Return to Theological Thoughts.

Salvation Outside the Catholic Church


This paper has been written in response to an article by an author who self-identifies as an orthodox and traditionalist Catholic.

The Official Teaching of the Church before 1963

Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church? This is an embarrassing and controversial question. It is beyond all dispute that it used to be believed and taught (by many saints, theologians and Popes) that the Roman Communion was identical with the Mystical Body of Christ and that no one who did not explicitly owe allegiance to the Roman Pontiff could be saved:
"This has always been the teaching of the Church: no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church, or without holding the Catholic Faith or without submission to the Pope. There is no salvation for those that die as pagans, Jews, heretics or schismatics: not for protestants and not for the eastern 'orthodox'; not for any one but Catholics. I shall provide some documentation that this teaching, that only those that die as Catholics can be saved, has always been (and always will be) the true teaching of the Church."

"Many other passages could be quoted to the same import. It has always been the teaching of the Church that only those that die as Catholics, with the Catholic Faith and who are subject to the Pope, can be saved, with absolutely no exceptions. This was taught by the Lord, was the teaching of the fathers, and has been the teaching of the popes, doctors and saints through the ages. Indeed the Church has infallibly defined it three times. As such, it is, and always will be, the true teaching of the Church, however much men become confused by the heresy of Liberalism or choose to believe otherwise." [Thomas Sparks]

The documentation Mr Sparks provided was extensive and convincing. I give a much abbreviated sub-set, as a bibliography. The apparent gap between AD 604 and AD 1922 is entirely of my creation, not present in the original as supplied and is of no significance. The documentation is, however, one-sided. It is certain that the further one goes back into the historical testimony of the Fathers, the clearer is the line drawn between the orthodox and heretics. This is largely because the Fathers were writing polemic intended to dissuade people from heresy and to frighten heretics into returning to orthodoxy. Note here, that in order to understand and enter into the Tradition, it is necessary to ask "Why?" as well as "What?" Only from late Medieval times onwards has a more liberal distinction been drawn between those who are culpably (or "formally") heretical or schismatic and those who are so through overwhelming circumstances beyond their reasonable control, and are in good faith; although in "material" error. It can be argued that the later developed position is presaged in St Augustine:
"Whoever is separated from this Catholic Church, by this single sin of being separated from the unity of Christ, no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living, shall not have life, but the wrath of God rests upon him....
The apostle Paul said, ‘As for a man that is a heretic, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him’ [Titus 3:10]. But those who maintain their own opinion, however false and perverted, without obstinate ill will, especially those who have not originated the error of bold presumption, but have received it  from parents who had been led astray and had lapsed .... those who seek the truth with careful industry and are ready to be corrected when they have found it, are not to be rated among heretics" [Augustine: "Epistle 43", (A.D. 412)]
Other texts exist that complicate the uncompromising stance of Mr Sparks. In particular, that most illiberal of Popes, Pius IX taught:
"It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood. On the other hand, it must likewise be held as certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before 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, lands, native talents, and so many other factors? Only when we have been released from the bonds of this body and see God just as He is [1Jn 3:2] shall we really understand how close and beautiful a bond joins divine mercy with divine justice. But as long as we dwell on earth, encumbered with this soul-dulling, mortal body, let us tenaciously cling to the Catholic doctrine that there is one God, one faith, one baptism [Eph. 4:5]. To proceed with further inquiry is contrary to divine law.
Nevertheless, as charity demands, let us pray continually for the conversion to Christ of all nations everywhere. Let us devote ourselves to the salvation of all men as far as we can, for the hand of the Lord is not shortened [Is 59:1]. The gifts of heavenly grace will assuredly not be denied to those who sincerely want and pray for refreshment by the divine light. These truths need to be fixed deeply in the minds of the faithful so that they cannot be infected with doctrines tending to foster the religious indifferentism which We see spreading widely, with growing strength, and with destructive effect upon souls."
[Allocution: "Singulari Quadam" (December 9, 1854)]

".... the Catholic Church ..... is the temple of God, outside of which, except with the excuse of invincible ignorance, there is no hope of life or salvation."
[Leter to the Austrian Episcopate: "Singulari Quidem" (March 17, 1856)]

