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Who Can Be Saved?
Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus...Well, Maybe Not
The foundation of the Catholic Church, instituted at the Last Supper and yoked to the gathering of the people of God, is also intimately tied to the Kingdom of God. It is through the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; and through the Church’s own initiation after the descent of the Holy Spirit that we, through baptism, become part of a new creation (Gal. 6:15). This means — and this is a critical issue in articulating the relationship of the Kingdom of God to the Church — that the eschaton had already commenced almost two thousand years ago! As we read in Acts 1:11: “Why are you men from Galilee standing here looking into the sky? Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, this same Jesus will come back in the same way as you have seen him go there.” In other words, through being baptized into the Church we are not simply children of God waiting around for the parousia while staring up at the sky and looking at our Apple watches. Rather, the Kingdom of God, through Christ, is already with us!
Walter Cardinal Kasper has cogently discussed this very central issue:
The kingdom of God is a person, Jesus Christ himself. In him the kingdom of God has already appeared. The eschatological message of Jesus and the New Testament is therefore a novelty. The eschaton has already occurred in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus...God ’s kingdom, which has already begun, is justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14.17).
Which brings us to a very important question as we in the Catholic faith approach Pentecost in the year of the Lord, 2022: can those who are not members of the Church, those who are not baptized into the life and death of Christ, be saved?
This question can become a complicated one to answer given the various source materials relied upon to reach definitive conclusions as to whether or not people can be saved who are not baptized members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Let me begin answering this important question on salvation by stating from the outset that it is a basic truth that the Catholic Church is the instrument on earth, both in place and in time, which serves as the fulcrum of the ongoing fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth and the salvation of humanity. But a true and full answer to the question posed above demands a more complete exposition of the relationship of Christ’s Church to all people in all nations of the earth, including those who remain outside of the Church.
It has been oft-repeated through the centuries that the answer to this question “who can be saved?” is simply “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.” In other words, outside of the Church there is no salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church adds more subtlety to this issue, however:
How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (No. 846)...This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church (No. 847).
These passages from the Catechism tend to support the conclusion that there is no salvation outside of the Church excepting those who are ignorant of the Church through no fault of their own. Retaining the fundamental conviction of the necessity of baptism for salvation, can the above be qualified without admitting the possibility of universal salvation or that of “mass of perdition” (massa damnata)? Since we started with Cardinal Kasper’s approach to this important topic, let us continue our analysis in this domain.
Kasper concludes that the New Testament itself does not explicitly state that there is no salvation outside of the Church. He acknowledges that there are several New Testament references typing salvation specifically to Christ and to baptism. For example, that salvation can be found under any other name than Jesus (Acts 4:12); that Jesus is the mediator of salvation (1 Tim. 2:4-7); and that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). This direct appeal to the necessity in Christ for salvation is seen most notably in Mark 16:16, which explicitly condemns those not baptized; and in John 3:3-5 where Jesus states that those not reborn of water and spirit will not be able to enter the Kingdom of God. This is Scripture, but do these texts mean what they appear to suggest in such an explicit manner?
Further, it can be said that the theology of the Church Fathers, most specifically the Ark of Noah, could be seen metaphorically as the saving Church, but that “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” was not mentioned specifically until the Joshua homilies by Origen and by Cyprian of Carthage. Although in this context, the homilies appear to have been more targeted towards the already baptized who had thoughts of leaving the Church.
Saint Augustine later wrote about a type of double predestination whether as leading to salvation or damnation; which expanded over the years, for example when Pope Boniface VIII had it apply to those not properly loyal to his holy office. By 1442 with the council of Florence this maxim of no salvation outside of the Church was essentially affirmed. Thereafter the tide changed significantly in the possibility of salvation outside of the Church. This shift came about in some measure by appealing to earlier Fathers and Doctors of the Church, such as Saint Ambrose of Milan and Saint Thomas Aquinas, also adopted by the Council of Trent and Saint Robert Bellarmine. This change focused on membership in the Church through a participation in the Church by desire, which was later incorporated into the encyclical Mystici Corpori s in 1943 by Pope Pius XII, invoking unconscious processes and desires.
The advent of the Second Vatican Council made this shift in emphasis clear, although dispatching with the psychology of the unconscious:
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. Nor does Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.
In further developing this point, consider the words of Saint Irenaeus, recently proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Francis, who famously stated that “the Glory of God is man fully alive.” The force of these words appear to rest upon the activities of human beings, not God. This quotation, however, does not stop there. The second part of Saint Irenaeus’s words continue: “but man fully alive is man when he sees God.”
What Saint Irenaeus is really telling us in this patristic passage taken as a whole is that communion with God is not only important but necessary to the perfection of human life. In other words, the natural end of human perfection is attaining the visio beatifica, the beatific Vision of God. And there are many paths that can be taken in achieving this ultimate goal of our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reinforces this centrality: “God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (No. 294). But is the path to God reserved only for those who are within the Church?
The most theologically complete answer to the question as to whether people can be saved who are not members of the Church is not dependent on the formal aspects of baptism and participation as a Catholic in the Church. Rather the answer to “who can be saved?” is focused on acknowledging and rejoicing in the possibility of salvation for all those who are moved by grace to walk with a perfect heart before God in the spirit of charity. It is for those so moved God draws to himself. Therein my sisters and brothers lies the promise of salvation.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed., Our Sunday Visitor, 2000.
Catholic Church. Lumen Gentium, 16; cf. GS 22. Accessed 27 May, 2022 from https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.
Irenaeus, Saint. Adv. Haer. 4.20.7, translated by Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons, 1996.
Kasper, Walter. The Catholic Church. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.