Is the Church necessary for salvation?
Dr George Karakunnel
“This holy Council first of all turns its attention to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself on scripture and tradition, it teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is 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 (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn.3:5), 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.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no.14)
“Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with as sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, no.15)
The answer is “Yes” but that’s the easy part. Explaining why it’s “Yes” is more difficult. Because the Church is the Body of Christ, it embodies the presence of Christ and carries on his redemptive work for all of humanity. In that sense, the Church is indeed necessary for salvation, that is, in the same way that Jesus Christ himself is necessary for salvation. But does that mean that only those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior can be saved?
Jesus himself gave us the beginning of an answer to both questions when he said. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven. But only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). Confessing the Lordship of Jesus, therefore, isn’t in itself sufficient for salvation. But even if it’s not sufficient, is it absolutely necessary? Later in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus narrates the parable of the sheep and the goats in which he implies that many who enter the kingdom of heaven will not even have been aware of the Lord. Rather, they will only encounter the Lord anonymously, as it were, in the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, and all others in need.
Catholic belief and teaching about salvation, therefore, is that no one is saved apart from the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on behalf of all humanity, but that it is possible to be the beneficiary of that redemptive work even if one does not confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, which means even if one is not a member of the Church, Catholic or non-Catholic.
That wasn’t always the understanding of the Church’s role in salvation, however. In the first three centuries the saying. “No salvation outside the Church”, was used exclusively as a warning against Christians who had separated themselves from the Church by heresy or schism. Historians have found no instance where that same warning was issued against the pagan majority in the Roman Empire. It was only after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in the fourth century that the saying began to be applied to Jews and pagans as well. The naive assumption was that, by this time, the Gospel had been preached to the whole world. Those who still had not accepted it were culpable and, therefore, heading for damnation. This was the view associated especially with Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe, in the sixth century, and it remained standard Catholic teaching for almost a thousand years. The Council of Florence in 1442 used Fulgentius’ formula in its own teaching. With the discovery of America, however, only fifty years after Florence, it became clear that the world was much larger than had been thought. There were still many thousands – perhaps millions – of people who had never heard of Jesus Christ. Only gradually thereafter did the hard-line teaching of Fulgentius and others yield to a broader, more ecumenical view of salvation outside the Church.
At first, a distinction was made between members of the Church in re (that is, actual, baptized members) and members of the Church in voto (that is, people of good will who remain outside the Church through no fault of their own). All those who are saved because of some relationship with the Church, whether in re or in voto. The Second Vatican Council went a step beyond that position. It recognized in its Decree on Ecumenism that non-Catholic churches are a “means of salvation’, although “they derive their efficacy from the fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church “ (n.3). The council also recognized in its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions that the “Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions” (n.2). Salvation, brought by the different religions as the Church understands, is related to the one economy of salvation under Jesus Christ. This is the present day inclusivist approach which replaced a rather exclusivist approach of the past.
Does the Church, then, play any necessary role at all in the salvation of the world? Yes, says the Council, it is the “universal sacrament of salvation” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n.48; Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). Not only are all people related to the Church by the grace which the Holy Spirit offers them, but the Church itself is a sign and instrument of their salvation. And that is the newer, more ecumenical, more universal meaning of the traditional saying, “No salvation outside the Church”.