"We .... censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. Indeed, this is certainly quite contrary to Catholic teaching. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God Who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who persistently separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom 'the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior,' cannot obtain eternal salvation."
[Letter to the Italian Episcopate: "Quanto Conficiamur Moerore" (August 10, 1863)]
According to Thomas Aquinas:
"Unbelief has a double sense. First, it can be taken purely negatively; thus a man is called an unbeliever solely because he does not possess faith. Secondly, by way of opposition to faith; thus when a man refuses to hear of the faith or even contemns it, according to Isaiah, "Who has believed our report?" This is where the full nature of unbelief, properly speaking is found, and where the sin lies. If, however, unbelief be taken just negatively, as in those who have heard nothing about the faith, it bears the character, not of fault, but of penalty, because their ignorance of divine things is the result of the sin of our first parents. Those who are unbelievers in this sense are condemned on account of other sins, which cannot be forgiven without faith; they are not condemned for the sin of unbelief." [Summa Theologica II, II, 10,1.]
So, if an "unbeliever of the second type" (perhaps a material heretic, or a pagan to whom the Gospel has never been proclaimed) has an implicit faith, his "other sins" can be forgiven him and he will not be condemned at all. As St Thomas puts it "it pertains to Divine Providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance."

Charles Coulombe has argued that the doctrine of Invincible Ignorance arose as a heretical consequence of the Church's adoption of Aristotelian Philosophy, coupled with the discovery of The Americas in 1492 AD. Manifestly St Thomas did not require the concrete example of an unevangelised world to impress upon him the conundrum of how a just God could create rational and spiritual beings without giving them a fair opportunity to find eternal happiness. As to whether the adoption of a Platonist philosophy makes the doctrine of Invincible Ignorance un-necessary (supposedly by resulting in the conclusion that anyone who doesn't become a Catholic is manifesty of "Bad Will" and so deserves to be damned) I remain unconvinced!

According to "A Catholic Dictionary" [Scannel (1928), page 437]:

"A Protestant who thinks the Catholic religion idolatrous, and cannot reasonably be expected, considering his education, circumstances, &c., to think otherwise, is guiltless so far in the sight of God"
According to "Apologetics" [Glenn 1931]:
"Those are outside the Church, and consequently outside the way of salvation, who know the Catholic Church to be the true Church, yet do not become true and faithful members of that Church. Further, those are outside the Catholic Church who refuse to interest themselves in the quest of the true Church and will not even consider the claims of the Catholic Church to be the true Church. Those who are within the Catholic Church are all her actual members, and also those who are not her members, but sincerely believe that the church to which they belong is the true Church. The actual members of the Catholic Church constitute the body of the Church; non-Catholics who are honestly convinced that their own sect is the true Church are, provided they are in a state of grace, members of the soul of the Catholic Church."
According to, "Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma" [Ott (1955)]:
"Schismatics in good faith (material) like heretics in good faith, can by a desire to belong to the Church, belong spiritually to the Church, and through this achieve justification and salvation.
"The necessity of means is, however, not an absolute necessity .... In special circumstances, namely, in the case of invincible ignorance or of incapability, actual membership of the Church can be replaced with the desire for the same. This may not be expressly present, but can also be included in the moral readiness faithfully to fulfil the will of God. In this manner also those who are in fact outside the Catholic Church can achieve salvation."

"Pope Alexander VIII, in 1690, condemned the Jansenistic propositions that Christ died for the faithful only and that Pagans, Jews and heretics receive no grace from him. Denz 1294 et seq. cf Denz 1376 et seq."

