Leaving the Church

Question: If a baptized Catholic turns away from the Catholic faith to become a Protestant, will he or she be denied salvation? 

— Vernon Edwards, Nelsonville, Ohio 

Answer: At the level of objective principle, leaving the Catholic Church is always a most serious matter. While the Second Vatican Council recognized Christian authenticity to one degree or another in other Christian churches and communities, it asserted that the Catholic Church is the central instrument of God’s saving work in the world and contains the fullness of the means of salvation. To leave the Church is to depart from that community in which God in Christ is uniquely active and to abandon the rich divinely-inspired heritage of grace and salvation that comes from the apostles. 

Will a person who leaves the Church be denied salvation? The answer depends a great deal on the outlook of the person involved and on how he or she understands departure from the Church. People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Some simply slip away over time and no longer practice their faith. Others depart because they were hurt by a minister of the Church. Still others leave because they have lost faith in the Church. (There are many Catholics who no longer practice their faith — or have joined another church — because of the sex abuse scandals of recent decades.) 

Certainly those who leave the Church because they have given up on trying to live the Gospel and whose lives have taken a long turn toward selfishness, moral carelessness, and a failure to deal justly and charitably with their fellow men and women — such people will have a lot to answer for on the Day of Judgment. 

However, those who leave the Catholic Church for what they think are good motives (the failure of clergy to preach the Gospel well, malfeasance in the Church or because they are sincerely convinced that they can be better Christians in another denomination) will not be denied salvation. The God of ultimate wisdom, understanding and mercy does not abandon his children no matter how much they have strayed, if they are in good conscience and are sincere in their search for truth and virtuous living. Salvation, as Vatican II and the constant tradition of the Church held, is not found only within the confines of the Catholic Church; therefore former Catholics who find themselves in other Christian denominations can hope to reach eternal salvation. 

Attitudes among faithful Catholics (clergy and people) to former Catholics range all the way from condemnation to indifference. The authentic attitude is that of Christ: seeking out the lost sheep; awaiting the return of the prodigal son; having mercy on the departing rich young man. The wise Catholic priest or layperson who comes across a former Catholic should take every opportunity to reach across whatever alienation is found and to seek to rebuild a connection to the Church for the one who has departed. 

As I said at the outset, departure from the Catholic Church is an objectively serious matter. But one has to be careful in making judgments about the states of soul of those who have left and joined another church — or simply drifted away to non-practice of the faith. Following the way of Jesus, we should first examine the beam in our own eye first before judging others. Only God can be the final judge in the matter of the eternal salvation of a fellow human being. 

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.