Church Teaching on Salvation for non-Christians and non-believers

In anticipation of the Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, I’m posting a review of my theological position on salvation for non-Christians and non-believers. The full explanation is in my book, Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, which is still free, in Kindle format only, until midnight of this Monday, April 9th (Pacific Time).

The Church does have teachings on this subject, salvation for those formally outside of the one true Church, the sole Ark of Salvation. But Her teachings are somewhat open to interpretation, such that salvation for non-Christians could be broader or narrower. My view is that salvation for non-Christians is broad, but not universal.

Human persons conceived with original sin must enter the state of grace by some form of baptism. Baptism is absolutely required for salvation, such that anyone who receive none of these three forms of baptism, cannot be saved. The statement that God is not bound by His Sacraments is true, except that God has taught, through His Church, that either the Sacrament of Baptism, or a non-sacramental baptism of desire or blood, is required for salvation.

Baptism gives the human person the state of grace, including the three theological virtues of love, faith, and hope. Any and all human persons who die in the state of grace will have eternal life in Heaven, perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory. Any and all persons who die without the state of grace will not have eternal life in Heaven.

Some human souls are sent to Hell, to be punished forever. This teaching is a dogma, having been taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium and by several different Ecumenical Councils. Any and all persons who die unrepentant from actual mortal sin are sent to Hell, along with any and all persons who die in a state of original sin alone (i.e. never having received any form of baptism).

However, the question as to the fate of prenatals, infants, and young children is not settled doctrine. The teaching on dying in original sin alone does not state that this includes infants. My opinion is that persons who die in a state of original sin alone are only those who die unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found the state of grace by some form of baptism, despite ample opportunity. Prenatals, infants, and young children did not have such an opportunity, so my opinion is that they are given a baptism of blood, prior to death, so that they die in the state of grace.

There are three forms of baptism:
1. water — the formal Sacrament of Baptism
2. desire — a non-formal baptism
3. blood — a non-formal baptism

All three types are taught by the Church as a means of salvation for human persons. The opinion that desire and blood only serve to bring the person to a formal baptism, without which the person surely goes to Hell, is a condemned heresy (Feeneyism). The opinion that baptisms of desire and blood are very rare is undoubtedly proximate to the heresy of Feeneyism and therefore untenable.

The Church does teach that not only Christians (having received formal baptism with water), but also those who have received the other forms of baptism, are children of God by spiritual adoption. The former are formal members of the Church, and the latter are non-formal members of the Church. So the teaching that “outside the Church, there is no salvation” remains true, and yet many non-Christians can be saved, if they are joined to the Church by the state of grace, received by a baptism of desire or of blood.

The baptism of desire can be explicit or implicit. It is explicit when the person desire baptism itself, under that name, as when a catechumenate is preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism. It is implicit when the person cooperates with grace so fully that they truly selflessly love God, or even such that they truly selflessly love their neighbor.

It is something of an open question, but entirely tenable, that an atheist might believe that God does not exist, and yet love his neighbor, in full cooperation with grace, and thereby enter the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire. And the same would be true of agnostics, who doubt God exists, and of those whose religion does not teach the love of God. If they selflessly love their neighbor, they would receive, in this view, a baptism of desire.

In my view, the baptism of blood need not be narrowed to only those martyrs who were catechumenates preparing for formal baptism. The Holy Innocents did not willingly die for Christ; they did not knowingly choose death over denial of Christ. Therefore, prenatals, infants, and young children may also receive a baptism of blood. For the adult martyr does not merit his salvation by his death. Rather, he is given a baptism of blood, prior to death, by the merits of Christ, as a free gift. Therefore, prenatals, infants, and young children may receive this type of baptism, despite not being martyrs.

What happens if a non-Christian enters the state of grace by a baptism of desire, and later commits an actual mortal sin, causing the loss of that state? How can he return to the state of grace, so as to be saved, if he does not have the Sacrament of Reconciliation?

My answer is that a non-Christian believer can have perfect contrition, sorrow for his sins out of love for God, and a non-believer can have implicit perfect contrition, by his sorrow for his sins out of love for his neighbor, who is harmed by sin. Implicit perfect contrition can also apply to any act of selfless love of neighbor, chosen in full cooperation with grace. Even if the person is not thinking about his past grave sins, he repents implicitly by choosing selfless love. And since the selfless love of others always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God, this love of neighbor is sufficient to obtain or to return to the state of grace.

Gaudete et Exsultate

It will be interesting to see whether Pope Francis answers the question of salvation for non-Christians in his Apostolic Exhortation on the call to holiness. That call is certainly universal. By natural law, even non-believers are called to be better persons, and to live in a manner that respects transcendent goods, such as love, justice, mercy, truth, etc.

In the past, the Pontiff has hinted that his opinion on this topic is broad, that atheists and non-Christian believers are very often brought to the state of grace, despite not believing in Christ. And this view is consistent with the teachings of Pope Saint John Paul II.

“However, as I wrote in the Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the gift of salvation cannot be limited ‘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.’ ”

“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. RM 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.” [All Salvation Comes Through Christ]

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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14 Responses to Church Teaching on Salvation for non-Christians and non-believers

  1. stefano says:

    The doctrine on salvation of non believers should not focus, I believe, on implicit faith, as opposed to an explicit or formal one. It should rather focus, I think, on the overwhelming Grace of God that always surpasses itself.

    We should also be careful with words. With regard to faith, we should not – not even inadvertently – give the impression that we use “formal” as if it stood for formality, or “explicit” as if it denoted exteriority: “implicit” faith is not safer than, or to be preferred to “explicit” faith.

    The same fullness of Grace can reside in the “formal” or “explicit” faith, as well as the “implicit”, because the Grace cannot be contained: it slips through the cracks and fills any voids with the same fullness, as He pleases.

    The point is that we do not know how does Grace operate implicitlly. It remains undetermined and lays totally in the mistery of the will of God that always comes true. All we know is what we can deduce from the power of Grace that we can experience ourselves. It is then a mistake to depict Grace like a sort of a spare wheel or a safety net for the unfaithful.

    It seems to me a weak argument that a non believer can be saved thanks to his “implicit” faith. All we know is faith, because faith is “explicit”.

    What doctrine should define is that the might of Grace can reach everyone, even a non believer, and save him regardless of him willing it, because this make the Glory of God greater. That way, his heart can exult and rejoice at this word as it reaches his ears.

    The non believer needs to exult and rejoice once he knows intimately that his life has been saved (just like we do). Only then we can know for sure that he has been saved (and so can he).

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