It is generally accepted, though not defined, that "All (wo)men receive sufficient grace to be saved." This is based on St Paul's teaching that it is God's Will that all are saved [1Tim 2:4], and the incongruity of God having such an intention and not doing all within His power to achieve that end: the means available to Him in no wise being constrained by the constitution and mode of operation of the normal means of salvation, the Roman Communion of the Catholic Church. According to "Dogmatic Theology for the Laity" [Prem (1967)]:
"Christ died for all men. That is why unbelievers can also be saved .... they are outside the Catholic Church through no fault of their own. One who is not guilty is not punished. The grace of the Holy Spirit, radiating from the Church, penetrates everywhere like the light of the sun. Such people simply need to follow every dictate of their natural conscience in order to reach heaven .... Such people secretly belong to the Church; they are, as Augustine expresses it 'secret Christians' .... The same thing is true of the Protestant, for example, who considers the faith in which he grew up to be true."
Note that although the version of this text I quote was published in the late 1960's, it is an English translation of an earlier German work of uncertain date. While it refers to the World Eucharistic conference held in 1960, it knows nothing of the introduction of the reference to St Joseph in the Canon of the Mass in 1962, or the calling of the Second Vatican Council, or of the following "reform" of the liturgy. I guess the original was authored in 1961.

The books I have quoted were not selected for their Liberal or Modernistic tendencies. Quite the opposite: they are the books that I happen to have lying around. Their testimony is uniform and quite at odds with Mr Sparkes' views. Similar teaching is continued into the present day by the Bishops of the Society of St Pius Xth:

"We know that there are two other baptisms, that of desire and that of blood. These produce an invisible but real link with Christ but do not produce all of the effects which are received in the baptism of water… And the Church has always taught that you have people who will be in heaven, who are in the state of grace, who have been saved without knowing the Catholic Church. We know this. And yet, how is it possible if you cannot be saved outside the Church? It is absolutely true that they will be saved through the Catholic Church because they will be united to Christ, to the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Catholic Church. It will, however, remain invisible, because this visible link is impossible for them. Consider a Hindu in Tibet who has no knowledge of the Catholic Church. He lives according to his conscience and to the laws which God has put into his heart. He can be in the state of grace, and if he dies in this state of grace, he will go to heaven."
[Bishop Bernard Fellay in The Angelus, "A Talk Heard Round the World" (April 2006)]
In summary, before1960 the overwhelming import of the Official Teaching of the Church was that in order to escape the Flames of Eternal Damnation it was necessary to owe allegiance to the Pope of Rome, and that no-one who died without doing so had any hope of salvation. However, this was hugely mitigated among those better informed in their faith by the unfortunately styled doctrine of "invincible ignorance". Indeed, as we have seen, many texts seemed to stretch the point until the question "why bother being a Catholic, then?" would naturally arise!

On the other hand, according to Pope Pius XII:

"Some think that they are not bound by the doctrine proposed in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago [Mystici Corporis] and based on the sources of revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation." [Encyclical Letter: Humani Generis]
I am sure that Thomas Sparkes would characterize the views that I espouse as being of this character. I would defend myself by pointing out that I believe that all people should become Catholics, because the Apostolic faith is the best guide to living a happy, productive, virtuous and fulfilling life: one that will please God, and merit His friendship precisely because of its fruitful character. Moreover the sacramental system is a means of encountering God that is tailor made to address the human predicament. To specifically refuse the help offered to one by God would be an act of presumptive and reckless perversity. While ignorance may excuse, it doesn't aid in understanding or virtue. Ignorance is always a disadvantage, never something to be valued or approved of. Moreover, if ignorance ever becomes wilful, it becomes seriously sinful. To wilfully refuse allegiance to the Apostolic Tradition (which it is the constitutional role of the Pope of Rome, above all others, to defend) is necessarily to separate oneself from God's friendship.

Of course, Pius XII's doctrine (in as far as it is to be identified with that of Mr Sparkes) was quietly repudiated by "Lumen Gentium" which taught that the Sole Church of Christ only "subsisted in" the Catholic Church [LG. #8], see also the extensive and explicit teaching on the various degrees and aspects of participation in the form of the Catholic Church in [LG. #13-16].

The Official Teaching of the Church after 1963

Beyond all dispute, the official teaching of the Contemporary Church is now quite different. I shall spend little effort in this document to establish the truth of this statement. I merely refer my reader to "Unitatis Redintegratio" (the Decree of the Second Vatican Council on Ecumenism), the revocation by Paul VIth of the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the "Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration".

