Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus
The Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: "outside the Church there is no salvation". The 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church explained this as "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body."
This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The axiom is often used as shorthand for the doctrine that the Church is necessary for salvation. It is a dogma in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches in reference to their own communions. It is also held by many historic Protestant Churches. However, Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox each have a unique ecclesiastical understanding of what constitutes the Church. The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.
Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop, has expressed this doctrine as follows:
"Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church" (G. Florovsky, "Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church", in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a "visible" and an "invisible Church", yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.
The Catholic Church also teaches that the doctrine does not mean that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned (see below).
Some of the most pertinent Catholic expressions of this doctrine are: the profession of faith of Pope Innocent III (1208), the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bull Unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (1302), and the profession of faith of the Council of Florence (1442). The axiom "No salvation outside the Church" has been frequently repeated over the centuries in different terms by the ordinary magisterium.
- 1 Catholic statements of this teaching
- 2 Catholic Church elucidations
- 3 A Feeneyite view
- 4 Protestant interpretation of the dogma
- 5 Books written on the dogma
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 External links
Catholic statements of this teaching
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Early Church Fathers
The original phrase, "Salus extra ecclesiam non est" ("there is no salvation out of the Church") comes from Letter LXXII of Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258). The letter was written in reference to a particular controversy as to whether or not it was necessary to baptize applicants who had previously been baptized by heretics. In Ad Jubajanum de haereticis baptizandis, Cyprian tells Jubaianus of his conviction that baptism conferred by heretics is not valid. Firmilian (died c. 269) agreed with Cyprian reasoning that those who are outside the Church and have not the Holy Spirit cannot admit others to the Church or give what they do not possess. Cypian was not expressing a theory on the eternal fate of all baptized and non-baptized persons.
The concept was also referred to by Origen in his Homilies on Joshua, but neither he nor Cyprian were addressing non Christians, but those already baptized and in danger of leaving the faith, as that would involve apostacy.
Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) wrote: “One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the Church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the apostles have placed all that pertains to truth, so that everyone can drink this beverage of life. She is the door of life.” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, III.4) But he also said, "Christ came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who are now, but for absolutely all men from the beginning, who, according to their ability, feared and loved God and lived justly. . . and desired to see Christ and to hear His voice Irenaeus recognized that all who feared and loved God, practiced justice and piety towards their neighbors, and desired to see Christ, insofar as they were able to do so, will be saved. Since many were not able to have an explicit desire to see Christ, but only implicit, it is clear that for Irenaeus this is enough.
Gregory of Nazianzus took a rather broad view in his understanding of membership in the Body of Christ. In the funeral oration for his father's death in 374, Gregory stated, "He was ours even before he was of our fold. His manner of life made him one of us. Just as there are many of our own who are not with us, whose lives alienate them from the common body, so too there are many of those outside who belong really to us, men whose devout conduct anticipates their faith. They lack only the name of that which in fact they possess. My father was one of these, an alien shoot but inclined to us in his manner of life." In other words, by their charity of their life, they are united to Christians in Christ, even before they explicitly believe in Christ.
- Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (died A.D. 386):
- “Abhor all heretics…heed not their fair speaking or their mock humility; for they are serpents, a `brood of vipers.’ Remember that, when Judas said `Hail Rabbi,’ the salutation was an act of betrayal. Do not be deceived by the kiss but beware of the venom. Abhor such men, therefore, and shun the blasphemers of the Holy Spirit, for whom there is no pardon. For what fellowship have you with men without hope. Let us confidently say to God regarding all heretics, `Did I not hate, O Lord, those who hated Thee, and did I not pine away because of Your enemies?’ For there is an enmity that is laudable, as it is written, `I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed.’ Friendship with the serpent produces enmity with God, and death. Let us shun those from whom God turns away.” (The Fathers of the Church)
- St. John Chrysostom indicates his belief that those who seek God genuinely will be brought to an explicit faith in Christ. Nonetheless it is clear that justification and charity can precede explicit faith.
