Question: I hear the Catholic Church teaches there is no salvation outside the Church. This would seem to condemn most to hell. Or am I missing something?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: It is in fact a doctrine of the Church often repeated by the Fathers of the Church and taught formally. However, it must be understood properly.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say by way of explanation:
“‘Outside the Church there is no Salvation.’ ... Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church ... 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 either to enter it or to remain in it. This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church” (CCC, Nos. 846-847).
This much is sure: Whoever is in heaven was saved by Jesus Christ in and through his Body the Church. But, as we know, there are many barriers to people fully understanding that the Church is the sole and necessary means for salvation, and thus, simply being outside the Church usually does not alone bring condemnation.
God can and, it would seem, does draw others unto himself in ways not always known to us. All of this can console us and bring an understanding that the teaching “outside the Church there is no salvation” is not understood absolutely.
But this consolation must not be the source of letting our missionary zeal wane. While it is possible to be saved beyond the Church, sacraments and explicit faith in Christ, it is much more difficult. Consider the following teaching from the Second Vatican Council:
“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 helps 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. ... But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator (cf. Rom 1:21, 25). Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mk 16:16), the Church fosters the missions with care and attention” (Lumen Gentium, No. 16).
And therefore, we see that people often are deceived or let themselves be deceived. So, the fact that people can be saved apart from the Church is not a blank check or presumption that they likely will be saved. It must always be our earnest work to evangelize, for many “prefer the darkness” (see Jn 3:19).
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.