Salvation Outside of the Church

Monday, May 05, 2003



Believe it or not, 40 years after Vatican II, there are still Catholics who believe that there is no salvation outside of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, while some conservatives accept a slim possibility of salvation outside the Church, they believe that other religions are without grace. Let me explain how salvation can occur outside of the Church:

I think of it like a life-guard at the beach: I do not need to know the life-guard's name before he will jump in the water to save me.

Likewise, I do not need to know Christ by name before he jumps into the human condition to save me from drowning in sin!

Why be Catholic?

Because the gospel is "good news"!

The very idea that God would become a human person speaks of the infinite depth and value of the human person and humanity in the eyes of God! The resurrection of a man says that death does not have the final word for us! The sacrifice of the cross says that God is with us in our suffering!

The message of the Bible from the call of Abraham through the slave escape from Egypt to the formation of the Church is a story of liberation made possible by a God who loves us and cares for us.

Every infallible Catholic doctrine can be demonstrated to be good news that brings joy to the heart when properly understood!

Yet, a good and loving God does not damn people who have not heard this good news, or who heard it transmitted in a way that was repulsive (i.e. - when Jews were forced to convert or die by sword in the middle ages).

Christ will still save these people by his grace, and the good works we see in many non-believers is often an affirmative response to God's grace that reached them despite the faults of we Catholic sinners!

God desires the salvation of all people (see 1 Tim 2: 4)

Christ alone is the savior of the world. However, salvation is not a matter of simply memorizing a creed to pass a pop quiz at the pearly gates of heaven! Salvation is primordial, pre-conscious trust in God that gives rise to hope and love of God and neighbor. The propositional statements of creed and confession are meant to help foster this fundamental trust (faith) in the divine power in our lives. When a person reaches this trust even though they know nothing of creed and confession, they are already responding to grace! Other religions are expressing a response to grace - especially evidenced when they teach similar beliefs to our own.

It is true that since all salvation is through Christ, there is no salvation apart from the Church (ex ecclessiam...). There can be no salvation apart from Christ, and the Church is the body of Christ. Nevertheless, those who are being saved outside of the institutional boundaries of the Church are members of the church through an invisible bond of Christ's grace. The grace operating in other religions is real grace - real action by the same Holy Spirit we know and love!

This was true of Moses and Elijah, who did not know Christ by name in their earthly life. It was true of the martyrs who were baptized by desire before receiving water baptism. It is true today of those who do not reject grace even though they have never properly heard or understood the gospel.

Regarding Protestants, Orthodox, and other non-Catholic Christians, the Second Vatican Council states in Lumen Gentium no 15 the following:

Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power.

Now really think about this statement carefully. The statement is saying that the Holy Spirit and sanctifying (saving) power dwells in these non-Catholic communities. The Holy Spirit is the "soul" of the body of Christ - the Church.

This means that while the truth "subsists" in the Roman Catholic institution, the Church from God's perspective extends outside of the boundaries of the institution! Sanctifying power is saving power, period. Salvation can and does occur outside of the boundaries of Roman Catholicism, and to state otherwise is to disagree with an ecumenical council of the Church!

Then, after stating that the Jews are a special people united to the Church in some mysterious way, Lumen Gentium no 16 goes on to say the following:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.

How can the Church be more clear that salvation occurs outside of her boundaries?

Does this mean everyone is saved?

Not necessarily, though we can certainly hope and pray that this may be so.

However, revelation clearly warns of the possibility of hell.

Christ mentions hell more than heaven, and it is clear in Jesus' ministry that the possibility of rejecting God's lavish grace is a real possibility with really horrendous consequences. He speaks of it as "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit".

Hell is not something God does to us. God does not damn us. Rather, hell is something we choose. The condition for the possibility of freedom is that rejection of God is possible. Love is not real if it is not truly chosen. We are not God's puppets. We are his children. God loves us too much to just snuff us out (after all, he did not create us without inherent dignity as his image. Yet, if we reject God who is goodness itself, we are going against our own nature. God permits this, and this is what hell is!

While hell is a real possibility, it is hard work to get there. We were not created for evil. We were created to know, love and serve God in happiness. Here on earth, we taste a foreshadowing of what hell is like when we sin. Sin may give short term pleasure, but it has devastating consequences.

In the Church, we also have a foretaste of heaven in the Eucharist, and the life of the Church. God gave us the Church as a gift so that we might find our way back to him, but the Church includes many people who are being saved by God's grace outside of the institutional boundaries of Roman Catholicism.

There is a hierarchy of truth. Knowing that there is a God is more important than knowing Christ by name. Knowing the truth about Christ is more important than knowing the truth about Mary's immaculate conception. Knowing the truth about Mary may be more important than knowing about purgatory. Knowing the truth about purgatory may be more important than knowing whether women can be ordained or not. At the highest levels of salvific truth, the Church is saying that even though all of her teachings are 'true", Jews, Muslims and others may know enough to be saved!

Knowing that salvation can occur outside of the Church, our goal should not be to convince people of lesser truths when arguing the point may drive others away. We should reach rather than repel others. In order to do this, our goals should be to enter into dialogue with others and be open to learning, as well as teaching. We are ALL called to discipleship (the art of being a student).

We can even learn form others. What adult practicing Catholic has not learned a little more about Scripture from arguing with an Evangelical Protestant? I have learned about the Jewishness of Jesus in discussion with Jews. Who is not inspired to prayer when they see the Muslim bow five times per day?

In dialogue with one another, we allow grace to lead us naturally to becoming better human beings, and grace ultimately builds on nature. When we get to heaven, some of the religious arguments we had on earth will seem as meaningless as the debates of toddlers seem to an adult. What is most important is growth in faith, hope and love - and we need to be careful in sharing the good news that we keep the focus where it should be!

Perhaps the Church acts as an instrument of salvation less by breeding more Catholics than by making Jews better Jews, Muslims better Muslims, etc...through our ongoing interaction and dialogue.

Consider this final quote from the Second Vatican Council, Guadium et Spes no. 28:

Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through such courtesy and love, the more easily will we be able to enter into dialogue with them.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 2:35 PM

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