In today's Ecumenical atmosphere, the consensus is that the question before us shouldn't even be askable: after all what is so special about the (Roman) Catholic Church?

The "Traditionalists" and Sede-Vacantists seem to have a positive desire to hold to the doctrine that all non-Catholics are damned. Some take it as the key test of their notion of orthodoxy! For them, before all things it is necessary to believe that all those that do not agree with them in every particular are Hell bound. As Mr Sparkes claims:
"It has always been the teaching of the Church that only those that die as Catholics, with the Catholic Faith and who are subject to the Pope, can be saved, with absolutely no exceptions ..... All Catholics must believe and profess it without sentimental distortion or compromise: it is the standard of orthodoxy; to deny it or disbelieve it is heresy. Any one who refuses to believe it cannot be saved. The future return to orthodoxy for the Church entirely depends on a return to open belief in and profession of it. The denial of it in the second half of this century has been the foundation of mass apostasy from, and distortion of, the Church. Only when we humbly and courageously profess the faith our fathers died for in its integrity will the Church recover; until then we will drift further into false ecumenism and pluralistic 'inter-religious' dialogue and thus encounter more outright disbelief, mass apostasy and ecclesial distortion."

"The choice is easy: the unchanging apostolic Catholic faith in its integrity, revealed once and for all by God, or further mass apostasy and ecclesial distortion. You choose. 'Outside the Church there is no salvation' or pluralistic distortion: they cannot co-exist. Choose truth and the distortion ends. There is no other way."

I find this mentality distasteful. If it were somehow to be established that this doctrine was part of the Apostolic Faith, then I would find it an embarrassment and source of dismay; something that I would find impossible to reconcile with the God who is Love that Jesus preached and that I have come to know and trust. Of course, this opinion is not part of the Deposit of Faith: the Gospel of Salvation!

What is in fact defined?

First we must establish what has actually been defined in this area. The following solemn declarations are relevant:
  1. "One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved." 
    [Lateran Council IV, A.D. 1215]
  2. "The Holy, Roman Church .... firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will 'go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels', unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the Church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church." [Pope Eugenius IV, A.D. 1431-1447, at the Oecumenical Union Council of Florence]
  3. "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is wholly necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." [Pope Boniface VIII, A.D. 1294-1303,  "Unam Sanctam"]
The first comment to be made is that none of these "declarations" are anathematizations of specific heresies. This means that they are not obviously infallible. Ott does, for some reason, acknowledge the first as De Fide, and I am inclined to accept that the third is. Even if they are not infalible, that would't stop them being very significant, of course.

The first statement is unobjectionable. Given its simple form it is fairly clear what the implicit negative definition is:

"If any one say: 'It is possible to be saved outside the One Universal Church of the faithful' let him be anathema."
As St Thomas Aquinas teaches....
"But the unity of the Church exists primarily because of the unity of the faith; for the Church is nothing else than the aggregate of the faithful. And because without faith it is impossible to please God, for this reason there is no room for salvation outside the Church." [Expositio Primae Decretalis ad Archdiaconum Tudertinum]
However, this argument isn't entirely convincing. It relies on an Aristotelian empiricism for its force. If it is argued (from a Platonic and Scriptural perspective) that the Church is primarily the Mystical Body of Christ, then St Thomas' sylogism fails. Still, I would argue that "to be saved" is "to become a participator in Christ" and that this is identical to "being a member of the Church", so the conclusion still follows. The important point is that there is no means of coming to be God's friend except by being incorporated in Christ. There is only One Saviour, One Mediator, One Expiation: Our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second statement is equally unobjectionable, because of the phrase "unless before the end of life they have been added to the Church", because it is manifest that if someone who is in some sense "outside the Church" is to be saved they must be "added to the Church" at the moment of their death (their particular judgement), simply because "the Catholic Church" is the fellowship of the Friends of God. Moreover, the Union Council of Florence (for all of its undoubted Oecumenical authority and most charitable and evangelical character) features other positive declarations that simply cannot be taken at face value. The obvious example is its condemnation of all circumcision (not explicitly limited to ritual circumcision, as no other motivation is envisaged) as mortally sinful:

