The Church's role in salvation

Question: I was raised to believe the statement that outside the Church there is no salvation. Does the Church still hold this view? 

— Ruth M. Gillum, Columbia, Mo.

Answer: The Church still holds to this statement — but in a more positive and inclusive sense than is often understood. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium), stated this truth in its fullest theological sense as follows: “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it” (No. 14). 

This statement is not aimed at people who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ or his Church, or who remain outside the Church because they feel no inner compulsion to join it. This point is made in Lumen Gentium : “Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (No. 16). 

The deeper meaning of the statement that outside the Church there is no salvation may be formulated as follows: outside of Christ there is no salvation. Salvation is not something that Christ gives as a reward; salvation is Christ. To be saved means to be incorporated into Christ, to be in Christ, to achieve complete union with him. There is no other end for which the human person is created than to be in Christ. To be in Christ is the fullest achievement of human identity. We are made to be one with Christ. Otherwise our deepest identity is not realized. 

If there is no salvation outside Christ, how do non-Christians encounter Christ? I think this is where purgatory comes in. Purgatory is not a divine concentration camp where we spend punitive time before we go to heaven. Purgatory is the “place” of encounter between one who has died and Christ the savior. Purgatory is the process by which we are conformed to Christ and become one with him (a process completed by entry into heaven). 

The non-Christian who has never had explicit faith or been baptized encounters Christ at the moment of death and, if he or she is a person of good will, welcomes Christ’s embrace and enters into communion with him. 

Does this mean that all non-Christians go to purgatory if they have sought to live virtuously? I suggest that they do. (Indeed, I think, most Christians do, too). Purgatory is much played down today; but it is in fact a most liberating doctrine, and it makes perfect sense if we are not to consign the vast majority of humanity to hell. 

That outside the Church there is no salvation is not a doctrine that should give rise to Catholic triumphalism. In fact, it challenges the Church to be an institution that makes Christ visible in the world through the compelling and attractive quality of Christian life. 

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 Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.