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.

This entry was posted in salvation. Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Anthony says:

    Skimming through the exhortation, I didn’t see any mention of salvation of non-believers.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, that’s right. The topic wasn’t mentioned at all. I’m surprised, since the call to holiness is universal, and is therefore not limited to Christians.

    • Alessandro Arsuffi says:

      Albeit the text doesn’t mention atheists explicitly, there is an indirect reference to the call to sainthood for the non-Catholics and, in my opinion, it is implied to be present in every religion and possibly in atheism, too, “outside the Catholic Church and even in very different contexts”, I quote the paragraph in its entirety:

      “9. Holiness is the most attractive face of the Church. But even outside the Catholic Church and in very different contexts, the Holy Spirit raises up “signs of his presence which help Christ’s followers”.[7] Saint John Paul II reminded us that “the witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants”.[8] In the moving ecumenical commemoration held in the Colosseum during the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he stated that the martyrs are “a heritage which speaks more powerfully than all the causes of division”.

  2. Anthony says:

    The author argues that Pope Francis advances the seamless argument in his new exhortation. Any thoughts?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Saving lives by ending abortion has greater moral weight than helping the poor, since the harm of abortion is greater. However, each human person is equally sacred, and is just as much made in God’s image. So the Church as a whole must have concern for every type of harm done to human persons, to society, and to the worship of God. Pope Francis is correcting conservatives for focusing on a few types of works of mercy, while ignoring other areas of concern.

  3. Paul M. says:

    If I did not already study the Catholic faith and strive to develop my conscience, it would be with great difficulty that, in reading the words of Pope Francis, I would be able to distinguish between what is mortal and what is venial sin. Perhaps it is just my deficiency. While it is the will of the Father that we avoid all sin, there has always been a distinction in Church teaching between the sin which kills the soul and that which only hinders it.

    In your writings, as well, Ron, regarding the salvation of non-Catholics, including the unbaptized, you seem to place must more emphasis on God’s grace to supersede the normal means of salvation rather than the action of God’s grace to bring one into the Catholic Church before death. Perhaps you can develop your ideas for us on the power of God’s grace as it relates to the normative means of salvation? Also, as to the damning effect of disregarding God’s grace in light of the Church being proclaimed throughout the world? Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The reason for the emphasis on means of salvation outside formal membership, is that this area of theology is under developed. There are unanswered questions. And these questions are important in a world in which most persons are not Christian, and very many Christians are not Catholic.

      The will of God is first and foremost for non-believers to convert to belief in God, and for believers to convert to Christianity, especially Catholicism. But it is also God’s will for Catholics to convert, continually, so that we are striving to avoid all fully deliberate sin, esp. grave sin.

      It is an objective mortal sin to reject belief in God, and to reject Christianity. It is even an objective mortal sin for a non-Catholic Christian to reject Catholicism. But in many cases, this sin is not also an actual mortal sin. Even when it is an actual mortal sin, the person can repent with implicit perfect contrition, and still be saved.

    • Paul M. says:

      Fair enough. Thanks. You have opined about the “baptism by blood” for those whose lives are taken prematurely by abortion or other means. What of the theological speculation about limbo? Do you have theological reasons to disregard limbo when you speak of this area of theology being underdeveloped? Thanks.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think that the prenatals and infants who die at that young age go to an upper level of Purgatory, which is essentially the same as the limbo of the Fathers. They are not punished there. Instead, they receive the spiritual development that they were denied on earth. Otherwise, what sort of bodies would they have at the general Resurrection? Or what sort of happy life would they have in Heaven, esp. those who died at an age of days or weeks? So they go to limbo, but not permanently. Thus, it is a development of that idea, not an outright rejection of it.

  4. Anthony says:

    The “universal call to holiness,” as used in Lumen Gentium 38, refers to all within the Church, i.e., clergy and laity. It is intended against the error that only clerics and religious are called to holiness, as if the exhortations of the Gospel did not also apply to laymen living in the world. A footnote to LG 38 cites 1 Thess. 4:3, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…,” as applying to all members of the Church (for the Apostle is addressing the brethren).

    This should not be confused with the “universal salvific will” whereby God wishes for all men to enter the Church and be saved. This theological term is not found in any teaching of the authentic Magisterium, but LG 16 refers to “the Savior’s will that all men be saved,” with a footnote citing 1 Tim. 2:3-4 “God our Savior, Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Further discussion of Patristic testimony and theological arguments about the universal salvific will is at:

    • Ron Conte says:

      Good distinction. But they are related. Being saved and being holy are essentially the same path. Anyone in the state of grace is holy, to some extent.

      I would say that God calls non-Christians to be holy. The OT patriarchs, for example. And, before Judaism, Enoch was holy. So it is not true that only Christians or only persons who belong to certain few religions can be holy. I would even say that an atheist can be holy, by loving his neighbor. I know an avowed atheist who has worked with handicapped persons his whole life (literally from childhood). And I’ve seem him talking with handicapped persons, treating them with great respect, love, and even admiration, despite mental and physical handicaps. So, holiness is not only found in persons who have explicitly acknowledged Christ and have explicitly entered the Church.

  5. Anthony says:

    I don’t see how others of different religions (or no religion at all) could be considered holy. The “saints” in the New Testament are baptized Christians. It would be absurd to refer to non-Christians as “holy” or as “saints”. This would suggest that one could be holy apart from Christ. An utter absurdity within a Catholic standpoint.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The state of grace makes us children of God by spiritual adoption, and this includes those who obtain that state by formal baptism with water or by a baptism of desire (which can be implicit). Certainly, the state of grace makes us holy. Actual graces help us to do what is holy, but habitual grace (the state of grace) helps us to be holy. By definition, anyone in the state of grace is holy. A baptized infant is holy, even though the infant has no idea what Christianity is, or who Christ is, or whether toes are edible or not. Persons who do not know Christ explicitly in their minds, may still know him, implicitly, by grace from God, and by (for adults now) loving our neighbor, made through Him and for Him.

  6. 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).

Comments are closed.