"The Holy, Roman Church .... firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law .... once our lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally. It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation."
Now it can be argued that: I would prefer to admit the statement as a legitimate expression of the Ordinary Magisterium, but one that was technically erroneous. It should be noted that in any case the statement is an accurate description of what the Roman Church did happen to believe, profess and teach! It just so happened that its doctrine was wrong in detail. The general intentionality of the Pope and Council Fathers was correct. They simply failed to conceive of the possibility that one might, as a Hebrew Catholic, celebrate and rejoice in one's Israelite heritage (as I do in my English heritage!) without claiming that it gave one some kind of advantage before God or made one a first-class Catholic, with gentiles viewed as second-class believers.

The third statement is more extravagant. It is well known that only the Church Militant is subject to the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff: the souls in purgatory are not. Now, someone who suffers from invincible ignorance is not properly a member of the Church Militant and so is not in fact subject to the Roman Pontiff. Of course, he should be. I have given an account of how the teaching of  "Unum Sanctum" can be reconciled with the notion of "invincible ignorance" elsewhere. An alternate would be that Boniface fell into error and, without any-one noticing, ceased to be Pope as he issued this Bull! However, it seems to me that Boniface could not have become a formal heretic in this matter and so I doubt this very much.

My own thoughts

At the core of the Gospel is the doctrine of the Trinity. This is at core the assertion that God is Love and that Love is God. God only properly loves HimSelves, as no thing is worthy of God's love. Love is the attraction of a subject for its proper good and God's only good is HimSelves! Nevertheless, God loves in an analogical sense the participation of the Form of the Beautiful (the Divine Nature itself) that characterizes each and every human soul: God made each (wo)man in the likeness of HimSelves. Every (wo)man, no matter how reprobate, shares in this form: and so is a child of God, and loved by God.

Nevertheless, we all - no matter how holy - fail to live up to the ideal of love, justice and beauty that is The Divine Nature which our poor lives inadequately reflect. Hence we do not "deserve" God's love in any sense. Hence we are not "naturally" - of any intrinsic right - God's friends, neither is God in any way obliged towards us in strict justice. We have nothing of intrinsic worth to offer to God. Of the nature of the case, even apart from sin, we are each at best bankrupt before God.

It is possible to dwell on this point and spend a lot of time elaborating on the undoubted fact that in "strict justice" we all "deserve" to go to Hell (which is the condition of ultimate and eternal separation from God and the degradation of human nature that cannot but result from such a plight). However, this undoubted fact really doesn't matter one jot: unless we let it matter, from our own conceit (which was the error of Satan). For God does not in fact require from us any benefit before offering us His friendship. He chooses - from no external necessity (The Apostle Paul says graciously) - to reach out and affirm and encourage eaach and every human soul. We have no claim on God's friendship: but after all, when does one ever have any kind of claim on friendship?

Of course, it was exactly to give us some kind of claim on God's goodness that the Second Person of the Trinity became human, and for our sakes and for our salvation died and rose from the dead: offering to His father a propitiation of infinite value on our behalf, which profligate offering He recklessly placed into human hands in the glory that is the Divine Eucharist.

One can say that one doesn't positively know how God deals with those who have no explicit faith in Jesus and/or no visible relationship with His Catholic Church. One can say that it might eventually become clear that the Apostolic Tradition is that only a small minority of the human race is saved and/or that a degree of explicit association with the See of Rome is an absolute necessity.  One can then say that if this were to happen then a good Catholic could be quite comfortable with this, on the basis already outlined: that after all mankind has no rights before God and it is entirely up to God as to what beneficence - if any - He shows towards sinners.

However, I think that this view is radically mistaken: because it makes God into an arbitrary tyrant and divorces Him from Justice. God is responsible for the Cosmos that He has made, just as parents are responsible for the children that they engender. God is not just a remote deity that set the whole thing off in motion "at the start of time" and is now just watching the course of events. God is intimately involved and implicated: both as moment to moment sustainer of the fabric of space-time and the Laws of Physics, but also as a regular super-natural player in the drama of history on the stage that is the world He continually creates from nothing. God cannot escape from His own responsibility to HimSelves for the "glorious mess" that He has brought into being: the creation that struggles with the evolutionary birth pangs of coming to be, which the Apostle Paul graphically refers to.

