What We Believe

Inclusive Salvation in Contemporary Catholicism

David M. VanDrunen

Although debates between Rome and the Reformation involve many interlocking issues, the doctrine of salvation has always been center stage. Usually this focuses upon the question of how a person is saved. Is one justified by faith in Christ alone, for example, or by faith and works together? But closely connected with how a person is saved is the question of who may be saved.

For many years, the Roman Catholic Church taught that people could enjoy eternal life and escape everlasting damnation only by being received into its membership. In recent generations, that teaching has changed. Rome now embraces a very inclusive view that extends the hope of salvation to people of many different religions or even no religion at all, provided they sincerely follow the truth and goodness that they know in their own experience. Although Rome teaches that salvation is always, somehow, mediated through Christ and his church, it does not require explicit contact with the church, the Scriptures, or the proclamation of the gospel.

As we continue to celebrate the Reformation, it is important for Protestants to keep current with Roman Catholic teaching, and this article provides a brief account of where its doctrine of salvation has moved over the years. This exercise also provides an occasion for Reformed believers to reflect anew on the biblical doctrine of salvation and to be encouraged in our belief in, and proclamation of, this precious truth.

The Older Roman Catholic Position

In traditional Roman theology, "grace" is a crucial idea. Rome has taught that even before the fall into sin, human beings could do good works by "nature," but needed an infusion of grace in order to do works meritorious of eternal life. Matters are actually quite similar after the Fall. All people are born with original sin, according to Rome, and fallen human nature, though capable of doing some good, is wounded. Hence, without grace all people are doomed to condemnation. But the gift of grace, infused into the soul, not only wipes away original sin, but also restores the ability to do good works that merit eternal life. Rome viewed baptism as the basic starting point of salvation. Through baptism, a person receives an initial blessing of "justification," which involves the forgiveness of original sin and all personal sins committed up to that point, and an initial sanctifying grace that gives the ability to do meritorious good works. By adhering to the Roman sacramental system and growing in the virtues—particularly love—a person could hope to receive final justification and attain eternal life (though ordinarily only after spending time in Purgatory after death to achieve what was lacking during earthly life).

Who, then, could be saved? For a long time, Rome taught that salvation was available only to those who actually participate in her sacramental rites, and this was consistent with its view of salvation as described above. The early church coined a phrase that has echoed through subsequent centuries: extra ecclesiam nulla salus, that is, "outside the church there is no salvation." The phrase itself is vague; it doesn't specify, for example, what exactly "the church" is or whether this is a general or absolute rule. Presbyterian churches have embraced this phrase in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which seeks in chapter 25, section 2, to clarify some of the vagueness. But how has Rome interpreted the phrase?

In the Council of Florence (1442), the church said that it "believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church … cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart 'into everlasting fire …', unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock." The unity of the church is so strong, it continued, "that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation." All sorts of good works, and even martyrdom, fail to bring eternal life to a person "unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."

Since the Roman church—in the sixteenth-century Council of Trent and beyond—taught that sacramental grace is central for salvation and that Christ had entrusted this grace to it, this affirmation of the Council of Florence made a great deal of sense. We can see this basic perspective continuing to be operative in the nineteenth century in the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX (1864). Part of this document censured "latitudinarianism," and rejected claims that "man may, in the observance of any religion whatever, find the way of eternal salvation" and that "good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ." As late as the mid-twentieth century, a prominent American Roman Catholic priest, Leonard Feeney, could garner attention by his adamant insistence that only members of the Roman Catholic Church could be saved.

The Contemporary Roman Catholic Position

The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) of the 1960s marked a watershed in Roman Catholic teaching on many issues, including the inclusivity of salvation. But already in the previous century there were signs of revised doctrine. Even while he was condemning "latitudinarian" claims in the 1860s, Pius IX also taught that people who are "invincibly ignorant" (i.e., through no fault of their own) about Christianity and follow the natural law may attain eternal life. In the 1949 Feeney case mentioned above, the Vatican itself became involved and declared, contrary to Feeney, that non-Catholics of good will could be saved by "implicit desire," for they would become members of the Roman church if they knew its true identity.

By the mid-twentieth century, there were major changes afoot among Roman Catholic theologians about such issues. Among a younger generation of brilliant theologians, men such as Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac were pushing Roman Catholics to rethink their traditional notions about nature and grace, advocating notions of the broad availability of grace through God's universal saving will. Rahner developed the idea of "anonymous Christianity," which affirms that God reveals himself and works salvation through non-Christian religions, such that people might be reckoned as "Christians" without ever hearing the name of Christ.

