Salvation Outside the Church

by John Pacheco


It has been three decades now since the winds of the Second Vatican Council have swept the Catholic world.  It requires no brilliant mind to discern that the smoke of Satan has indeed entered the Church as Pope Paul VI had observed a short time after the Council’s conclusion.  The nefarious ‘Spirit of Vatican II’, which became an euphemism for the Modernists to usurp the authority of the Magisterium and gut the truth, has settled down rather nicely these past thirty years.  This pernicious Modernism, which Pius X called the “synthesis of all heresies” (Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 1907 A.D.), has indeed inflicted disaster on the Church in our sorry century.

Throughout Christianity, there have been a multitude of heresies attacking the deposit of Apostolic faith.  In some instances, the attempt to put down one heresy resulted in the development of another heresy whose beliefs were in the opposite direction to its precursor.  This was the case with Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism.

Nestorius impugned the divinity of Christ by attacking the belief that Mary was the ‘Mother of God’ (‘Theotokos’).  He preferred the title ‘Mother of Christ’ (‘Christotokos’), which attacked not only the divinity of Christ Himself but the nature of the Trinity as well by splitting Christ into two persons.  In order to preserve the singular personhood and divinity of Christ, and as a corollary, the belief in the Trinity,  the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) formally defined the belief that Mary was indeed ‘Theotokos’ (‘God-bearer’) who gave birth to one Person not just to one Nature.

Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism.  This heresy was led by Eutyches, an Archabbot of a monastery in Constantinople.  In his anti-Nestorian zeal, he advocated not only that Christ was one person (the orthodox position), but that He had only one nature as well - a fusion of the divine and human, thereby rejecting the Church’s belief of two natures in Christ - the human and the divine.  Eutyches maintained that Christ’s human nature was so absorbed in His Divinity that His humanity represented a mere drop in the ocean of His divinity.  Hence, there was only one real nature in Christ, and it was the divine one.  The orthodox position of Christ’s two natures in one Divine Person was expounded and defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.  While the controversy finally did whither away, it took another century before doing so, and even today some Eastern Churches still hold to this view, including the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Jacobites in Syria, the Armenians and Abyssinians.

As a counter reaction to Monophysistism, Monothelitism proposed to conciliate the Monophysites to the Church’s position, but in so doing, created yet another heresy.  In the expectation of ending the schism with the Egyptians and the Syrians, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, proposed to declare that Christ had two natures but only one will.  The Council of Constantinople in 680 A.D. rejected this view as a heresy since the number of wills in Christ is a function of and is directed toward the two natures in Christ.  Hence, as there is a fully human nature in Christ so too there is a fully human will in Christ, which, although distinct from the divine will, is not opposed to it.

If one takes this analysis of these three heresies, and applies them to post-reformation Christianity, one can see a similar pattern of the development of more contemporary heresies.  Indeed, a parallel can be established between Nestorianism, Monophysistism, and Monothelitism in the earlier centuries of Church history on the one part and  Protestantism, Rationalism-Modernism, and ‘Feeneyitism’ on the other part.

On the one hand, Protestantism sought to diminish and destroy the Church’s position as an authoritative body in matters of faith and morals, as well as distorting the consequences of the fall of Adam - instead of human nature being wounded, the Reformers held it was totally corrupted and depraved.  On the other hand, the Modernist attack, whose underpinnings existed before the nineteenth century, found its impetus in that age of Rationalistic thought.  Although Modernist theology differed little with the Reformers’ in their opposition to the Church’s authority (except perhaps that it was more subtle), they were, and continue to be, at complete ends of the spectrum in regards to their view of man’s fallen state.  Modernists, for the most part, are nothing  more than latter-day Pelagians in disguise who trumpet man’s conscience as a god unto itself.

It is from this perspective that the question of  “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” - “outside the Church, there  is no salvation” must be considered.  It is my contention that, in order to quash both the Modernist and Protestant errors, certain ultra-Traditionalist Catholics, or ‘Feeneyites’, have accepted another heresy, namely, the rigorist view of the subjective necessity of the Church for salvation.  In the hopes of putting down religious indifferentism and the attacks on the Church’s divine foundation, the followers of Father Feeney are adopting the polarized extreme on this question.  Unconsciously, they are falling into the same trap that the Monophysites fell into with the question on Christ’s natures.  That is why, for instance, the successor of Pope Pius X, Pope Benedict XV, had to reign in a group called ‘intergralists’ whose excesses in combating Modernism were likewise too extreme.

