Monday, 20 May 2013

Faith, Membership in the Church, and Salvation

The dogma that there is no salvation outside the Church has been the cause of much controversy, within and without Catholic circles. There has been much debate about what it means to be a member of the Church, how it is necessary for salvation, and so forth. After the Second Vatican Council, in particular, there has been much confusion over this subject. I myself don't understand it completely well. In this post I am going to try to explain - much for the benefit of my own understanding - the Church's teachings on this subject. 

The Council of Florence teaches us the following:
[The sacrosanct Roman Church, founded by the voice of our Lord and Savior,] 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” [Matt. 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 practiced, 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.
Pope Pius IX, in Singulari quadem, teaches:
Not without sorrow we have learned that another error, no less destructive, has taken possession of some parts of the Catholic world, and has taken up its abode in the souls of many Catholics who think that one should have good hope of the eternal salvation of all those who have never lived in the true Church of Christ. Therefore, they are wont to ask very often what will be the lot and condition of those who have not submitted in any way to the Catholic faith, and, by bringing forward most vain reasons, they make a response favorable to their false opinion. Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume on the limits of the divine mercy which is infinite; far from Us, to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsel and “judgements of God” which are “a great abyss” (Ps. 35.7) and cannot be penetrated by human thought. But, as is Our Apostolic Duty, we wish your episcopal solicitude and vigilance to be aroused, so that you will strive as much as you can to drive from the mind of men that impious and equally fatal opinion, namely, that the way of eternal salvation can be found in any religion whatsoever. May you demonstrate with skill and learning in which you excel, to the people entrusted to your care that the dogmas of the Catholic faith are in no wise opposed to divine mercy and justice. For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood...
The Holy Father then goes on to speak of invincible ignorance; I will get to that later.

Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis:
As you know, Venerable Brethren, from the very beginning of Our Pontificate, We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church, solemnly declaring that after the example of the Good Shepherd We desire nothing more ardently than that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Imploring the prayers of the whole Church We wish to repeat this solemn declaration in this Encyclical Letter in which We have proclaimed the praises of the "great and glorious Body of Christ" and from a heart overflowing with love We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation.
I think that makes it pretty clear. One cannot have salvation outside the bonds of the Catholic Church. The question now is this: what does it mean to belong to the Catholic Church? Again we may look at Pope Pius XII:
Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.
Thus, we see that three things are necessary: 1) One must be baptized. 2) One must not be separated from the unity of those who profess the true faith; 3) one must not be separated from the lawful communion of the Church.

I should note here that the Church also teaches the necessity of faith for salvation. From the First Vatican Council:
Since, then, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11,6) and reach the fellowship of his sons and daughters, it follows that no one can ever achieve justification without it, neither can anyone attain eternal life unless he or she perseveres in it to the end.
And the Athanasian Creed: 
Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all, keep the Catholic faith. For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever... He, therefore, who wishes to be saved, must believe thus about the Trinity... It is also necessary for eternal salvation that he believes steadfastly in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.... This is the Catholic faith. Everyone must believe it, firmly and steadfastly; otherwise He cannot be saved. 
But there is a distinction to be made here. While the Church teaches that faith is necessary for salvation, she does not in fact teach that it, along with the other theological virtues, is necessary for membership in the Church. Rather, what is taught is that the external profession of faith is necessary for membership. This is because whether one is a member of the Church does not depend on the extent to which one lives the life of grace; and the life of grace includes the virtue of faith. St. Robert Bellarmine thus makes a distinction between what he terms the body and the soul of the Church. This distinction has to be understood correctly. The body of the Church refers to those who have been baptised, who make an external profession of faith, and who are united under the authority of the Church - i.e. those who are strictly speaking members of the Church. The soul of the Church, on the other hand, refers to those who possess sanctifying grace, the internal theological virtues, and so forth. Those who belong to both the body and the soul of the Church may be called living members of the Church, and these are most fully Catholic; while those who belong only to the body are simply members, and those who belong only to the soul are not strictly members at all, at least not in an explicit sense.

It must be understood here that the distinction between the body and soul of the Church does not split the Church into two distinct societies. In fact, the society of the Church consists only in its visible element, the body; the soul of the Church is not a distinct society. Those who belong only to the soul thus cannot be said to be "members" of the soul, since membership implies a body, a visible structure. There is no invisible Church.

So strictly speaking, we must hold that membership in the Church, i.e. being in the body of the Church, is necessary for salvation. Yet in another way, we must also hold that it is necessary to be a living member as well, i.e. to be vivified by the soul of the Church, in possessing the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The Church teaches that true interior faith is necessary for salvation, as we saw from Vatican I and the Athanasian Creed, above. This is so even if interior faith does not of itself make one a member of the Church, strictly speaking.