God is a knowing and willing conspirator. While it was Adam and Eve who ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, it was God who:

  1. planted that tree in the centre of the garden
  2. specifically brought it to their attention
  3. created the serpent
  4. allowed the serpent to tempt Eve
  5. didn't warn Eve about the serpent.
God owes sinners absolutely nothing.  However, He owes HimSelves absolutely everything, and so must do everything in His power to make the Cosmos - a/the(?) "work of His art" - worthy of HimSelves. A god who did less than offer every soul
"sufficient grace to be saved" would not do HimSelves justice and would not be Substantial Love.

Sacred Scripture make it clear that it is God's wish that every soul should be healed, made safe and sanitized. It is not so clear just what proportion of humanity responds, in the last analysis, positively to God's initiative and what proportion sticks out for conceited independence. Our Lord warns a great deal of the danger of rejecting the simple message of the Gospel, and it is manifest that many people did and still do chose short-term apparent personal advantage over long-term actual personal fulfilment.

All that is necessary for a soul to be reconciled with God is that it allows itself to be nurtured by His care, illuminated by His light and guided by His truth. Anyone who responds - however falteringly - to the notion of goodness, truth and beauty that is first inherent in their heart - the Natural Law - and second continuallyy reinforced by the prompting of Holy Spirit, is on the long
trail to fellowship with God: though they may have to pass through "The Destructions" to get there!

Some theologians have speculated that anyone who does so respond will, by divine providence, be given the opportunity to receive water baptism. Others that actual water baptism is no more "necessary for salvation" in this case than it is when there is an explicit but frustrated desire for water baptism. Obviously, if the first opinion were to be true, then the overwhelming majority of non Christians have been and are Hell bound, as only those who explicitly convert to the Catholic Faith and are actually baptized in water - or die with the explicit desire for such baptism - are saved. I personally repudiate this opinion on three grounds:

  1. The sacraments do not exist as additional requirements that God insists on before He condescends to help an individual.
  2. I can not believe that those huge swathes of humanity that undoubtedly could never have heard the Gospel or been offered the chance of water baptism are automatically damned.
  3. If it is argued that God will grant anyone of "good will" - perhaps miraculously - the chance of water baptism, then how would it not follow that any catechumen about to die a martyr would certainly have such an opportunity? Why should martyrs not benefit in this way - or not need to - when others do?


I conclude that over time the content of the Apostolic Tradition has become clearer. Starting with St Augustine, clarified by St Thomas Aquinas and finally codified by Pius IX the Church's consciousness of God's liberality and magnanimity has become more explicit and sure. The early Fathers were concerned to establish the integrity of the Catholic Church: more recently attention has been paid to the facts that "dogs are allowed to eat the scraps that fall from the table" and that God loves all those who he has made and wishes for all to be His friends. I believe that the teaching of the Second Vatican Council is in this regard an organic development of the Apostolic tradition, and would point out that Archbishop Lefebvre felt able to sign its Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium".


St. Clement I, Pope A.D. 88-97
"Heretical teachers pervert Scripture and try to get into Heaven with a false key, for they have formed their human assemblies later than the Catholic Church. From this previously existing and most true Church, it is very clear that these later heresies, and others which have come into being since then, are counterfeit and novel inventions."
(Epistle to the Corinthians)
Saint Ignatius of Antioch,  died A.D. 107
"Let no man deceive himself. Unless he believes that Christ Jesus has lived in the flesh, and shall confess His cross and passion, and the blood which He shed for the salvation of the world, he shall not attain eternal life, whether he be a king, or a priest, or a ruler, or a private person, a master or a servant, a man or a woman."
(Epistle to the Smyrnaeans)

"For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the Bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ." (Epistle to the Philadelphians)

