Reacting to religious diversity:

Can non-Catholics be saved, according
to the Roman Catholic Church?

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Christian denominations, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant, have historically taught that an afterlife awaits everyone. All people will eventually spend eternity in either:

bullet Heaven, where the rewards are beyond our wildest dreams, or
bullet Hell, where unbelievable levels of pain and suffering will last forever without any hope of relief.

Various denominations have taught that their own followers have a better chance at attaining heaven, and that believers in other faith groups are either totally excluded from heaven or, at least, have a higher probablility of going to Hell.

The author of this essay, who was brought up a Protestant, can recall a conversation over five decades ago with some Catholic friends from the neighborhood. He was taught in Sunday School that Catholics automatically go to Hell; his friends were taught in a separate (Catholic, parochial) school that all Protestants and other non-Catholics end up in Hell.

We were never able to resolve the contradiction.

Many denominations on both sides of the Christian/Protestant/Orthodox divides have since changed, as many faith groups have become more accepting of other denominations. Even beliefs about Hell itself have moderated; it is now described by many religious groups to be simply a place of isolation from God.

There has been considerable movement by the Roman Catholic Church concerning the salvation status of non-Catholics. The church has gradually changed from an exclusivist to a partly inclusivist position, thus becoming more accepting of the validity of the teachings by other Christian denominations and by other religions.

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The fate of non-Catholics, as stated prior to Vatican II:

Before Vatican II, the Church consistently taught that only Roman Catholics had a chance to be saved and attain Heaven. Followers of other Christian denominations and of other religions would be automatically routed to Hell for all eternity:

bullet Pope Innocent III (circa 1160 - 1216 CE) is considered "one of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages..." 1 At the Fourth Lateran Council (a.k.a. the General Council of Lateran, and the Great Council)  he wrote:

"There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved."

bullet Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303 CE) promulgated a Papal Bull in 1302 CE titled Unam Sanctam (One Holy). He wrote, in part:

"Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins...In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism [Ephesians 4:5]. There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed....Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff." 2

The last sentence in the original Latin reads:

"Porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus, definimus, et pronuntiamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis." 3

bullet Pope Eugene IV, (1388-1447 CE) wrote a Papal bull in 1441 CE titled Cantate Domino. One paragraph reads:

"It [the Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart 'into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels' [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church." 4

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The fate of non-Catholics, as expressed at Vatican II:

bullet The "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium" (1964) is one of many documents to come out of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (often referred to as "Vatican II"). The Council was held in Rome between 1962 and 1965. Lumen Gentium" contains in its Chapter 1 an essay on "The Mystery of the church." Sections 14 to 16 describe the potential for salvation of:
bullet Followers of the Catholic Church,

bullet Members of other Christian denominations, and

bullet Believers of non-Christian religions. 5

The language is difficult to follow for a lay person. However, an "Assessment of this Council" was written "as an AID to study by Catholic Students of the Second Vatican Council. They contain material, some written in a journalistic style, for the American reader." In the section "The Constitution of the Church" the assessment reads:

"The Catholic Church professes that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ; this it does not and could not deny. But in its Constitution the Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself. To these other Christian Churches the Catholic Church is bound in many ways: through reverence for God's word in the Scriptures; through the fact of baptism; through other sacraments which they recognize."

5. The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his Church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience, for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." 6

This statement would seem to include the possibility that all seekers after God may attain salvation, even though they have not concluded that God exists. Presumably, the authors of this document define "God" in Roman Catholic terms as a super-human intelligence and personality with specific attributes, such as being omnipotent, omniscient, omnibeneficient, omnipresent, etc. This statement indicates that even some Agnostics and Atheists could be saved and attain heaven, if they sincerely sought this Christian God. It also seems to imply that many Buddhists -- those who follow traditions that have no concept of such a deity -- will be relegated to Hell after death.

bullet The "Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio" (1964) is one of nine decrees of Vatican II. It deals with Ecumenism, which the Catholic Church defines as the reuniting of all Christian faith groups under the authority of the Pope. This includes Eastern Orthodox churches, the Anglican Communion, and Protestant denominations -- those who "came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church."  Section 3 deals with "separated brethren" -- followers of Christian denominations which The document repeats the belief that the Roman Catholic church is the only true Christian church -- the only denomination which "has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace." Other Christian denominations are considered deficient. But the document does recognize that salvation is possible through the Catholic church for followers of those separated faith groups. It recognizes other denominations as fellow Christians:

"The children who are born into these Communities, and who grow up believing in Christ, cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church."

"Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ."

"The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation."

"It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church."

"Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those who through Him were born again into one body, and with Him quickened to newness of life- that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is only through Christ's Catholic Church, which is 'the all-embracing means of salvation,' that they can benefit fully from the means of salvation. We believe that Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God." 7

bullet The "Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions: Nostra Aetate," (1965) is one of three declarations of Vatican II. 8 It states that:
bullet "[The Christian] God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth."

bullet "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions."

bullet "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers..."

bullet "...the [Roman Catholic] Church is the new People of God..."

bullet "...the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation."