The definition and the understanding

It is a defined article of faith that membership in the Church is necessary for all men for salvation.  The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.) declared:  “One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful outside which no one at all is saved...”  This was also the teaching of a number of other Ecumenical Councils including the Council of Florence (1438 A.D.), the First Vatican Council (1870 A.D.), and the Second Vatican Council (1963 A.D.).  Added to the solemn definitions and confirmations of the Councils, the Holy Pontiffs have also been unanimous in their defense of the dogma including Pope Innocent III, Clement VI, Benedict XIV, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius XII.  The dogma was forcefully repeated by Boniface VIII in the Bull ‘Unam Sanctum’ (1302 A.D.):  “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Pope Eugene IV and the aforementioned Council of Florence declared that the Church “firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Cf. Matthew 25:41), unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practised, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.”

Many of the Fathers also affirmed this teaching, including St. Cyril (d. 386 A.D.), St. Ambrose (d. 397 A.D.), St. Jerome (d. 420 A.D.), St. Augustine (d. 430 A.D.), St. Fulgentius (d. 533 A.D.), St. Bede (d. 535 A.D.), St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 A.D.), St. Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621 A.D.).

The earliest Christian writings also affirm the constant teaching:

The Church “is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them... We hear it declared of the unbelieving and the blinded of this world that they shall not inherit the world of life which is to come... Resist them in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons." (Saint Irenaeus [d. 202 A.D.], Against Heresies, Book III).

"Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved." (Origen
[d.  254 A.D.], Homilies on Josue 3:5)

"He who has turned his back on the Church of Christ shall not come to the rewards of Christ; he is an alien, a worldling, an enemy. You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother. Our Lord warns us when He says:  he that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.' Whosoever breaks the peace and harmony of Christ acts against Christ; whoever gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ." (Saint Cyprian [d. 258 A.D.], Unity of the Catholic Church).

Those who hold to the strict interpretation cite these and other sources for their views, but they cite them selectively - neither offering the historical context of the definition, nor elaborating on the object to whom the teaching was directed.  In fact, even the citings that are provided by the rigorists cannot be held as conclusive proof for their interpretation simply because many of the Fathers they cite did not, in fact, hold to the rigorist view.  For instance, St. Ambrose (De obit Val. 51) and St. Augustine (De bapt. IV 22,29) both held that catechumens who die before baptism can receive salvation on the basis of their faith and their desire for baptism.  St. Thomas Aquinas also concedes the possibility of salvation occurring extra-sacramentally (S. Th. III 68,2).

Similarly, two Popes who are cited above in support of the rigorist position did not hold this view at all.
Pius IX did not understood the article in the strict sense.  His belief in the article was directed at modern religious indifferentism rather than to a universal, exclusive position:  “By Faith it is to be firmly held that outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation.  This is the only ark of salvation.  He who does not enter into it will perish in the flood.  Nevertheless, equally certainly it is to be held that those who suffer from invincible ignorance of the true religion, are not this reason guilty in the eyes of the Lord.  Now, then, who could presume in himself an ability to set the boundaries of such ignorance, taking into consideration the natural differences of peoples, land, native talents, and so many other factors” (Singulari Quidem, 1863 A.D.). Hence, Pius IX distinguished between those who have knowledge of the Church and Her divine foundation, and those who have no such knowledge due to a number of mitigating circumstances.