- Pope St. Clement teaches that the grace of salvation has been made available to the whole world by Christ's death, and proves this by the examples of those before Christ who were saved through their faith in God. Many after Christ's coming , who have faith in God, but cannot have explicit faith in Christ, fit Clement's description of justified persons, and therefore would seem to be included in those whom he teaches are saved through Christ.
- Saint Ambrose (died A.D. 397):
- “Where Peter is therefore, there is the Church. Where the Church is there is not death but life eternal. …Although many call themselves Christians, they usurp the name and do not have the reward.” (The Fathers of the Church)
- Bishop Niceta of Remesiana (died A.D. 415):
- “He is the Way along which we journey to our salvation; the Truth, because He rejects what is false; the Life, because He destroys death. …All who from the beginning of the world were, or are, or will be justified – whether Patriarchs, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Prophets, whether Apostles or martyrs, or any others – make up one Church, because they are made holy by one faith and way of life, stamped with one Spirit, made into one Body whose Head, as we are told, is Christ. I go further. The angels and virtues and powers in heaven are co-members in this one Church, for, as the Apostle teaches us, in Christ `all things whether on the earth or in the heavens have been reconciled.’ You must believe, therefore, that in this one Church you are gathered into the Communion of Saints. You must know that this is the one Catholic Church established throughout the world, and with it you must remain in unshaken communion. There are, indeed, other so called `churches’ with which you can have no communion. …These `churches’ cease to be holy, because they were deceived by the doctrines of the devil to believe and behave differently from what Christ commanded and from the tradition of the Apostles.” (The Fathers of the Church)
- Saint Jerome (died A.D. 420):
- “As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is, with the Chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built. …This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. …And as for heretics, I have never spared them; on the contrary, I have seen to it in every possible way that the Church’s enemies are also my enemies.” (Manual of Patrology and History of Theology)
- Saint Augustine (died A.D. 430):
- “No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church.” (Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesia plebem) St. Augustine teaches that those who are visibly outside of the Church, and even those in heresies and pagan superstitions can possess charity, and be really within it.
- Saint Fulgentius (died A.D. 533):
- “Most firmly hold and never doubt that not only pagans, but also all Jews, all heretics, and all schismatics who finish this life outside of the Catholic Church, will go into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Enchiridion Patristicum)
- Saint Bede the Venerable (died A.D. 735):
- “Just as all within the ark were saved and all outside of it were carried away when the flood came, so when all who are pre-ordained to eternal life have entered the Church, the end of the world will come and all will perish who are found outside.” (Hexaemeron)
- Saint Thomas Aquinas (died A.D. 1274):
- “There is no entering into salvation outside the Church, just as in the time of the deluge there was none outside the ark, which denotes the Church.” (Summa Theologiae)
- Saint Peter Canisius (died A.D. 1597):
- “Outside of this communion – as outside of the ark of Noah – there is absolutely no salvation for mortals: not for Jews or pagans who never received the faith of the Church, nor for heretics who, having received it, corrupted it; neither for the excommunicated or those who for any other serious cause deserve to be put away and separated from the body of the Church like pernicious members…for the rule of Cyprian and Augustine is certain: he will not have God for his Father who would not have the Church for his mother.” (Catechismi Latini et Germanici)
- Saint Robert Bellarmine (died A.D. 1621):
- “Outside the Church there is no salvation…therefore in the symbol [Apostles Creed] we join together the Church with the remission of sins: `I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins’…For this reason the Church is compared with the ark of Noah, because just as during the deluge, everyone perished who was not in the ark, so now those perish who are not in the Church.” (De Sacramento Baptismi)
- Fourth Lateran Council (1215): "There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved."
- Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam sanctam (1302): "We are compelled in virtue of our faith to believe and maintain that there is only one holy Catholic Church, and that one is apostolic. This we firmly believe and profess without qualification. Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins, the Spouse in the Canticle proclaiming: 'One is my dove, my perfect one. One is she of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her' (Canticle of Canticles 6:8); which represents the one mystical body whose head is Christ, of Christ indeed, as God. And in this, 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Ephesians 4:5). Certainly Noah had one ark at the time of the flood, prefiguring one Church which perfect to one cubit having one ruler and guide, namely Noah, outside of which we read all living things were destroyed… 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."
