Can Non-Catholics be Saved? (Part I)

I have been writing about the Catholic Church, following the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, as a sort sacrament of intimate union with God and the unity of the whole human race. That led to considerations of the inseparability of the ‘institutional Church’ with all its human defects, from the divine reality of the mystical Body of Christ. It also led during the past two weeks to a consideration of ecumenism (the movement for unity among all Christians).

I concluded by observing “the true Catholic stance towards ecumenism does not involve finding some new unity that transcends the existing Christian communities, a sort of federation of churches of which the Catholic Church would merely be a part. Rather the Catholic stance means entering into relationship with our separated brethren, maintaining our own Catholic faith, being willing to listen and learn as well as talk and share, while allowing the Holy Spirit to bring about ‘full communion’ in ways hitherto unimagined.”

Unfortunately, this open and honest approach to ecumenism has been rather rare, while the dangers of a false ecumenism (indifferentism and relativism) against which Pope Pius XI warned have abounded. It would seem the majority opinion now in this country, including Catholics, is that we all worship the same God so it does not matter what religion your practice, just so long as you are decent human being. That is religious relativism and it breeds indifference: If that is the case, then why bother?

I recently came upon an anecdote about how a Muslim Imam and a Protestant Evangelical Pastor met and started talking. Very quickly the Imam interrupted the discussion and asked the Pastor, “Do you think I’m going to hell.” The Pastor replied, “That is our teaching.” The Imam responded, “Good. And I think you are going to hell. Now we can have an honest discussion.” Actually, if pushed, both the Pastor and the Imam would condition their statements with ‘unless you convert’. In any case, true dialog requires honest discussion and honest discussion is impossible when our primary concern is not to give offense.

Now what is the proper Catholic answer to the Imam’s question? The simple formula, dating back at least to the 3rd century is that “there is no salvation outside the Church”. Few people realize that the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed this teaching, setting it in proper context and giving a proper interpretation. The Council taught:

“Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, [this Sacred Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. 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.” (Lumen Gentium 14, emphasis added)

There are four steps here in this expansion and explanation of the ancient formula. First, Jesus Christ, himself, the Son of God made man, is the unique mediator and way of salvation. There is no salvation except by being united to Christ. Second, Christ himself declared the need for both faith and baptism: He who believes [in the Gospel] and is baptized will be saved. (Mk 16:16) Third, baptism gives entrance to the Church, so the need for the Church goes hand in hand with the need for baptism. No one baptizes himself. Fourth, there is a qualification: no one is lost except by his own fault. Hence the conclusion: “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.”

This last step in the explanation is also rooted in the same passage of St. Mark’s Gospel: Whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mk 16:16) ‘Not believing’ here does not simply mean failing to believe because it never entered into a person’s mind to believe, but an actual refusal to believe.

Careful attention to the words of Christ, then, means that we know one way to be saved, through Christ and his Church. Nevertheless, we are also left with a question mark regarding those who do not walk with Christ in his Church, but do not knowingly reject that path either. If they are saved, they will be saved through Christ, but Jesus does not actually answer that question for us; he does not tell us how that will be.

Jesus did not actually make everything known to us; he does not satisfy our curiosity. For that reason we need to be careful not to read more into his words than he actually puts there. That means that while giving thanks for the light and knowledge he gives to our faith, we must also humbly acknowledge the darkness of our ignorance that remains. (To be continued)











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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