Vatican II embraced these theological trends and gave them official expression, most clearly in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, entitled Lumen Gentium ("Light of the Nations"). Lumen Gentium (sect. 15) makes notably positive statements about non-Roman Catholic Christians, recognizing that they are truly baptized, united with Christ, and hence "in some real way … joined with us in the Holy Spirit." Lumen Gentium (sect. 16) also professes that "those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God." This includes Jews, "Mohammedans," and those "who in shadows and images seek the unknown God." It then states: "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." The subsequent Catechism of the Catholic Church (sects. 839-48) reaffirmed these declarations.

In 2000, Rome reiterated this teaching and guarded against misinterpretations, through a declaration called Dominus Iesus, primarily authored by Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI. Although acknowledging that salvation is available outside the walls of the Roman church, it defended the idea that grace always comes through Christ and his church (even if indirectly) and that the church must do missionary work. Truth exists in non-Roman Christian churches, but its efficacy derives from the Roman Catholic Church. God makes himself present and spiritually edifies people through sacred books of non-Christian religions, yet these books "receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain." Yet how exactly does God bring saving grace to people outside the Roman church (yet through the Roman church)? Dominus Iesus points back to Vatican II and says it happens "in ways known only to" God.

As the late cardinal of New York, Avery Dulles, put it: "Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God's promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God's saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted."

Reformed Reflections

It is difficult to disagree with Roman Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx when he concludes that the Council of Florence and Vatican II "are diametrically opposed" on this issue (though he wryly notes that "there are always theologians who are able to reconcile the two statements in the abstract in an unhistorical way with some so-called hermeneutical acrobatics"). Catholic apologists in our own day appeal to the certainty and unchanging character of their own church's teaching, and their arguments often seem compelling to Protestants who are weary of ecclesiastical divisions. But this area of theology provides one example (among others) of how Roman doctrine has indeed changed over the years. Rome used to have a very exclusive doctrine of salvation, but it has become quite inclusive in recent generations.

Yet the issues explored above also illustrate fundamental differences between Rome and the Reformation that continue today. For example, even after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church continues to place itself at the center of things (arguably, even more so than before, in light of its rejection of biblical infallibility). While the Reformation recognized the Scriptures as primary and the church as subservient to the Word, Rome placed its tradition and the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Roman Church) over the Scriptures. At present, when Rome may seem at first glance to be very generous toward other religious bodies, in fact it claims that any truth or goodness found in other churches or religions is mediated mysteriously through the Roman Catholic Church itself. Rome would not deny that God works in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, but whatever grace he bestows upon her members is somehow mediated through Rome. Other examples of classic Reformation-Rome debates are also evident in the issues explored above, such as the issue of total depravity and whether people outside of Christ can truly be sincere seekers of God.

As we think back and give thanks for the Reformation this month, I conclude with four brief points that Reformed believers should reaffirm in light of Rome's teaching as discussed above. First, there are indeed elements of truth and noble accomplishments among non-Christians. But this is the fruit of God's providential common grace, not manifestations of a universal saving grace.

Second, non-Christian religions do serve certain beneficial purposes in this world. Many world religions, for example, promote the good of marriage and family. But we should not understand non-Christian religions as fundamentally oriented and striving toward the true God. At heart they are idolatrous, for all people—no matter how outwardly noble—are ultimately rebels against God, not people who, in Dulles's words, "sincerely seek God" (see Rom. 3:9-18).

Third, the church must proclaim the gospel—the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. And it must do so, not as a way of bringing to fruition the legitimate strivings of people in other religions, but as a fundamental challenge to people's basic posture toward God, which apart from knowing Christ is fundamentally hostile and rebellious.

Finally, though we must of course humbly recognize the mysterious limits of revelation about how God deals with the vast numbers of people who have never heard the gospel, we should also confess with Paul that, apart from Christ and the promises of the covenant, people are without God and without hope in this world, a sad plight that is remedied through the revelation of the mystery of Christ as manifest in the church (see Eph. 2-3). By grace we are saved, through faith (Eph. 2:8), and faith comes through hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:9-17). The law is known through natural revelation, but the gospel is manifest only in Scripture and the preaching of it. Thus, for Reformed churches, the ministry of the Word must remain supreme.

The author, an OP minister, is Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. New Horizons, October 2011.

New Horizons: October 2011

Roman Catholicism

Also in this issue

Loving Our Neighbors Together: Reformed-Catholic Cooperation?

Woman to Woman: Where Shall I Go?

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