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Reacting to religious diversity:
Can non-Catholics be saved, according
to the Roman Catholic Church?
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:
Heaven, where the rewards are beyond our wildest dreams, or
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
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
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."
Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303 CE) promulgated
a Papal Bull in 1302 CE titled Unam Sanctam (One Holy). He wrote, in
"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:
Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus, definimus, et
pronuntiamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis." 3
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
The fate of non-Catholics, as expressed at Vatican II:
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:
the Catholic Church,
Members of other Christian denominations, and
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.
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
"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. ...it 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
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:
"[The Christian] God made the whole human race to live over the face
of the earth."
"The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these
"God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers..."
"...the [Roman Catholic] Church is the new People of God..."
"...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."
The fate of non-Catholics, as expressed after Vatican II:
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:
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.
839 to 841: The Roman Catholic Church has a special
relationship to Jews and Muslims because of the common reverence for the
843: Other religions contain "goodness and truth"
which are "a preparation for the Gospel."
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
ratified and confirmed by the Pope John Paul II on JUN-16:
"... with sure knowledge and by
his apostolic authority."10
document appears to have been triggered by the growth in acceptance of "relativistic
theories which seek to justify religious pluralism." 12 It states that:
"The full revelation
of divine truth is given" in the "mystery of Jesus Christ."
Elements of Christianity were placed in other religions by the Holy
Jesus is the only savior
All who are saved achieve this status through the Roman Catholic
Salvation is possible to
those who are not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox.
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."
Members of other
religions are "gravely deficient" relative to members of theChurch of Christ who already have "the fullness of the means of
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:
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"
saved and will not attain Heaven.
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:
In ancient times, the Church Fathers often said that "Outside the
[Catholic] Church there is no salvation."
The church has always taught that:
"...all salvation comes from Christ...through the [Catholic]
"...the [Catholic] Church...is necessary for
"...Christ ...affirmed...the necessity of the Church
which men enter through Baptism as through a door."
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.
This is what various popes meant when they said that there was no salvation
outside the church.
Section 847 states that:
The above "...is not aimed at those who,
through no fault of their own,
do not know Christ and his Church."
"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."
Pope Innocent III: "There is but one universal Church of
the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved." Fourth Lateran
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
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
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