Saint Justin Martyr, died A.D. 165
"And you deceive yourselves while you fancy that, because you are the seed of Abraham after the flesh, therefore you shall fully inherit the good things announced to be bestowed by God through Christ. For no one, not even one of them, has anything to look for, but only those who in mind are assimilated to the faith of Abraham, and who have recognized all the mysteries .... So that it becomes you to eradicate this hope from your souls, and hasten to know in what way forgiveness of sins, and a hope of inheriting the promised good things, shall be yours. But there is no other way than this, to become acquainted with this Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins, and for the rest to live sinless lives .... Further, I hold that those of the seed of Abraham who live according to the law, and do not believe in this Christ before death, shall not be saved."
(Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.)
Origen, died A.D. 254
"Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church no one is saved."
(In Iesu Nave homiliae)
Saint Cyprian, died A.D. 258
"Can the power of baptism be greater or of more avail than confession, than suffering, when one confesses Christ before men and is baptized in his own blood? And yet even this baptism does not benefit a heretic, although he has confessed Christ, and been put to death outside the Church, unless the patrons and advocates of heretics declare that the heretics who are slain in a false confession of Christ are martyrs, and assign to them the glory and the crown of martyrdom contrary to the testimony of the apostle, who says that it will profit them nothing although they were burnt and slain .... Not even the baptism of a public confession and blood can profit a heretic, because there is no salvation outside the Church." (Epistle LXXII)
Saint Ambrose, died A.D. 397
"The Lord severed the Jewish people from his kingdom, and heretics and schismatics are also severed from the kingdom of God and from the Church. Our Lord makes it perfectly clear that every assembly of heretics and schismatics belongs not to God, but to the unclean spirit." (Explanation of Luke)
Saint John Chrysostom, died A.D. 407
"We know that salvation belongs to the Church alone, and that no one can partake of Christ nor be saved outside the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith." (De Capto Eutropia)

"We should mourn for those who are dying without the Faith .... And well should the pagan weep and lament who, not knowing God, goes straight to punishment when he dies!" (On the Consolation of Death)

Saint Augustine, died A.D. 430
"No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honour, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church." (Sermon to the People of Caesaria)

"This indeed is true, that 'baptism is not unto salvation except within the Catholic Church.' For in itself it can indeed exist outside the Catholic Church as well; but there it is not unto salvation, because there it does not work salvation; just as that sweet savour of Christ is not unto salvation in them that perish, though from a fault not in itself but in them." (On Baptism, against the Donatists)

Saint Leo the Great, Pope A.D. 440-461
"But this mysterious function, the Lord indeed wishes to be the concern of all the apostles, but in such a way that he has placed the principle charge on the blessed Peter, chief of the apostles: and from him as from the Head wishes His gifts to flow to all the body: so that any one who dares to secede from Peter's solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery." (Letter X)
Saint Gregory the Great, Pope A.D. 590-604
"Now the holy Church universal proclaims that God cannot be truly worshipped saving within herself, asserting that all they that are without her shall never be saved." (Moralia)
Pius XI, Pope A.D. 1922-1939
"Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors. Did not the ancestors of those who are now entangled in the errors of Photius [the eastern schismatics] and the reformers [the Protestants], obey the Bishop of Rome, the chief shepherd of souls? Alas their children left the home of their fathers, but it did not fall to the ground and perish for ever, for it was supported by God. Let them therefore return to their common Father, who, forgetting the insults previously heaped on the Apostolic See, will receive them in the most loving fashion. For if, as they continually state, they long to be united with Us and ours, why do they not hasten to enter the Church, 'the Mother and mistress of all Christ's faithful?' Let them hear Lactantius crying out: 'The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this is the house of Faith, this is the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.'" (Encyclical "Mortalium Animos")
John XXIII, Pope A.D. 1958-1963
"The Saviour Himself is the door of the sheepfold: "I am the door of the sheep." Into this fold of Jesus Christ, no man may enter unless he be led by the Sovereign Pontiff; and only if they be united to him can men be saved, for the Roman Pontiff is the Vicar of Christ and His personal representative on earth."
(Coronation Homily: November 4, 1958.)

 Back to top.
Hosted by