A Primer on Roman Catholic Salvation Theology

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has clear and definitive teachings on salvation. Yet many Catholics online are promoting ideas on salvation theology (soteriology) that openly contradict Church teaching. This post offers the basics of soteriology, from magisterial teaching. For a full discussion, see my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone

1. After death, each human person is judged by God (the particular judgment). Everyone who dies in a state of grace goes to Heaven, perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory. Everyone who dies unrepentant from actual mortal sin goes to Hell.

Pope Pius XII: “Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness — the beatific vision of God — are impossible.” [Address to Midwives, n. 21.a.]

Pope Benedict XII: “Moreover we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into Hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of Hell.” [On the Beatific Vision of God]

2. We poor fallen sinners are conceived with original sin and therefore without the state of grace (sanctifying grace). We must find sanctifying grace in this life in order to reach eternal life in Heaven. But there is only one way to obtain sanctifying grace: baptism. Does this imply that only Christians go to Heaven? No.

There are three forms of baptism:
a. the formal Sacrament of Baptism (baptism with water)
b. a baptism of desire
c. a baptism of blood
Any fallen sinner who dies without one of these forms of baptism, dies without the state of grace and is therefore excluded from Heaven.

{22:10} And his servants, departing into the ways, gathered all those whom they found, bad and good, and the wedding was filled with guests.
{22:11} Then the king entered to see the guests. And he saw a man there who was not clothed in a wedding garment.
{22:12} And he said to him, ‘Friend, how is it that you have entered here without having a wedding garment?’ But he was dumbstruck.
{22:13} Then the king said to the ministers: ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
{22:14} For many are called, but few are chosen.’ ”

Without the “wedding garment” of the state of grace, no one can enter into the wedding celebration of Heaven.

3. A baptism of desire can be explicit or implicit. In an explicit baptism of desire, the person knowingly desires the sacrament of Christian baptism. In an implicit baptism of desire, the person obtains the state of grace by an act of love, without a specific desire for the sacrament itself. A person who receives an implicit baptism of desire might even outwardly reject the Church.

Pope John Paul II: “The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all.” [Redemptoris Missio n. 10]

Pope Pius XII: “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism….” [Address to Midwives, n. 21.a.]

Pope John Paul II: “For those, however, who have not received the Gospel proclamation, as I wrote in the Encyclical ‘Redemptoris Missio,’ salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. Redemptoris Missio, n. 10). It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her. It is also mysterious in itself, because it is linked to the saving mystery of grace, which includes an essential reference to the Church the Savior founded. In order to take effect, saving grace requires acceptance, cooperation, a ‘yes’ to the divine gift. This acceptance is, at least implicitly, oriented to Christ and the Church.” [All Salvation Comes through Christ]

Letter from the Holy Office (the CDF) to the Archbishop of Boston: “To gain eternal salvation, it is not always required that a person be incorporated in reality (reapse) as a member of the Church, but it is necessary that one belong to it at least in desire and longing (voto et desiderio). It is not always necessary that this desire be explicit as it is with catechumens. When one is invincibly ignorant, God also accepts an implicit desire, so called because it is contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his or her will to be conformed to God’s will.” [Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, DS 3870; ND 855 (1949).]

Pope Saint Pius X: “The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.” [Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, The Sacraments – Baptism, Necessity of Baptism and Obligations of the Baptized]

4. A baptism of blood can be explicit or implicit. The clearest case of an explicit baptism of blood occurs when a person preparing for the sacrament of Baptism knowingly chooses to die rather than deny Christ.

The clearest cases for an implicit baptism of blood are the Holy Innocents and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Holy Innocents did not know that they were being killed in place of the Christ Child. They did not choose to die rather than deny the Christian or Jewish faith. Yet they received the state of grace prior to death, and so entered into Heaven.

The Blessed Virgin Mary received the state of grace within the gift of the Immaculate Conception. Since only baptism can grant the state of grace to human persons, her Immaculate Conception must have included a type of baptism. But she did not exist prior to the first instant of her conception, so she could not have desired and then obtained a baptism of desire. A baptism of desire also requires some type of knowledge of what one is desiring, even when it is implicit. So the type of baptism received in the Immaculate Conception must have been a baptism of blood. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is the source of every baptism and the source of the Immaculate Conception.

5. Outside the Church, there is no salvation. But the Church includes formal members (baptized Christians) and non-formal members, who have entered the state of grace by a baptism of desire or of blood. All persons in the state of grace are adoptive children of God [cf. Trent, Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, chapter IV.]

If anyone possesses sufficient accurate knowledge of Christianity, but fails to convert, his failure is objectively a mortal sin. But only actual mortal sin deserves eternal condemnation. Actual mortal sin requires a gravely disordered act committed with full knowledge of its grave immorality and full deliberation (full freedom of choice). If a non-Christian lacks the full culpability of actual mortal sin for his outward rejection of the Church, he might still be in a state of grace.

Pope Saint Pius X: “A person outside the Church by his own fault, and who dies without perfect contrition, will not be saved. But he who finds himself outside without fault of his own, and who lives a good life, can be saved by the love called charity, which unites unto God, and in a spiritual way also to the Church, that is, to the soul of the Church.” [Pope St. Pius X, Catechism of Christian Doctrine]

6. Perfect contrition forgives all personal sins. A Catholic is immediately forgiven for all sins if he makes an act of perfect contrition: sorrow for sins out of love of God. But in the case of actual mortal sin, the Catholic is still required to go to Confession. A non-Catholic who has no access to the sacrament of Confession is forgiven by an act of perfect contrition.

The Sacrament of Confession is related to the Sacrament of Baptism. For baptism confers the state of grace, and confession returns one to that state after an actual mortal sin. The forgiveness of perfect contrition is termed confession “at least by desire” by the Council of Trent [Sixth Session, chapter XIV] and defined as contrition that is “perfect through charity” [Fourteenth Session, chapter IV].

Baptism, which forgives original sin and personal sin, can be obtained implicitly. So also can the forgiveness of perfect contrition be implicit. The “person outside the Church” generally does not explicitly desire the sacrament of confession, yet according to Pope Saint Pius X (quoted above) he can obtain forgiveness by perfect contrition. If he could only obtain forgiveness by first converting, he would be baptized and be forgiven by baptism, rather than by perfect contrition. So the Pontiff refers to a person who remains formally outside the Church, does not convert to Christianity, yet obtains forgiveness and the state of grace (or a return to that state) by perfect contrition. If a person has never received any form of baptism, he can enter the state of grace for the first time by an act of perfect contrition, even implicit perfect contrition.

Perfect contrition is partially implicit when the person has sorrow for his sins out of explicit love for God, implicitly desiring the Sacrament of Confession. Perfect contrition is fully implicit when the person has sorrow for his sins out of explicit love for his neighbor (who was harmed by his sins), implicitly loving God and implicitly desiring the Sacrament of Confession.

The true spiritual love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God.

[1 John]
{4:20} If anyone says that he loves God, but hates his brother, then he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he does see, in what way can he love God, whom he does not see?
{4:21} And this is the commandment that we have from God, that he who loves God must also love his brother.

See also Matthew 5, Matthew 19, Romans 13, Galatians 5.

7. All non-Christian believers (Jews, Muslims, others) and unbelievers (atheists, agnostics) can possibly obtain salvation without converting to Christianity or to belief in God — if their refusal to convert is not an actual mortal sin, and if they obtain the state of grace by a baptism of desire or blood, and if they either avoid all actual mortal sin or repent with perfect contrition.

I’ll save the topic of salvation for unbaptized prenatals, infants, and little children for another day.

For a full discussion of salvation theology, see my book: Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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