Pope Francis on Salvation outside the Church

There are two possible interpretations to the dogma “No salvation outside the Church”:

(1) Narrow — such that salvation for non-Catholics or non-Christians is difficult and rare.
(2) Broad — such that salvation is amply available for all human persons, including atheists, agnostics, non-Christian believers, and all manner of Christians.

And which interpretation is correct depends on how you define “the Church”. If it is defined broadly, so as to include very many non-Christians, then the broad interpretation would apply. Non-Christians could enter the state of grace by a baptism of desire or of blood. And they could return to the state of grace after actual mortal sin by repentance out of love of God or repentance out of love of neighbor. Even an atheist could be saved by loving his neighbor. For all true love of neighbor implicitly includes the love of God.

But some of my fellow Catholics, especially on the far right, have decided that the correct interpretation is the narrow one. They think that prenatals, infants, and little children, who die without formal baptism, are sent by God to the limbo of Hell. They think that anyone who possesses sufficient accurate knowledge of Christianity cannot be saved unless they convert to Christianity. And some go so far as to claim that the Jewish faith is and has been (since the destruction of the Temple) a false religion. So they don’t believe that Jews are saved by being devout faithful Jews. I strongly disagree with this view.

As I explain at length in my book Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, a correct understanding of magisterial teaching to-date necessarily implies the broad understanding of this dogma. All human persons of good will are in a state of grace, and therefore they can be saved, unless they commit an actual mortal sin and refuse to repent.

In the past, Pope Francis has hinted that he agrees with the broad interpretation, as when he made his now famous comments about atheists:

“Instead,” the Pope continued, “the Lord has created us in His image and likeness, and has given us this commandment in the depths of our heart: do good and do not do evil”:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” [Vatican radio website]

The holy Pontiff’s sermon implies that even atheists can be saved by the blood of Christ. They enter the state of grace by love of neighbor expressed by good works done in cooperation with grace. So they can be saved, in my view, even if they fail to convert to belief in God, as long as that failure is not an actual mortal sin.

More recently (20 April 2015), Pope Francis issued a message to the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church:

“It makes no difference whether the victims are Catholic, Copt, Orthodox or Protestant. Their blood is one and the same in their confession of Christ! The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard by everyone who can still distinguish between good and evil. All the more this cry must be heard by those who have the destiny of peoples in their hands.

At this time we are filled with the Easter joy of the disciples to whom the women had brought the news that “Christ has risen from the dead”. This year, that joy – which never fades – is tinged with profound sorrow. Yet we know that the life we live in God’s merciful love is stronger than the pain all Christians feel, a pain shared by men and women of good will in all religious traditions.”

Here Pope Francis suggests that non-Catholic Christians can be saved without converting to Catholicism, and that “men and women of good will in all religious traditions” can also be saved without converting to Christianity.

The skeptics will point out that these comments by the Pope were not acts of the Magisterium. True. But it seems clear that Pope Francis has in mind to teach on this subject, under the Magisterium, soon. He has publicly said that he expects his pontificate to last only a few years. And we are two years into his pontificate already. I believe that Pope Francis will teach on the subject of salvation at the Bishops’ Synod.

What will he teach? Perhaps he will teach that atheists and agnostics can be saved without converting to belief in God, and that non-Christian believers can be saved without converting to Christianity. Jews, Muslims, and believers in other religions could be saved without converting to Christianity.

Many conservatives and traditionalists disagree. But there are some conservative and traditionalist priests with a broader view. Here’s Father John Zuhlsdorf (Fr. Z.) on salvation for non-Catholics. He refers to persons who outwardly reject the Church, because they have misunderstood what the Church is and what She stands for, perhaps through no fault of their own. Then in the comments section, take a look at what Fr. Martin Fox says, quoted in part:

“there are very good reasons to entertain the possibility that hell–while real–may yet be lightly populated.”

“I would argue that there will be no one in heaven who got there without the merits of Christ and the saving action of his Church. But that is not the same thing as saying that they must be explicit members of the Church in this life, but it would presumably help!”

Fr. Martin Fox’s own blog is here.

If and When

The main issue, if Pope Francis does teach definitively on salvation, will be whether or not a Pope can fall into heresy. Undoubtedly, some prideful Catholics, who cannot imagine that their own minds might have misunderstood or misinterpreted a past dogmatic teaching, will disagree with the broad view and accuse Pope Francis of teaching heresy. They mistakenly think that the conservative answer to every question must be the truth.

I agree with Saint Robert Bellarmine that no Pope can ever teach any type of heresy and that no Pope can fall into heresy, even in his own heart and mind. But if it comes down to a choice between believing what the Pope teaches, contrary to one’s own heartfelt belief and understanding, or accusing the Supreme Pontiff of heresy, there are plenty of arrogant Catholics who will choose making accusations over accepting correction.

All Catholics in the world will be put to the test by the decisions of Pope Francis at the Bishops’ Synod in October 2015. Pray that you do not fall away out of pride or ignorance.

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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2 Responses to Pope Francis on Salvation outside the Church

  1. Paul says:

    Quite apart from anyone’s teaching authority, in my own experience, and seeing similar responses from others, the Narrow interpretation tends to weaken one’s faith and push people away from the Church – the exact opposite of that feared by some of those favoring this interpretation. This Narrow interpretation gives one a sense of injustice and mercilessness when applied to the lives of many unfortunate souls in a way that does not seem to cohere with the Gospel message. There is a moral disconnect — and I think reasonably so — that erodes confidence in the rest of the Christian message.

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