So it seems that there is some confusion here.

Can one be saved who has the interior virtues, particularly faith, but is not visibly united to the body of the Church? The answer to this is yes, it is possible. But this is not to say that one can be saved outside the Church. Indeed, this is only possible if one has a desire, implicit or explicit, to belong to the Church. Such a desire is sufficient to make one implicitly a member of the Church. In the end, then, there is always one means of salvation, and only one: the Catholic Church. Thus, the dogma remains completely untouched.

So to restate it: One can only have salvation by means of membership in the Church (according to which one is of the body of the Church), even if only an implicit membership, and even if only implicitly desired. And yet, this desire must be founded on true, interior virtue (according to which one is of the soul of the Church). This is made clear in the 1949 declaration from the Holy Office:
[I]t must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: "For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Heb. 11:6). The Council of Trent declares (Session VI, chap. 8): "Faith is the beginning of man's salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and attain to the fellowship of His children" 
Thus, as long as it is animated by charity and built on faith, desire can indirectly incorporate one into the Church, and direct one towards salvation. This desire may itself be either explicit or implicit.

Invincible ignorance applies when one has implicit desire for membership in the Church. It amounts to a deficient understanding of what is necessary, but a readiness of disposition and a genuine will to please God and to do whatever is necessary for salvation, even if one is ignorant of how to do so. Thus, Pope Pius IX writes, continuing from the previous quote I gave from him: "but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God."

But he goes on to explain the imprudence of investigating the limits of such ignorance:
Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains ‘we shall see God as He is’ (1 John 3.2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4.5); it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.
Essentially what this means is that although it is certainly possible for one in invincible ignorance to attain salvation, we do not have the means or authority to determine the limits of such ignorance. Only God knows perfectly enough the dispositions of the souls of those who are ignorant of the Church; thus only God can judge them well enough to make such exceptions.  We rarely have knowledge enough of the souls of people to be able to judge them.

In the meantime, then, those of us who have the enlightenment of faith can only hold fast to that which we have been taught and which we know by faith to be absolutely true, namely that the Church is the one and only means of salvation, and that there is not good hope of salvation for those who remain outside her visible bonds. Thus, we ought to pray and work to this end: that all those who are outside the Church be brought into her visible structure and be enlightened by divine grace. We have no authority to make any exceptions to this rule whatsoever, even if we know that God may do so.


  1. Hello, Maestro,

    As far as I understand it (in man-on-the-street terms), you're definately in a better place if you are a Catholic, as you have the benefit of the Sacraments, and you are part of the structure that Christ set up for the salvation of mankind. It's a real blessing to be born in the Faith, or to come to understanding that it is the truth later on and have the courage to embrace it as a convert.

    However, we are certainly in no place to harshly judge the condition of another person's soul simply because they were born and raised in another faith tradition and are following that faithfully, believing it is "the truth". I believe some non-Catholics make more use of the truth that have come to accept than we Catholics make of the fullness of the faith.

    It's not easy to just "get it" and declare the Catholic Church as the custodian of Divine teaching. I believe those who have the most to worry about are the people who do "get it", but abandon it or refuse to embrace it for personal convenience.

    At any rate, I pray for my non-Catholic brethren, that they will come to see the light. But I also pray for deceased non-Catholics, especially considering that if they are in Purgatory, I don't think any of their relatives will be praying for them! As a British history buff, the Protestant historical personages rank high in mind as souls in most need of prayers.


    1. Thanks again for commenting.

      It is true that we cannot judge the conditions of every person's soul. However, we can and must make the judgment that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. This is in fact a necessity of means, not merely of precept - it is actually and metaphysically impossible to be saved outside the Church. Now, how exactly the Church operates in each person's salvation may differ, granted. In fact I explain in the article that it is possible for one who is not visibly united to the Church to be saved by an indirect membership in the Church by desire. But this is an exceptional situation only. The normal means of salvation requires a visible unity with the Church. So neither then can we very easily judge who falls into such an exceptional category - perhaps there are cases where such a judgment would be legitimate, but we can't turn such exceptions into the rule. Normally, we must assume that explicit membership in the Church is necessary for salvation.

      So whenever a person is saved, it is by some form of membership in the Church. This we cannot deny. But because membership in the Church can be implicit or explicit, and brought about by a desire which itself is implicit or explicit, we can entertain the possibility of salvation for those who are not explicitly members of the Church; but again, this would be merely exceptional and not normal.

      So there are a lot of distinctions that have to be made there. But the bottom line is that there is no salvation for those who are not members of the Catholic Church in some way.

      And by all means, do pray for those who are not visibly united to the Church! Just also be aware that without membership, there is not good hope for their salvation. As harsh as that may sound, it is the immutable teaching of the Church, and it must absolutely be upheld.