The Catholic Church has many doctrines and truths that are often misconstrued or misunderstood by both Catholics and non-Catholics. The teachings of the Church, as in the discernment of Sacred Scripture, can easily be taken out of context and cause confusion or inaccurate theology. One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Church comes from the quote “outside the Church there is no salvation.” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus)
However, does that really mean that one must be Catholic in order to receive the gift of salvation from the Lord? When we look at Sacred Scripture, we see a different view.
“They sang a new hymn: ‘Worthy are you to receive the scroll and to break open its seal, for you were slain and with your blood you purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9) The picture St. John paints for us in Revelation is one where people are redeemed from all the nations. They are saved by the blood of Christ from every nation.
St. Bede puts it beautifully in his commentary. “Here is further declared, that the living creatures and the elders are the Church, which is redeemed by the blood of Christ, and gathered out of the nations. For he shews in what heaven they are by saying, ‘and they shall reign upon the earth.’”
The Catholic Church does celebrate and affirm the vastness and power of God’s infinite mercy. The Church embraces, and teachings others to embrace and celebrate, the truth that Jesus Christ desires for the entire world to be saved. This is the reason Christ came to die on the cross. This is the reason his blood poured forth from the cross onto the ground at Calvary.
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our Savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2:1-4)
We know, according to St. Timothy, that it is the Lord’s will for everyone to be saved. This does not mean that everyone on earth will receive the gift that Christ pours out for us. It, however, does not guarantee or solidify the teaching and misunderstanding that one must be a Catholic in order to receive salvation. This teaching and belief is simply not Biblical.
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus gives a clear teaching that it is through Him that one comes to salvation. Christ gave the authority to St. Peter and the Church to protect the Church, her teachings, and the Sacraments. However, he makes it clear that it is through Him alone that one receives salvation. It can indeed get confusing since Jesus is the only way to salvation, but the Church is the body of Christ here on earth. How does that work?
There are three affirmations the Church makes regarding salvation for those outside the Catholic Church:
1.) Those who know that God founded the Catholic Church through Christ as the necessary means to salvation, yet still refuse it cannot be saved. (Lumen Gentium 14)
2.) Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a 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.” (Lumen Gentium 16)
3.) “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.” (Ad Gentes 7)
The teachings and belief that there are ways and exceptions for individuals to receive salvation outside the Catholic Church is Biblically accurate. Let’s take, for example, what Jesus says about salvation in a few passages.
“If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin.” (John 15:22) Jesus is teaching about those individuals who have never heard about the truth of the Catholic Church and who have, in their ignorance and innocence, rejected Christ and the Church because they did not know any better. However, it is after one is told the truth of the Church and of Christ that one becomes guilty of the sin of rejecting Christ if that individual does not accept the Church. We also see this in the teaching of Christ when he confronts the Pharisee in John 9:41. “Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘we see,’ so your sin remains.”
This teaching is emphasized and explained more by St. Paul’s writing to the Romans. “All who sin outside the law will also perish without reference to it, and all who sin under the law will be judged in accordance with it. For it is not those who hear the law who are just in the sight of God; rather, those who observe the law will be justified. For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-16 emphasis mine)
St. Paul seems to carefully choose his words and give an exception to those who are ignorant of the truth and appears to be teaching that the mercy of Christ could possibly provide for them salvation. He does not guarantee it and it certainly is not a clear teaching throughout Scripture. However, it a teaching defined well enough to understand that there is the possibility that Christ provides salvation and redemption to those outside the Catholic Church.