Can Non-Catholics Be Saved? (Part II)

Last week, I broached the subject of the necessity of the Catholic Church for eternal salvation. The key passage is perhaps found in Mark’s Gospel where after the resurrection Jesus tells his disciples, Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be save; whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mk 16:15-16)

The Second Vatican Council interpreted this passage by affirming: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” (LG 14)

For my part, I pointed out that a careful reading of Jesus’ words shows that while on the one hand baptism, and therefore the Church is necessary for salvation, only those are condemned who positively refuse to believe in the Gospel. This leaves us with an area of ignorance, we could say, in the middle.

The Second Vatican Council, in another place, addresses this ‘ignorance’ in a general way: “Since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” (Gaudium et Spes 22, emphasis added) The paschal mystery is the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. A person can only be save by being ‘associated’ in some way with that mystery.

Still, faith and baptism, by themselves, are not enough. No Catholic even is guaranteed salvation. Again the Second Vatican Council addresses this matter: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” (Lumen Gentium 14) Faith, baptism, and a life of supernatural charity, lived to the end of a person’s life are the known requirements for salvation.

In any case, since it is theoretically possible for a non-Catholic to attain salvation and even for someone who is not baptized, some one who lives in innocent ignorance, to be saved, should we be optimistic in their regard?

Such optimism regarding salvation has been the general attitude since the Second Vatican Council. That optimism has also contributed to or resulted from the general climate of relativism and indifference.

The spirit of optimism has also undercut the Church’s missionary spirit. If you read the literature of Catholic missionary organizations today you will often find very little discussion of leading others to Christ and his Church by way of evangelization. Indeed, there is a widespread spirit of ‘repentance’ for errors of the past in ‘imposing’ the Catholic religion on other peoples, like the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Now missionary literature seems to focus on serving Christ in the poor and appreciating the religious and spiritual values of other peoples.

Is this optimism regarding salvation justified?

Consider these words of St. Peter: It is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, how will it end for those who fail to obey the Gospel? ‘And if the righteous one is barely saved, where will the godless and the sinner appear?’ (1 Pe 4:17-18)

The truth is we know only one way of salvation: that way passes through Christ, in his Body the Church, by means of a life of grace and charity, sustained by the visible sacraments.

Can others be saved? Yes. When someone dies who has committed grave, public sins, or who dies without being in full communion with the Catholic Church, we have reason for hope, we can pray for their souls, but hope is not the same as optimism.

But by what right can we be confident of their salvation? Because they are good people? Because they are filled with faith? Because they are loving? Yet, we are judging only by appearances, while God looks upon the heart. (cf. 1 Sam 16:7)

Because a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell? That is again a merely human way of thinking that has no basis in the words of Scripture, much less the words of Jesus Christ.

The visible sacrament, however, gives us something to go by. Jesus Christ promised to bestow his grace and the Holy Spirit through the sacrament of baptism. (cf. Jn 3:5) Jesus Christ gave the power to forgive sins to his Church. (cf. Jn 20:22-23) Jesus Christ promised eternal life to those who feed upon the visible sacrament of his Body and Blood. (cf. Jn 6:54) Jesus Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church, built on the visible rock of Peter. (cf. Mt 16:18)

Are we being honest and fair to others if we leave them with any sort of confidence that they can be saved without this visible means given us by Jesus Christ himself?

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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