I teach some RCIA classes and was asked the following question. Why do the decrees of the Council of Florence (1438-1445) and of the Second Vatican Council, regarding salvation outside the Catholic Church, seem to be contradictory?
Florence teaches, “It firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretic and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives.” On the other hand, Vatican II teaches in summary that non-Catholic Christians as well as non-Christians can achieve salvation outside the Catholic Church. How can both these seemingly contradictory teachings be infallible?
D.D., via email
Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D:
There is no contradiction between the teaching of these two official sources. We must distinguish between the teaching of the Council of Florence, which refers to the means of salvation, and the Vatican II teaching, which refers to the scope of salvation.
First, Vatican II and the scope of salvation: Every religion, no matter how primitive or limited, has some truth of God. As Romans 1 assures us, every person has some knowledge of God. Every person can be saved if he or she responds to God as best he or she can on the basis of the best knowledge he or she has of God. Wherever any of God’s truth is to be found, it will always be present by virtue of the revealing activity of God’s Word. This is why we know that all salvation comes through Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word.
Now to the Council of Florence and the means of salvation: Jesus Christ redeemed the world through His natural body and no other. Until the end of time He will apply that redemption to individuals through His supernatural body, the Mystical Body, the Church, and through no other. Through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Blessed John Paul II taught that Jesus Christ and His universal redemption cannot be separated from His Church. In other words, the Catholic Church “has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being” (Dominus Iesus , No. 20).
The phrase used by the Council of Florence, “outside the Catholic Church,” is subject to misunderstanding. It does not mean that anyone who is not an actual member of the Catholic Church is forever lost. Rather, it means there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ as he reveals himself through His mystical body, the Catholic Church. Only the truth of Jesus Christ is redemptive. Only through His mystical body, in His own ways, does He make that truth known.
Quoting Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium
, the Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the means of salvation. The Catholic Church “‘is taken up by him [Christ] also as the instrument for the salvation of all,’ ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ by which Christ is ‘at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God’s love for men’” (No. 776).