos Galliarum," MPL 50, 535.

  53. St. Augustine, "Epistola ad Vitalem," MPL 33, 988.

  54. Ibid.

  55. Mystici Corporis, p. 242.

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