The Church and Salvation
by Fr. William G. Most
The Church is sometimes called the universal sacrament of salvation. That use of the
word sacrament is broad, not strict. It is true in as much as the Church is the divinely
instituted means of giving grace to all. But the Church is not a visible rite - it rather
confers these visible rites which we call the seven Sacraments.
From the fact that the Church is God's means of giving grace, is it is clear that there
is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. This truth has even been defined by the
Church more than once, e.g., in the Council of Florence in 1442. However we must take care
to understand this teaching the way the Church understands it. We just saw that the Church
claims the exclusive authority to interpret both Scripture and Tradition. So one like
Leonard Feeney who interprets the teaching on the necessity of the Church his own way is
not acting like a Catholic theologian at all. The Holy Office, on August 8, 1949, declared
that L. Feeney was guilty of this error. Because of his error, he rejected several
teachings of the Magisterium, saying they clashed with this definition - but they clash
only with his false interpretation, given in private judgment.
Pius IX (Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863) taught: "God... in
His supreme goodness and clemency, by no means allows anyone to be punished with eternal
punishments who does not have the guilt of voluntary fault." Vatican II (Lumen
gentium # 16) taught the same: "They who without their own fault do not know of
the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under
the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the
dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation." Pius XII had said (Mystici
Corporis Christi) that one can "be related to the Church by a certain desire and
wish of which he is not aware", i.e., by the desire to do what God wills in general.
Precisely how does this work out? We saw on our very first page that St. Paul insists
(Romans 3:29) that God makes provision in some way for all. We saw that one of the
earliest Fathers, St. Justin Martyr (Apology 1:46) said that some, like Socrates
could even be Christians because they followed the divine Word. Now St. Justin also said
that the Divine Word is in the hearts of all. Then we notice in St. Paul's Romans 2:14-16
that "The gentiles who do not have the law [revealed religion] do by nature the
things of the law; they show the work of the law written on their hearts." And
according to their response, they will or will not be saved.
Clearly, it is this Divine Word, or the Spirit of Christ, the Divine Word, that writes
the law on their hearts, i.e., makes known to them what they should do. If they follow
that, although they do not know that that is what they are following, yet objectively,
they do follow the Logos, the divine Word. And so St. Justin was right in calling them
Christians. We can add that St. Paul in Romans 8:9 makes clear that if one has and follows
the Spirit of Christ, he "belongs to Christ." But, to belong to Christ is the
same as being a member of Christ, and that is the same as being a member of the Church.
Not indeed by formal adherence, but yet substantially, enough to satisfy the requirement
of substantial membership. Indeed, Vatican II even wrote (LG # 49): "All who belong
to Christ, having His Spirit, coalesce into one Church."
So, St. Paul was right: God does take care of them; St. Justin was right too: they can
be Christians without knowing it. Otherwise, God would be sending millions upon millions
to hell without giving them any chance at all, if they lived far from places where the
Church was known, e.g., in the western hemisphere before 1492.
That fact that salvation is possible in this way does not mean that there should be no
missions or attempts to bring back the Protestants. Richer and more secure means of
salvation are to be had with formal explicit adherence to the Catholic Church. Therefore
we need to make every effort. In regard to Ecumenism, it is good to keep in mind a rule
from Vatican II, in its Decree on Ecumenism (# 11): "It is altogether
necessary that the complete doctrine be clearly presented. Nothing is so foreign to true
Ecumenism as that false peace-making in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers
loss, and its true and certain sense is obscured."
Basic Catholic Catechism
PART FIVE: The Apostles' Creed IX - XII
Ninth Article: "The Holy Catholic Church; the Communion of Saints"
By William G. Most. (c) Copyright 1990 by William G. Most.