- Council of Florence, Cantate Domino (1441): "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" (Matthew 25:41), 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." The same council also ruled that those who die in original sin, but without mortal sin, will also find punishment in hell, but unequally: "But the souls of those who depart this life in actual mortal sin, or in original sin alone, go down straightaway to hell to be punished, but with unequal pains."
- Pope Boniface I, Epistle 14.1: "It is clear that this Roman Church is to all churches throughout the world as the head is to the members, and that whoever separates himself from it becomes an exile from the Christian religion, since he ceases to belong to its fellowship."
- Pope Pelagius II (578-590): "Consider the fact that whoever has not been in the peace and unity of the Church cannot have the Lord… Although given over to flames and fires, they burn, or, thrown to wild beasts, they lay down their lives, there will not be (for them) that crown of faith but the punishment of faithlessness… Such a one can be slain, he cannot be crowned… [If] slain outside the Church, he cannot attain the rewards of the Church" (Denzinger, 469).
- Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590-604), Moralia: "Now the holy Church universal proclaims that God cannot be truly worshipped saving within herself, asserting that all they that are without her shall never be saved."
- Pope Sylvester II, Profession of Faith, June AD 991: "I believe that in Baptism all sins are forgiven, that one which was committed originally as much as those which are voluntarily committed, and I profess that outside the Catholic Church no one is saved."
- Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), Profession of Faith prescribed for the Waldensians: "With our hearts we believe and with our lips we confess but one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside which we believe that no one is saved" (Denzinger 792).
- Pope Clement VI, Letter Super quibusdam (to Consolator the Catholicos of Armenia), September 20, 1351: "In the second place, we ask whether you and the Armenians obedient to you believe that no man of the wayfarers outside of the faith of this Church, and outside the obedience of the Pope of Rome, can finally be saved… In the ninth place, if you have believed and do believe that all who have raised themselves against the faith of the Roman Church and have died in final impenitence have been damned and have descended to the eternal punishments of hell."
- Pope Leo XII (1823–1829), Encyclical Ubi primum: "It is impossible for the most true God, who is Truth Itself, the best, the wisest Provider, and rewarder of good men, to approve all sects who profess false teachings which are often inconsistent with one another and contradictory, and to confer eternal rewards on their members. For we have a surer word of the prophet, and in writing to you We speak wisdom among the perfect; not the wisdom of this world but the wisdom of God in a mystery. By it we are taught, and by divine faith we hold, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and that no other name under heaven is given to men except the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in which we must be saved. This is why we profess that there is no salvation outside the Church… For the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. With reference to those words Augustine says: 'If any man be outside the Church he will be excluded from the number of sons, and will not have God for Father since he has not the Church for mother.'"
- Pope Gregory XVI (1831–1846), Encyclical Summo jugiter studio (on mixed marriages), 5-6, May 27, 1832: "You know how zealously Our predecessors taught that very article of faith which these dare to deny, namely the necessity of the Catholic faith and of unity for salvation. The words of that celebrated disciple of the Apostles, martyred Saint Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians are relevant to this matter: 'Be not deceived, my brother; if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not attain the inheritance of the kingdom of God.' Moreover, Saint Augustine and the other African bishops who met in the Council of Cirta in the year 412 explained the same thing at greater length: 'Whoever has separated himself from the Catholic Church, no matter how laudably he lives, will not have eternal life, but has earned the anger of God because of this one crime: that he abandoned his union with Christ' (Epsitle 141). Omitting other appropriate passages which are almost numberless in the writings of the Fathers, We shall praise Saint Gregory the Great, who expressly testifies that this is indeed the teaching of the Catholic Church. He says: 'The holy universal Church teaches that it is not possible to worship God truly except in her and asserts that all who are outside of her will not be saved' (Moral. in Job, 16.5). Official acts of the Church proclaim the same dogma. Thus, in the decree on faith which Innocent III published with the synod of the Lateran IV, these things are written: 'There is one universal Church of the faithful outside of which no one at all is saved.' Finally, the same dogma is expressly mentioned in the profession of faith proposed by the Apostolic See, not only that which all Latin churches use (Creed of the Council of Trent), but also that which the Greek Orthodox Church uses (cf. Gregory XIII, Profession 'Sanctissimus') and that which other Eastern Catholics use (cf. Benedict XIV, Profession 'Nuper ad Nos')… We are so concerned about this serious and well known dogma, which has been attacked with such remarkable audacity, that We could not restrain Our pen from reinforcing this truth with many testimonies."
- Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), Allocution Singulari quadam, December 9, 1854: "Not without sorrow we have learned that another error, no less destructive, has taken possession of some parts of the Catholic world, and has taken up its abode in the souls of many Catholics who think that one should have good hope of the eternal salvation of all those who have never lived in the true Church of Christ. Therefore, they are wont to ask very often what will be the lot and condition of those who have not submitted in any way to the Catholic faith, and, by bringing forward most vain reasons, they make a response favorable to their false opinion. Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume on the limits of the divine mercy which is infinite; far from Us, to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsel and "judgements of God" which are "a great abyss" (Ps. 35.7) and cannot be penetrated by human thought. But, as is Our Apostolic Duty, we wish your episcopal solicitude and vigilance to be aroused, so that you will strive as much as you can to drive form the mind of men that impious and equally fatal opinion, namely, that the way of eternal salvation can be found in any religion whatsoever. May you demonstrate with skill and learning in which you excel, to the people entrusted to your care that the dogmas of the Catholic faith are in no wise opposed to divine mercy and justice.
"For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains 'we shall see God as He is' (1 John 3.2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is "one God, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4.5); it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.
"But, just as the way of charity demands, let us pour forth continual prayers that all nations everywhere may be converted to Christ; and let us be devoted to the common salvation of men in proportion to our strength, 'for the hand of the Lord is not shortened' (Isa. 9.1) and the gifts of heavenly grace will not be wanting to those who sincerely wish and ask to be refreshed by this light."
- Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), Encyclical Singulari quidem March 17, 1856): "Teach that just as there is only one God, one Christ, one Holy Spirit, so there is also only one truth which is divinely revealed. There is only one divine faith which is the beginning of salvation for mankind and the basis of all justification, the faith by which the just person lives and without which it is impossible to please God and come to the community of His children (Romans 1; Hebrews 11; Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 8). There is only one true, holy, Catholic Church, which is the Apostolic Roman Church. There is only one See founded on Peter by the word of the Lord (St. Cyprian, Epistle 43), outside of which we cannot find either true faith or eternal salvation. He who does not have the Church for a mother cannot have God for a father, and whoever abandons the See of Peter on which the Church is established trusts falsely that he is in the Church (ibid, On the Unity of the Catholic Church). ... Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control."
- Pope Pius IX (1846–1878), Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863: "And here, beloved Sons and Venerable Brothers, We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. Indeed, this is certainly quite contrary to Catholic teaching. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who persistently separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom 'the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior,' (Council of Chalcedon, Letter to Pope Leo I) cannot obtain eternal salvation. The words of Christ are clear enough: 'And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican' (Matthew 18:17); 'He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that dispeth you, despiseth Me; and he that dispiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me' (Luke 10:16); 'He that believeth not shall be condemned' (Mark 16:16); 'He that doth not believe, is already judged' (John 3:18); 'He that is not with Me, is against Me; and he that gathereth not with Me, scattereth' (Luke 11:23). The Apostle Paul says that such persons are 'perverted and self-condemned' (Titus 3:11); the Prince of the Apostles calls the 'false prophets… who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction' (2 Peter 2:1)."
