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Salvation Outside the Church

by John Pacheco

Arguments against the Rigorist Position

1. Limitations of the Church

Jesus Christ established the Catholic Church. Although she is the visible means instituted by Jesus to pass on divine revelation, the Church is, however, neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. The Church's infallibility and indefectibility, however, are not compromised by denying these missing qualities.

The limitations of the Church are legion not because of Christ but because of her imperfect children, and precisely because the Church does have limitations, the rigorist position is untenable. Some of her limitations are:

i) The Church has had geographic limitations. She has not been visibly present in every age in every part of the world since her institution. Hence, those who need to hear a preacher do not have one, and therefore are not culpable for their ignorance.
ii) Individual members of the church can inadvertently err, thereby leading inquirers to believe in something the Church does not teach. Misunderstanding has turned away many people from the Church.
iii) Individual members can be uncharitable when preaching the Gospel, turning potential coverts away from the faith.
iv) Dupes can mislead eager converts. Communist infiltrators were renowned for doing this, and Dr. Scott Hahn recounted his experience with a modernist priest in his conversion story "Rome Sweet Home".
v) Through bad example, Catholics can fail to effectively witness to the faith. If the 'proof is not in the pudding', as they say, then it unlikely that a potential convert will be roused to consider the truths of the Catholic Church.
vi) Non-Catholics' upbringing obviously has a profound effect on their perception of the Church. A strong aversion to Catholicism, whether in another religious tradition or even cultural, familial or social influences, certainly makes conversion extremely difficult if not next to impossible.

But, say the Rigorists, Divine Providence will furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided there is no hindrance on the person's part. Thus, if someone is raised in another religious tradition or lives in a country that is not open to the Church and if the person uses natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration or through the means of an angel what has to be believed.

This reasoning, however, is fanciful at best. Effectively, the Feeneyites are saying that there are no *truly* misinformed or ignorant non-Catholics since, for them, God would reveal to them what has to be believed by supernatural means. Is this realistic? Is it to be believed that all sincere Protestants who die outside the Church, not having been exposed to the beauty of the Catholic Faith, have turned down God's explicit supernatural revelation?

2. Problem with Mortal Sin

The most difficult problem with the rigorist position is their "de facto" denial of one of the central doctrines of the faith: mortal sin. Catholic theology holds that in order for someone to lose their salvation they must have committed a mortal sin.

The commission of a mortal sin has essentially three criteria:

i) The sin must be serious.
ii) The sin must be committed freely, with the person's consent.
iii) The sin must be known to be a serious sin.

The commission of mortal sin, therefore, requires the individual to *know* it is a sin. Hence, if a non-Catholic does not *know* it is a serious sin to remain outside of the Catholic Church, then he cannot be guilty of a mortal sin, and therefore, he cannot be unequivocably condemned for being outside of the True Church of Jesus Christ. So, if the Rigorists deny any possibility of salvation to non-Catholics, then they must logically deny a central part of Catholic theology.

St. Thomas Aquinas explained it like this: "Now it is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to a man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called invincible, because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about things one is bound to know."

A word of sober consideration, though: it is dangerous for a Protestant, for instance, to understand that this arrangement is flexible. For, as long as he is not convicted of the truth of the Catholic faith, he may think that all will be well. However, this is not the Catholic teaching on this subject. What is being discussed here is a theoretical and theological possibility only. The Protestant, or any other non-Catholic, will be judged on their culpability for not accepting the true faith. Obviously, he will be held to a standard consumerate with the opportunities that are presented to him, and the access he had to the Church's teachings. It is not a light matter - in fact, it is a most undesirable position to be in - especially for those in more affluent western countries. And it must be remembered that sloth nullifies pleading ignorant before the Holy Court of Justice.

Now, the rigorists may deny that they are not rejecting the concept of mortal sin in Catholic theology. In order to address the requirement for *knowledge* of the mortal sin, they will repeat their oft mentioned argument: "God will either reveal to him through internal inspiration or through the means of an angel what has to be believed." Yet, this rationale simply will not hold. Under this scenario, why wouldn't God use such means with *everyone*, and not just those formally outside of the Church? Why wouldn't God just simply whisper the complete truth in everybody's ears? Why, for that matter, is ignorance a possibility at all - why wouldn't God 'clear things up' so there would be no question in regards to the seriousness of a sin?

