Salvation Theology: Knowledge of the Church

Is it true that non-Catholics who know the Catholic Church but do not convert “cannot be saved”

CCC 846: “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”

The above passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (846) seems to say that those persons who are non-Catholic, perhaps including even Orthodox and Protestant Christians, cannot be saved if they know that the Catholic Church is the means that God chose for their salvation, but they refuse to enter it or refuse to remain in it. However, it is modified by the next passage:

847: “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.”

This passage seems to be limited only to those who do not know the Christian Gospel or do not know the Catholic Church. They can be saved by seeking God and trying to do the will of God by conscience. And that explanation seems to exclude atheists, agnostics, and the non-monotheistic religions.

And some on the far right in Catholicism adhere to the narrowest possible interpretation of the above teachings. They think most non-Catholics are condemned to Hell, because they know that Catholicism exists and they do not convert. They think that salvation outside of Christianity is very rare. Some admit that non-Catholic Christians can be saved, but they do not see this path of salvation as common.

Salvation for Many

However, my understanding of Catholic doctrine is that the above narrow interpretation is incorrect, and is contrary to a correct reading of all the magisterial teachings on salvation. It is easy to support a false idea by citing very few sources and then interpreting them with a particular bias. But in my book, Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone, I examine all the magisterial teachings on salvation both before and after Vatican II, and I reconcile these into a single coherent explanation of salvation.

Consider CCC 846, especially this part: “knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ”. The knowledge needed here would be the same as for an actual mortal sin, knowledge of the grave immorality of the act, not merely the knowledge that the Catholic Church exists, not merely the knowledge of what the Church teaches. The person, to have full culpability, would need to realize that the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by God through Christ, and yet reject Her. And of course, if this objectively grave sin of rejecting Catholicism were committed with full knowledge and full deliberation, it would be an actual mortal sin — the type of sin that is punished in Hell if the person does not repent.

But if the person does not have that particular knowledge, i.e. that specific realization, then they are only held by God to follow their conscience as to what religion, if any, they ought to follow.

Does it ever happen that a non-Catholic Christian realizes that the Catholic Church is the true path to God, and yet the person does not convert? Sure it does. And I can prove so with an example of a man who did convert. A particular Anglican Bishop converted to Catholicism (I don’t think I need to look up his name). After converting, he decided not to pursue ordination. So he went from a leader and teacher with great authority in Anglicanism to being an ordinary worshipper in the pews. One can easily imagine that a person in that situation might decide to remain in the position of influence, power, and accolades, rather than give all that up to be an ordinary Catholic layperson. But of course, refusing to convert after you realize Catholicism is the Way would be an actual mortal sin.

And what about the other passage, CCC 847? Is this path of salvation for those who do not know the Gospel or Catholicism limited to those who believe in one Creator God? Is it limited only to those who have never heard of the Gospel? No, it is not. In “All Salvation Through Christ”, Pope Saint John Paul II considers that some persons who “outwardly reject” the Church may still be saved by implicit membership in the Church. They are always saved by Christ through the one true Church, but they might not realize it.

“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.”

And in Redemptoris Missio, Pope Saint John Paul II taught:

“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.”

Salvation is granted to non-baptized persons — any and all non-baptized persons — as long as they have entered the state of grace by an baptism of desire, which can be implicit, or a baptism of blood (which is not limited to martyrs). The idea is rejected by John Paul II that salvation outside of Christianity is rare. The universal salvific will of God desires all human persons, including all non-Christians, to be saved. And he gives them a path of salvation, as long as their rejection of religion, or of Christianity, or of Catholicism is not an actual mortal sin.

Of course, anyone guilty of actual mortal sin can be saved by repenting before death!! Also, go to Confession frequently!

So the path of salvation is to enter the state of grace by some form of baptism (water, desire, blood), and to remain in that state, or, if one sins by actual mortal sin, to return to that state by repentance. Those who favor a narrow path of salvation claim that repentance, outside of the Sacrament of Penance, by perfect contrition is rare and that such an act (of perfect contrition) is very difficult. But I disagree. An act of perfect contrition occurs by prevenient grace, followed by cooperation with subsequent grace. And so grace, by virtue of the merits of Christ and the universal salvific will of God, makes such repentance amply and attainable for everyone.

In my view, perfect contrition can even be implicit, so that an atheist who repents out of love for his neighbor thereby implicitly repents out of love for God. For all true love of neighbor always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God. An atheist can enter the state of grace by love of neighbor, and can return to it in the same manner.

“Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.”

Finally, let’s consider what would happen to the papal accusers and to those on the far right who reject Vatican II and Pope Saint John Paul II and all teachings of the Magisterium contrary to their own minds. They violate the provision “to remain in it”, for they depart from the Church in schism and in heresy by rejecting Popes and an Ecumenical Council, and by rejecting certain teachings of the Magisterium (such as those of Vatican I). If their own narrow view of salvation were applied to themselves, they would not be saved. Yet they continue to insist on a narrow path.

Now Christ did say the path of salvation is narrow, and those who take it are few. But He also said that there are many rooms in His Father’s house. So it is entirely in accord with the Gospel to interpret “narrow” as the sole path of salvation: love and a good conscience, and to interpret “few” figuratively as those who are saved are singularly blessed, even though they are many.

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

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