- Pope Pius IX The Syllabus of Errors, attached to Encyclical Quanta cura, 1864: [The following are prescribed errors:] "16. Men can, in the cult of any religion, find the way of eternal salvation and attain eternal salvation. - Encyclical Qui pluribus, November 9, 1846. "17. One ought to at least have good hope for the eternal salvation of all those who in no way dwell in the true Church of Christ. - Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863, etc."
- Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903), Encyclical Annum ingressi sumus: "This is our last lesson to you; receive it, engrave it in your minds, all of you: by God's commandment salvation is to be found nowhere but in the Church." idem, Encyclical Sapientiae christianae: "He scatters and gathers not who gathers not with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and all who fight not jointly with Him and with the Church are in very truth contending against God."
- Pope St. Pius X (1903–1914), Encyclical Jucunda sane: "It is our duty to recall to everyone great and small, as the Holy Pontiff Gregory did in ages past, the absolute necessity which is ours, to have recourse to this Church to effect our eternal salvation."
- Pope Benedict XV (1914–1922), Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum: "Such is the nature of the Catholic faith that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole, or as a whole rejected: This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved."
- Pope Pius XI (1922–1939), Encyclical Mortalium Animos: "The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation… Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ, no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors."
- Pope Pius XII (1939–1958), Encyclical Humani Generis, August 12, 1950: "Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation."
- Pope Pius XII (1939–1958), Allocution to the Gregorian University (17 October 1953): "By divine mandate the interpreter and guardian of the Scriptures, and the depository of Sacred Tradition living within her, the Church alone is the entrance to salvation: She alone, by herself, and under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the source of truth."
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 14: "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."
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 16: ". . .Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. . .But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. . ."
Catholic Church elucidations
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church states that the phrase, "Outside the Church there is no salvation", means, if put in roached terms, that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body", and "is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church".
At the same time, it adds: "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."
The Church has also declared that "she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter", and that "those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways."
Papal teaching before the Second Vatican Council
Statements by Popes upholding the dogma that outside of the Church there is no salvation have been given above. Popes who have made such statements have also said that there are those who without visibly belonging to the Church are related to it and can be saved. Pope Pius IX spoke of them as "able to attain eternal life", and Pope Pius XII said that "they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer".
In his 1863 encyclical letter to the bishops of Italy, Pope Pius IX wrote: "Well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff". In the same letter, he said: "There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin." He added: "God forbid that the children of the Catholic Church should even in any way be unfriendly to those who are not at all united to us by the same bonds of faith and love. On the contrary, let them be eager always to attend to their needs with all the kind services of Christian charity, whether they are poor or sick or suffering any other kind of visitation. First of all, let them rescue them from the darkness of the errors into which they have unhappily fallen and strive to guide them back to Catholic truth and to their most loving Mother who is ever holding out her maternal arms to receive them lovingly back into her fold. Thus, firmly founded in faith, hope, and charity and fruitful in every good work, they will gain eternal salvation."
Pope Pius XII considered not unrelated to the Church "those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church", saying that they are in a "state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church".
It was under Pope Pius XII too that the Catholic Church rejected Feeneyism.
Second Vatican Council
The Second Vatican Council declared that the Christian communities that are not in full communion, but only in "partial communion" with the Catholic Church, "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". It explained that "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." These elements, it said, "as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity." And "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one body of Christ into which all those must be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God."
The Council also said that even those who do not believe in Christ are related to the Church: "All men are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it. And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation." However, it added immediately that those who, "knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved". In this way, the Catholic Church teaches that any person who knows that the Catholic Church is necessary for eternal salvation and knowingly rejects the Church with deliberate consent cannot be saved. On the other hand, "those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life."
This does not take from the Church's obligation to preach the Gospel: "Often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature", the Church fosters the missions with care and attention." In its decree on missionary activity, the Council, quoting Lumen gentium, 14, said: "Christ Himself 'by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door. Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it.' Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him, yet a necessity lies upon the Church, and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel."
The Council also warned that full incorporation in the Church does not ensure salvation: "They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a 'bodily' manner and not 'in his heart'. All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged."
The 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that "it must be firmly believed 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 (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door." It then adds that "for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit; it has a relationship with the Church, which, according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit."