Pius XII, who affirmed the doctrine in his Encyclicals ‘Mystici Corporis (1943 A.D.)’ and ‘Humani Generis’ (1950), also qualified its meaning in attempting to silence Father Leonard Feeney, S.J., an American Jesuit at Boston College and the ‘father’ of the rigorist movement (whose proponents, whether rightly or wrongly, are now referred to as the ‘Feeneyites’).  Father Feeney was expelled from his order and then excommunicated in the 1940’s for holding and pushing the rigorist view as official Catholic teaching.  (He was later reconciled to the Church.)  “In the aftermath of the controversy, the Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, received a letter of clarification from the Holy Office.  This letter, dated  August 8, 1949, is important for its explanation of the necessity of the Church:  she is necessary for salvation by divine command, not by intrinsic necessity.  The Church, as Christ’s mystical body, is the sole ark of salvation, but direct, formal membership in her through the sacraments is only the ordinary means of salvation.  In other words, knowledge of the Church and of her Founder is required of anyone for whom is to be considered necessary for salvation.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, p.862, Reverend Peter Stravinskas, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1991)

The Second Vatican Council also affirmed the qualified teaching in the *Dogmatic* Constitution on the Church:  “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium, 14).  Nevertheless, “those also can attain to everlasting 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” (Lumen Gentium, 16).

Even the early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr (First Apology, 46) and Origen (Against Celsus 4:7) did not hold to the strict view.  And even those who first appear to hold to such a strict interpretation may not have.

“Let them not think that the way of life or salvation exists for them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since the Lord says in the book of Deuteronomy:  ‘And any man who has the insolence to refuse to listen to the priest or judge, whoever he may be in those days, that man shall die.’ (Deut. 17:12-13)  And then, indeed, they were killed with the sword…but now the proud and insolent are killed with the sword of the Spirit, WHEN THEY ARE CAST OUT FROM THE CHURCH.  For they cannot live outside, since there is only one house of God, and there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church.”  [St. Cyprian, Letters, 61(4):4].

The heretics of Cyprian’s day were not the twentieth generation of Lutheranism that exists today - they were perhaps 1 or 2 generations cut off from the Catholic Church.  Indeed, that fact is an enormous difference - one group has likely been exposed to the Truth; the other likely has not.  As well, the phrase he uses should also be appreciated, “if they have refused to obey the bishops”.   A twentieth generation Lutheran, probably does not know the necessity of obeying a Catholic bishop to be saved.

The belief of the Church, therefore, is this:  there is no other *objective* means of salvation for any one other than through the Catholic Church.  No other religion or quasi-Christian Church is pleasing to God since they teach contrary (at least in part) to the Catholic Church who alone is the ark of salvation and pillar of truth (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:15).

This truth is not well received by the Modernists since, for them, the Catholic Church is not the sole instrument used by God for salvation.  Of course, this belief is idiotic at best, and demonic at worst for a multitude of reasons.  Notwithstanding that the Church is the only *objective* means for salvation, it need not be the only exceptionless, subjective means of salvation.  For instance, if a person belongs to another religion or even another Christian Church, that person will not be saved *because* of their religion but *despite* it, insofar as it departs from the truth revealed through and by the Church.  Indeed, it should be stressed, lest indifferentism raises its ugly head once again, that the possibility of someone being saved outside the formal membership of the Church is simply that - a possibility.  It does not mean ‘probability’ or even a ‘good possibility’, but only a possibility - perhaps even only a remote one.  It goes without saying that there is no salvation outside of the Church for any  properly catechized Catholic:   “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a certain terrifying expectation of judgement and the fury of fire which will consume the adversaries”  (Hebrews 10:26-27).

Arguments against the Rigorist position

1.  Limitations of the Church

Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church.  Although she is the visible means instituted by Jesus to pass on divine revelation, the Church is, however, neither omnipotent nor omnipresent.  The Church’s infallibility and indefectibility, however, are not compromised by denying these missing qualities.

The limitations of the Church are legion not because of Christ but because of her imperfect children, and precisely because the Church does have limitations, the rigorist position is untenable.  Some of her limitations are:

i)  The Church has had geographic limitations.  She has not been visibly present in every age in every part of the world since her institution.  Hence, those who need to hear a preacher do not have one, and therefore are not culpable for their ignorance.

ii)  Individual members of the church can inadvertently err, thereby leading inquirers to believe in something the Church does not teach.  Misunderstanding has turned away many people from the Church.

iii)  Individual members can be uncharitable when preaching the Gospel, turning potential coverts away from the faith.

iv)  Dupes can mislead eager converts.   Communist infiltrators were renowned for doing this, and Dr. Scott Hahn recounted his experience with a modernist priest in his conversion story “Rome Sweet Home”.

v)  Through bad example, Catholics can fail to effectively witness to the faith.  If the ‘proof is not in the pudding’, as they say, then it unlikely that a potential convert will be roused to consider the truths of the Catholic Church.

vi)  Non-Catholics’ upbringing obviously has a profound effect on their perception of the Church.  A strong aversion to Catholicism, whether in another religious tradition or even cultural, familial or social influences, certainly makes conversion extremely difficult if not next to impossible.

