Did Vatican II say people can be saved without hearing the Gospel? One of the things that has led people to believe that a "broader" view of how many are saved has been taught by Vatican II is a text in the Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, "Light of the Nations," henceforth abbreviated as LG), 16.

This text clearly teaches that it is possible — under certain specific circumstances — for people to possibly be saved if they haven't heard the Gospel.

"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 …"

What are the conditions? First, that their ignorance of the gospel is not their own fault. Secondly, that nevertheless, they are sincerely seeking God and desiring to know his will, and third, that they are living in conformity with the light and grace that God is giving them.

What kind of surrender to God is implied in these conditions? A footnote in the text refers to previous magisterial doctrinal clarifications that indicate that what grace moves people in this situation to is not just a vague belief in God but to a personal surrender to light and grace that God gives (supernatural faith) that leads to a conformity of one’s life to the truth revealed (supernatural charity).

When people hear that Vatican II taught that it is possible under certain very specific circumstances for people who have never heard the Gospel to be saved, they often go on to make a huge leap of logic — passing from a “possibility” to a presumed certainty, believing that for the most part people in this situation are saved. But this is a very defective understanding of the teaching of Vatican II. The last three sentences of this text are almost universally ignored even by well-known theologians who discuss this issue, and we must pay careful attention to them.

"But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom 1:21, 25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord’s command, 'preach the Gospel to every creature' (Mk 16:16) takes zealous care to foster the missions." (LG, 16)

Even though it is theoretically possible for people who have never heard the Gospel to be saved, the actual situation in which all human beings find themselves is not "neutral." We are engulfed in the strong disordered desires of original sin, personal sin, an environment and culture that lead to sin, and the continuing work of the devil to deceive and destroy. If, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 6, we are the target of hostile spiritual powers who continually direct "fiery darts" toward us to affect our thinking, emotions, and actions, what is to become of those who are not aware of this spiritual warfare and don’t have or utilize the "shield of faith" to extinguish these fiery darts? That is why the Council clearly teaches that "very often" the possibility of being saved without hearing the Gospel has not been actualized and people, for the sake of their salvation, need urgently to be called to faith, repentance, and baptism — the purpose of evangelization.

Dr. Ralph Martin is the president of Renewal Ministries, a ministry dedicated to fostering renewal and evangelization in the Catholic Church.

This is an excerpt from "The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call."