In its statements of this doctrine, the Church expressly teaches that "it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God"; that "outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control"; and that "they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life."
Inculpable ignorance is not a means of salvation. But if by no fault of the individual ignorance cannot be overcome (if, that is, it is inculpable and invincible), it does not prevent the grace that comes from Christ, a grace that has a relationship with the Church, saving that person. Thus it is believed that God would make known to such a person before the moment of death, by either natural or supernatural means, the Catholic faith, since "without [such] faith it is impossible to please God", and this entails, for even the unbaptized, at the very least baptism of desire.
A Feeneyite view
The sedevacantist Most Holy Family Monastery teaches that the medieval Church statements indicate that no person could possibly be saved unless a member of the Catholic Church on earth, and that this was the meaning intended by the popes of the time; that membership of the Church is obtained through valid baptism by water, regardless of who performs the baptism, and is lost by heresy, schism or apostasy; that, whether baptized or not, those who have the use of reason and are therefore capable of wishing to be saved cannot be saved, unless they believe in the Trinity and the Incarnation; that those in ignorance, even invincible, of the Catholic faith cannot be saved; and that baptism of desire and baptism of blood lack salvific force.
Protestant interpretation of the dogma
The doctrine is upheld by many in the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther, the foremost leader of the Protestant Reformation, spoke of the necessity of belonging to the church (in the sense of what he saw as the true church) in order to be saved:
Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
Modern Lutheran churches do agree with the traditional statement that "outside the catholic church there is no salvation," but in the statement the word catholic refers not to the Roman hierarchy but to the Holy Christian Catholic and Apostolic Church, which consists of all who believe in Christ as their Savior.
The irony here is that Lutherans believe in the catholic axiom that there is no salvation outside the church in the full sense of the statement, but the Roman church does not.
The Genevan reformer John Calvin, writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion at the very time of the Reformation, wrote therein "beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for". Calvin wrote also that "those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother," echoing the words of the originator of the Latin phrase himself, Cyprian: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother."
Reformed scholastics accepted the phrase so long as the church is recognized by the marks of the church, which they defined as proper administration of the Word and sacrament, rather than apostolic succession.
The idea is further affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 that "the visible Church . . . is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." Despite this, it is not necessarily a commonly held belief within modern Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism and those denominations which believe in the autonomy of the local church. The dogma is related to the universal Protestant dogma that the church is the body of all believers and debates within Protestantism usually centre on the meaning of "church" (ecclesiam) and "apart" (extra).
Books written on the dogma
- 1587 The Firme Foundation of Catholike Religion against the bottomles pitt of heresies: wherin is shewed that only Catholiks shalbe saued, & that all heretikes of what sect so euer are excluded from the kingdome of heauen. [pp. 1–124 in the PDF is the book; the rest is another book] translated from "'Du firmament des Catholiques, contre l'abisme des heretiques: ou est monstré que le seul Catholique sera sauué, & que tous heretiques de quelque sacte que ce soit, & tous leurs fauorisans, sont exclus du royaume de Iesuschrist, tout autant que les idolatres & adorateurs du diable" by Jean de Caumont, S.J. (Published on 1587)
- 1609 A Consultation what Faith and Religion is Best to be Imbraced by Leonardus Lessius translated into English from the original Latin Quae fides et religio sit capessenda, consultatio (Published on 1609)
- (The section in the book that treats on the dogma: Whether Everyone may be Saved in his own Religion )
- 1625 Qui Non Credit Condemnabitur by Rev. William Smith, S.J. (Published on 1625)
- 1822 An Inquiry, Whether Salvation Can Be Had Without True Faith, and out of the Communion of the Church of Christ by Bp. George Hay
- 1888 The Catholic Dogma: Extra Ecclesiam Nullus Omnino Salvatur by Rev. Michael Müller
- An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, (Orlando O. Espín, James B. Nickoloff, eds.), Liturgical Press 2007, ISBN 978-0-8146-5856-7, p. 439
- Pohle, Joseph. "Religious Toleration." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 15 February 2016
- Catechism of the Catholic Church §§846-848, 851
- Ware, Kallistos (1993). The Orthodox Church. Penguin. ISBN 9780140146561.