But, say the Rigorists, Divine Providence will furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided there is no hindrance on the person’s part. Thus, if someone is raised in another religious tradition or lives in a country that is not open to the Church and if the person uses natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration or through the means of an angel what has to be believed.

This reasoning, however, is fanciful at best.   Effectively, the Feeneyites are saying that there are no *truly* misinformed or ignorant non-Catholics since, for them, God would reveal to them what has to be believed by supernatural means.  Is this realistic?  Is it to be believed that all sincere Protestants who die outside the formal membership of the Church, not having been exposed to the beauty of the Catholic Faith, have turned down God’s explicit supernatural revelation?

2. Problem with mortal sin

The most difficult problem with the rigorist position is their “de facto” denial of one of the central doctrines of the faith:  mortal sin.  Catholic theology holds that in order for someone to lose their salvation they must have committed a mortal sin.

The commission of a mortal sin has essentially three criteria:

i) The sin must be serious.
ii) The sin must be committed freely, with the person’s consent.
iii) The sin must be known to be a serious sin.

The commission of mortal sin, therefore, requires the individual to *know* it is a sin.   Hence, if a non-Catholic does not *know* it is a serious sin to remain outside of the Catholic Church, then he cannot be guilty of a mortal sin, and therefore, he cannot be unequivocably condemned for being outside of the True Church of Jesus Christ.  So, if the Rigorists deny any possibility of salvation to non-Catholics, then they must logically deny a central part of Catholic theology.

St. Thomas Aquinas explained it like this:  “Now it is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to a man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called invincible, because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about things one is bound to know.”

A word of sober consideration, though:  it is dangerous for a Protestant, for instance, to understand that this arrangement is flexible.  For, as long as he is not convicted of the truth of the Catholic faith, he may think that all will be well.  However, this is not the Catholic teaching on this subject.  What is being discussed here is a theoretical and theological possibility only.  The Protestant, or any other non-Catholic, will be judged on their culpability for not accepting the true faith.  Obviously, he will be held to a standard consumerate with the opportunities that are presented  to him, and the access he had to the Church’s teachings.  It is not a light matter - in fact, it is a most undesirable position to be in - especially for those in more affluent western countries.  And it must be remembered that sloth nullifies pleading ignorant before the Holy Court of Justice.

Now, the rigorists may deny that they are not rejecting the concept of mortal sin in Catholic theology.  In order to address the requirement for *knowledge* of the mortal sin, they will repeat their oft mentioned argument:  “God will either reveal to him through internal inspiration or through the means of an angel what has to be believed.”   Yet, this rationale simply will not hold.  Under this scenario, why wouldn’t God use such means with *everyone*, and not just those formally outside of the Church?  Why wouldn’t God just simply whisper the complete truth in everybody’s ears?  Why, for that matter, is ignorance a possibility at all - why wouldn’t God ‘clear things up’ so there would be no question in regards to the seriousness of a sin?

The answer to that question can be found in Sacred Scripture -  He instituted His Church to do preach the Gospel and assist people in recognizing mortal sin.  And, as discussed above, not all people outside the formal boundaries of the Church have always been able to hear the true Gospel in all places at all times.

4. Historical context

There is also the question of the historical context of the dogma.  To whom were the Councils and Popes directing the teaching “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”?  To every single person formally outside the Church?  Or to those who obstinately reject the Church when exposed to the Gospel?  Is it reasonable to assume that the Councils and Pontiffs were talking about the Mongol in Asia who was entirely ignorant of the Gospel, and where the Church was not?  Is this not a dogma that is, by its very *nature*, a teaching that depends on the culpability of the person?

5. Necessity of denying baptism by desire and baptism by blood

“And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, ‘Are You not the Christ?  Save Yourself and us!’  But the other answered, and rebuking him said, ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’  And he was saying, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”  And He said to him, ‘Truly I say to you , today you shall be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).