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The fate of non-Catholics, as expressed after Vatican II:

bullet The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), deals with the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to non-Catholics in Topics 839 to 845. 9 Some points are:
bullet 839: Followers of other religions are referred to as "Those who have not yet received the gospel..." The implication is that they may eventually become united with the Roman Catholic Church.

bullet 839 to 841: The Roman Catholic Church has a special relationship to Jews and Muslims because of the common reverence for the patriarch Abraham.

bullet 843: Other religions contain "goodness and truth" which are "a preparation for the Gospel."

bullet 845: God wishes to "reunite all his children," of all religions who are "scattered and led astray by sin...together into" the Catholic Church.

" 'Dominus Iesus' on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" was published on 2000-AUG-6 by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was released on 2000-SEP-5. The document had been ratified and confirmed by the Pope John Paul II on JUN-16:

"... with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority." 10

The document appears to have been triggered by the growth in acceptance of "relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism." 12 It states that:

bullet "The full revelation of divine truth is given" in the "mystery of Jesus Christ."
bullet Elements of Christianity were placed in other religions by the Holy Spirit.

bullet Jesus is the only savior of mankind.

bullet All who are saved achieve this status through the Roman Catholic Church.

bullet Salvation is possible to those who are not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.

bullet The prayers and rituals of other religions may help or hinder their believers. Some practices may prepare their membership to absorb the Gospel. However, those rituals which "depend on superstitions or other errors... constitute an obstacle to salvation."

bullet Members of other religions are "gravely deficient" relative to members of theChurch of Christ who already have "the fullness of the means of salvation." 
bullet More details, including negative reactions by non-Catholics

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Has the position of the Roman Catholic Church changed?

At first glance, the Church has changed its teachings about whether a non-Catholic can be saved:

bullet In the past, the Church seems to have taken an exclusivist position on the validity of other faith traditions. Numerous popes in the Middle Ages have stated clearly that anyone who is "outside" the Church, who is "not subject to the Roman Pontiff" or that anyonw qho is "not living within the Catholic Church" cannot be saved and will not attain Heaven.
bullet Numerous statements since the 1960's seem to have stated clearly that the Church has switched to a partly inclusivist position. They now believe that non-Catholics can have indirect access to salvation, but that their faith may well place serious roadblocks on the path to salvation.

The church tackles this apparent conflict in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Items 846 and 847 attempt to harmonize ancient and recent statements on salvation of non-Christians.

Section 846 by making the following points:

bullet In ancient times, the Church Fathers often said that "Outside the [Catholic] Church there is no salvation."

bullet The church has always taught that:
bullet "...all salvation comes from Christ...through the [Catholic] Church..."

bullet "...the [Catholic] necessary for salvation..."

bullet "...Christ ...affirmed...the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door."
bullet Those who realize the Church's role and who "refuse either to enter it or to remain in it" cannot achieve salvation or attain Heaven after death.

bullet This is what various popes meant when they said that there was no salvation outside the church.

Section 847 states that:

bullet The above " not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church."

bullet "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." 9

This attempt at harmonizing leaves many Anglicans, Muslims, Protestants, Wiccans, and followers of other religions in an awkward situation. Many know of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church and reject them in favor of the teachings of other groups. That would seem to eliminate any possibility for them to be saved and attain Heaven, according to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Catechism's explanation is difficult to harmonize with very specific statements by past popes, which were often referred to by the phrase : "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus" ("Outside the Church there is no salvation"). According to the Saint Benedict Center, this doctrine of the Catholic Faith "...was taught By Jesus Christ to His Apostles, preached by the Fathers, defined by popes and councils and piously believed by the faithful in every age of the Church." 13

bullet Pope Innocent III: "There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved." Fourth Lateran Council, 1215.

bullet Pope Boniface VIII: "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." From his Bull Unam Sanctam, 1302.

bullet Pope Eugene IV: "The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church." From his Bull Cantate Domino, 1441.)

Protestant denominations and the Anglican Communion would presumably fall under the category of "heretics and schismatics." Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, etc would presumably be considered "Pagans."

An attempt to harmonize Pope Boniface VIII's  Unam Sanctam Bull is available online. It raises a number of points. One is that this bull was directed at Catholics in France during the 14th century who were not submitting to the Pope. Thus, it would not necessarily apply to Protestants. 11

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  1. "Pope Innocent III," Catholic Encyclopedia, at:
  2. "Medieval Sourcebook: Boniface VII, Unam Sanctam, 1302," at:
  3. "Unam Sanctam" Catholic Encyclopedia, at:
  4. "The Council of Florence (AD 1438-1445)," at:
  5. "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium. Chapter 1: "The Mystery of the church," Sections 14 to 16," at:
  6. "The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council: Dedicated to 'The Immaculate'," at:
  7. "Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio," (1964) at:
  8. "Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions: Nostra Aetate," at:
  9. "Catechism of the Catholic Church," Doubleday (1994). Read reviews or order the 2nd edition of the Catechism safely from online book store
  10. " 'Dominus Iesus' on the unicity and salviific universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" at:
  11. "The Unam Sanctam 'Problem' Resolved: Can Non-Catholics Be Saved?," at:
  12. The term "pluralism" is ambiguous. Here, it seems to refer to the belief that all religions are true. Sometimes, the word is used to refer to the fact of religious diversity.
  13. "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus," Saint Benedict Center, at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-SEP-23
Latest update: 2018-MAY-01
Author: B.A. Robinson

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