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Salvation Outside the Church

by John Pacheco

The Definition and the Understanding

It is a defined article of faith that membership in the Church is necessary for all men for salvation. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.) declared: "One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful outside which no one at all is saved..." This was also the teaching of a number of other Ecumenical Councils including the Council of Florence (1438 A.D.), the First Vatican Council (1870 A.D.), and the Second Vatican Council (1963 A.D.). Added to the solemn definitions and confirmations of the Councils, the Holy Pontiffs have also been unanimous in their defense of the dogma including Pope Innocent III, Clement VI, Benedict XIV, Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius XII. The dogma was forcefully repeated by Boniface VIII in the Bull 'Unam Sanctum' (1302 A.D.): "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

Pope Eugene IV and the aforementioned Council of Florence declared that the Church "firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart 'into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels' (Cf. Matthew 25:41), unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practised, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."

Many of the Fathers also affirmed this teaching, including St. Cyril (d. 386 A.D.), St. Ambrose (d. 397 A.D.), St. Jerome (d. 420 A.D.), St. Augustine (d. 430 A.D.), St. Fulgentius (d. 533 A.D.), St. Bede (d. 535 A.D.), St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274 A.D.), St. Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621 A.D.).

The earliest Christian writings also affirm the constant teaching:

The Church "is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them... We hear it declared of the unbelieving and the blinded of this world that they shall not inherit the world of life which is to come... Resist them in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons." (Saint Irenaeus [d. 202 A.D.], Against Heresies, Book III).

"Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved." (Origen [d. 254 A.D.], Homilies on Josue 3:5)

"He who has turned his back on the Church of Christ shall not come to the rewards of Christ; he is an alien, a worldling, an enemy. You cannot have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother. Our Lord warns us when He says: he that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.' Whosoever breaks the peace and harmony of Christ acts against Christ; whoever gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ." (Saint Cyprian [d. 258 A.D.], Unity of the Catholic Church).

Those who hold to the strict interpretation cite these and other sources for their views, but they cite them selectively - neither offering the historical context of the definition, nor elaborating on the object to whom the teaching was directed. In fact, even the citings that are provided by the rigorists cannot be held as conclusive proof for their interpretation simply because many of the Fathers they cite did not, in fact, hold to the rigorist view. For instance, St. Ambrose (De obit Val. 51) and St. Augustine (De bapt. IV 22,29) both held that catechumens who die before baptism can receive salvation on the basis of their faith and their desire for baptism. St. Thomas Aquinas also concedes the possibility of salvation occurring extra-sacramentally (S. Th. III 68,2).

Similarly, two Popes who are cited above in support of the rigorist position did not hold this view at all. Pius IX did not understood the article in the strict sense. His belief in the article was directed at modern religious indifferentism rather than to a universal, exclusive position: "By Faith it is to be firmly held that outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation. This is the only ark of salvation. He who does not enter into it will perish in the flood. Nevertheless, equally certainly it is to be held that those who suffer from invincible ignorance of the true religion, are not this reason guilty in the eyes of the Lord. Now, then, who could presume in himself an ability to set the boundaries of such ignorance, taking into consideration the natural differences of peoples, land, native talents, and so many other factors" (Singulari Quidem, 1863 A.D.). Hence, Pius IX distinguished between those who have knowledge of the Church and Her divine foundation, and those who have no such knowledge due to a number of mitigating circumstances.

Pius XII, who affirmed the doctrine in his Encyclicals 'Mystici Corporis (1943 A.D.)' and 'Humani Generis' (1950), also qualified its meaning in attempting to silence Father Leonard Feeney, S.J., an American Jesuit at Boston College and the 'father' of the rigorist movement (whose proponents, whether rightly or wrongly, are now referred to as the 'Feeneyites'). Father Feeney was expelled from his order and then excommunicated in the 1940's for holding and pushing the rigorist view as official Catholic teaching. (He was later reconciled to the Church.) "In the aftermath of the controversy, the Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, received a letter of clarification from the Holy Office. This letter, dated August 8, 1949, is important for its explanation of the necessity of the Church: she is necessary for salvation by divine command, not by intrinsic necessity. The Church, as Christ's mystical body, is the sole ark of salvation, but direct membership in her through the sacraments is only the ordinary means of salvation. In other words, knowledge of the Church and of her Founder is required of anyone for whom is to be considered necessary for salvation." (Catholic Encyclopedia, p.862, Reverend Peter Stravinskas, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1991)

The Second Vatican Council also affirmed the qualified teaching in the *Dogmatic* Constitution on the Church: "Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved" (Lumen Gentium, 14). Nevertheless, "those also can attain to everlasting 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" (Lumen Gentium, 16).

Even the early Church Fathers such as Justin Martyr (First Apology, 46) and Origen (Against Celsus 4:7) did not hold to the strict view. And even those who first appear to hold to such a strict interpretation may not have.

"Let them not think that the way of life or salvation exists for them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since the Lord says in the book of Deuteronomy: 'And any man who has the insolence to refuse to listen to the priest or judge, whoever he may be in those days, that man shall die.' (Deut. 17:12-13) And then, indeed, they were killed with the sword'but now the proud and insolent are killed with the sword of the Spirit, WHEN THEY ARE CAST OUT FROM THE CHURCH. For they cannot live outside, since there is only one house of God, and there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church." [St. Cyprian, Letters, 61(4):4].

The heretics of Cyprian's day were not the twentieth generation of Lutheranism that exists today - they were perhaps 1 or 2 generations cut off from the Catholic Church. Indeed, that fact is an enormous difference - one group has likely been exposed to the Truth; the other likely has not. As well, the phrase he uses should also be appreciated, "if they have refused to obey the bishops". A twentieth generation Lutheran, probably does not know the necessity of obeying a Catholic bishop to be saved.

The belief of the Church, therefore, is this: there is no other *objective* means of salvation for any one other than through the Catholic Church. No other religion or quasi-Christian Church is pleasing to God since they teach contrary (at least in part) to the Catholic Church who alone is the ark of salvation and pillar of truth (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:15).

This truth is not well received by the Modernists since, for them, the Catholic Church is not the sole instrument used by God for salvation. Of course, this belief is idiotic at best, and demonic at worst for a multitude of reasons. Notwithstanding that the Church is the only *objective* means for salvation, it need not be the only exceptionless, subjective means of salvation. For instance, if a person belongs to another religion or even another Christian Church, that person will not be saved *because* of their religion but *despite* it, insofar as it departs from the truth revealed through and by the Church. Indeed, it should be stressed, lest indifferentism raises its ugly head once again, that the possibility of someone being saved outside the Church is simply that - a possibility. It does not mean 'probability' or even a 'good possibility', but only a possibility - perhaps even only a remote one. It goes without saying that there is no salvation outside of the Church for any properly catechized Catholic: "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins but a certain terrifying expectation of judgement and the fury of fire which will consume the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).

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