This is the case from Scripture for baptism by blood.  The good thief, who likely did not receive water baptism before his death, asked for forgiveness from Jesus and was promised eternal life.  His faith in Christ through his own blood sufficed for eternal glory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church again affirms the Tradition of the Church on this point:

“The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ.  This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” [because] “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by his sacraments.” (1258-1257)

“Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, CAN BE SAVED.  It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”  (1260)

Apparently, the rigorists choose not to accept the current Catechism teaching on the subject.

In regards to the interpretation offered on the conversion of the Good Thief, they point out that the using of the Good Thief (or the Holy Innocents) as examples of Baptism of Blood is not valid.  The rigorist position holds that they died before the foundation of the Catholic Church at Pentecost, and therefore before the sacrament of Baptism became obligatory.  Yet, this begs the questions:  does God give us more or less graces under the New Covenant?  Is it to be seriously considered that God would be so merciful before the establishment of the Church at Pentecost (which is itself arguable) with the Good Thief, but would not be so merciful with some poor slob afterwards?

6. The Rigorist train of thought

The rigorists demand that formal and explicit membership in the Church is necessary for salvation.

Question 1:  For a baptized Catholic, is it absolutely necessary for salvation to receive the Eucharist as commanded by Jesus in John 6:53?

Question 2:  If a baptized Catholic falls into mortal sin and is on the way to visit a priest to receive formal absolution but dies beforehand, will he go to hell?

If the answer to those questions is in the affirmative, then the rigorist position again contradicts Catholic teaching.

If the answer to those questions is in the negative, then it is inconsistent for the rigorists to hold to their position on formal membership since all three questions are ‘formal’ in nature.

7.    Limbo

The Council of Florence (1438 A.D.) taught that "the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin, or only in Original Sin, immediately descend into Hell". This is also the explicit teaching of the Council of Lyons II (1274 A.D.).  These are the claims that the Rigorists put forward to support their position.  This is the teaching of the Council, but it is not a universal condemnation of people who are not formally part of the Church.  This is clarified later at the Council of Trent (1564 A.D.):  “In which words is given a brief description of the justification of the sinner, as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. This translation however cannot, since promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration OR ITS DESIRE, as it is written:  Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Catholic theologians distinguish between two types of punishment “poena damni”, the exclusion from the Beatific Vision of God, and “poena sensus”, the pain of the senses.  Many of the Church Fathers are of the opinion that those unbaptized infants dying in a state of original sin suffer from “poena damni” only, and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), who the rigorists cite as supporting their doctrine, actually favoured this view.  Hence, theologians have proposed that there is a special place or state for the children dying without baptism which they call ‘limbu puerorum’, ubiquitously known as ‘children’s limbo’.  Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) adopted this view against the Synod of Pistoia.

8.  Aborted babies

It follows therefore that the rigorist position does not allow salvation for aborted babies. The notion of ‘Baptism of Blood’, they claim, is itself a mere fallible and undefined speculation.  It cannot apply in this case, since aborted infants are not dying for the sake of Jesus Christ, nor the Faith, nor even for virtue.  Moreover, they are dying precisely for the lack of virtue on the part of their parents, for loss of Faith on the part of their murderers, and against the precepts of Jesus Christ; and the infants involved have no will either to accept or reject this, morally or otherwise.

Aborted babies, then, are not even allowed a chance at salvation?  This does not square with God’s justice.  Original sin keeps people from heaven - it does not necessarily condemn them to eternal damnation.  Jesus said, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:5).  He did not condemn them to hell - that was reserved for those who disbelieve (Cf. Mark 16:16), which is a act of sin not a state of sin.

Some closing thoughts…

It is a difficult path to walk:  on the one part, insisting on the Church’s divine institution and the “extrinsic” necessity of belonging to her versus rejecting the absolute intrinsic and formal necessity of belonging to the Church on the other part.   It is clear, however, that both the indifferentist position and the rigorist position pose serious problems from a moral and theological perspective.   The former finds its foundation in protestantism and modernism while the latter attempts to quash the former with theological extremism.  Neither of them witness to the truth.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
November 17, 2000