- Cyprian, "Epistle 72", §21, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. (Robert Ernest Wallis, trans.) Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.)
- "Epistle 74", Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5., (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds.) (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight
- Ratzinger, "Ratzinger Speaks", The Catholic World Report, January 1994, p. 23
- Kasper, Walter. The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015, ISBN 9781441117540
- "St. Irenaeus of Lyon", Orthodox Church Quotes
- Most, William G., The Holy Spirit and the Church, Notre Dame Institute Press, 1991, p. 76
- Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979, p. 29
- Excerpt from the allocution Singulari quadam given by Pope Pius IX on 9 December 1854
- Singulari Quidem
- Pope Pius IX, Quanto confidiamur moerore, 10 August 1863
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 846-848
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 849
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838-839
- Mystici Corporis, 103
- Eleuterio F. Fortino, "The Holy Spirit's Presence among Other Christians"
- Unitatis redintegratio, 3
- Lumen gentium, 8
- Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, 13
- Lumen gentium, 14
- Second Vatican Council, Constitution Lumen gentium, 16
- Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes, 3
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus
- "Inculpable or invincible ignorance has never been and will never be a means of salvation. To be saved, it is necessary to be justified, or to be in the state of sanctifying grace. To obtain sanctifying grace, it is necessary to have the proper dispositions for justification; that is, true divine faith in at least the necessary truths of salvation, confident hope in the divine Savior, sincere sorrow for sin, together with the firm purpose of doing all that God has commanded, etc. Now, these supernatural acts of faith, hope, charity, contrition, etc., which prepare the soul for receiving sanctifying grace, can never be supplied by invincible ignorance; and if invincible ignorance cannot supply the preparation for receiving sanctifying grace, much less can it bestow sanctifying grace itself. "Invincible ignorance", says St. Thomas Aquinas, "is a punishment for sin". (De Infid. q. x., art. 1.) It is, then, a curse, but not a blessing or a means of salvation. But if we say that inculpable ignorance cannot save a man, we thereby do not say that invincible ignorance damns a man. Far from it. To say, invincible ignorance is no means of salvation, is one thing; and to say, invincible ignorance is the cause of damnation, is another. To maintain the latter would be wrong, for inculpable ignorance of the fundamental principles of faith excuses a heathen from the sin of infidelity, and a Protestant from the sin of heresy; because such invincible ignorance, being only a simple involuntary privation, is no sin." (Michael Müller, Invincible or Inculpable Ignorance Neither Saves nor Damns a Person Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary : Questions and Answers on Salvation by Rev. Michael Muller, C.SS.R
- Peter Dimond, Outside the Catholic Church There is Absolutely No Salvation
- Sermon for the Early Christmas Service; Luke 2:15-20 (1521-1522). Luther's Works, American Ed., Hans J. Hillerbrand, Helmut T. Lehmann ed., Philadelphia, Concordia Publishing House/Fortress Press, 1974, ISBN 0-8006-0352-4 (Sermons II), vol. 52:39-40
- WELS Topical Q&A: No Salvation Outside Catholic Church
- Institutes, Book IV, Chapter i, Section.iv
- Institutes, Book IV, Chapter i, Section.i.
- The Unity of the Catholic Church, ch. 6
- Muller, Richard (2006). Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology. Baker Book House. p. 112. ISBN 978-0801020643.
- Without the Church There Is No Salvation Catholic Education Resource Center
- Church Fathers on Salvation Outside the Church
- Can Non-Christians Be Saved? by Kenneth J. Howell. - Catholic Answers
- Declaration of the Holy See under Pope Pius XII on the meaning of the teaching, 8 August 1949
- Pope John Paul II, General Audience, 31 May 1995
- WELS Topical Q&A: No Salvation Outside Catholic Church (Confessional Lutheran perspective), by Internet Archive