The answer to that question can be found in Sacred Scripture - He instituted His Church to do preach the Gospel and assist people in recognizing mortal sin. And, as discussed above, not all people outside the Church have always been able to hear the true Gospel in all places at all times.

3. Historical Context

There is also the question of the historical context of the dogma. To whom were the Councils and Popes directing the teaching "extra ecclesiam nulla salus"? To every single person formally outside the Church? Or to those who obstinately reject the Church when exposed to the Gospel? Is it reasonable to assume that the Councils and Pontiffs were talking about the Mongol in Asia who was entirely ignorant of the Gospel, and where the Church was not? Is this not a dogma that is, by its very *nature*, a teaching that depends on the culpability of the person?

4. Necessity of denying baptism by desire and baptism by blood

"And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, 'Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!' But the other answered, and rebuking him said, 'Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he was saying, 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!" And He said to him, 'Truly I say to you , today you shall be with Me in Paradise'" (Luke 23:39-43).

This is the case from Scripture for baptism by blood. The good thief, who likely did not receive water baptism before his death, asked for forgiveness from Jesus and was promised eternal life. His faith in Christ through his own blood sufficed for eternal glory.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church again affirms the Tradition of the Church on this point:

"The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament" [because] "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He Himself is not bound by his sacraments." (1258-1257)

"Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, CAN BE SAVED. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity." (1260)

Apparently, the rigorists choose not to accept the current Catechism teaching on the subject.

In regards to the interpretation offered on the conversion of the Good Thief, they point out that the using of the Good Thief (or the Holy Innocents) as examples of Baptism of Blood is not valid. The rigorist position holds that they died before the foundation of the Catholic Church at Pentecost, and therefore before the sacrament of Baptism became obligatory. Yet, this begs the questions: does God give us more or less graces under the New Covenant? Is it to be seriously considered that God would be so merciful before the establishment of the Church at Pentecost (which is itself arguable) with the Good Thief, but would not be so merciful with some poor slob afterwards?

5. The Rigorist Train of Thought

The rigorists demand that formal and explicit membership in the Church is necessary for salvation.

Question 1: For a baptized Catholic, is it absolutely necessary for salvation to receive the Eucharist as commanded by Jesus in John 6:53?

Question 2: If a baptized Catholic falls into mortal sin and is on the way to visit a priest to receive formal absolution but dies beforehand, will he go to hell?

If the answer to those questions is in the affirmative, then the rigorist position again contradicts Catholic teaching.

If the answer to those questions is in the negative, then it is inconsistent for the rigorists to hold to their position on formal membership since all three questions are 'formal' in nature.

6. Limbo

The Council of Florence (1438 A.D.) taught that "the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin, or only in Original Sin, immediately descend into Hell". This is also the explicit teaching of the Council of Lyons II (1274 A.D.). These are the claims that the Rigorists put forward to support their position. This is the teaching of the Council, but it is not a universal condemnation of people who are not formally part of the Church. This is clarified later at the Council of Trent (1564 A.D.): "In which words is given a brief description of the justification of the sinner, as being a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. This translation however cannot, since promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration OR ITS DESIRE, as it is written: Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."

Catholic theologians distinguish between two types of punishment "poena damni", the exclusion from the Beatific Vision of God, and "poena sensus", the pain of the senses. Many of the Church Fathers are of the opinion that those unbaptized infants dying in a state of original sin suffer from "poena damni" only, and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), who the rigorists cite as supporting their doctrine, actually favoured this view. Hence, theologians have proposed that there is a special place or state for the children dying without baptism which they call 'limbu puerorum', ubiquitously known as 'children's limbo'. Pope Pius VI (1775-1799) adopted this view against the Synod of Pistoia.

7. Aborted Babies

It follows therefore that the rigorist position does not allow salvation for aborted babies. The notion of 'Baptism of Blood', they claim, is itself a mere fallible and undefined speculation. It cannot apply in this case, since aborted infants are not dying for the sake of Jesus Christ, nor the Faith, nor even for virtue. Moreover, they are dying precisely for the lack of virtue on the part of their parents, for loss of Faith on the part of their murderers, and against the precepts of Jesus Christ; and the infants involved have no will either to accept or reject this, morally or otherwise.

Aborted babies, then, are not even allowed a chance at salvation? This does not square with God's justice. Original sin keeps people from heaven - it does not necessarily condemn them to eternal damnation. Jesus said, "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (Jn 3:5). He did not condemn them to hell - that was reserved for those who disbelieve (Cf. Mark 16:16), which is a act of sin not a state of sin.

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