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“Ask a Priest: Could Someone Who Believes in the Church Still Remain Non-Catholic?”
Q: Can a Protestant be saved even though he knows what the Catholic Church is and what it teaches and still remain Protestant? If a person is faithful to God, does it really matter which church he belongs to? – A.S.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: If you mean that the Protestant came to believe that the Catholic faith was the true faith, then it seems that the person would have an obligation to pursue entrance into the Church. A person who recognizes the veracity of the Church but doesn’t pursue entrance into it could be putting himself at risk.
This raises an obvious question: If the Protestant believes everything the Church teaches, why wouldn’t he become a Catholic? Presumably there is something holding him back.
Part of believing in the Church is believing that it is Jesus’ chosen instrument for helping people reach heaven.
As to your question about being faithful to God: If a person came to believe that a certain path was the right path, then by necessity that would oblige him to follow that path. That is how being faithful takes shape.
As to whether it matters what “church” a person belongs to if he “is faithful to God”: Yes, it makes a difference.
I would point back to the start of this answer. Christ gave his life for his bride, the Church. And the Church subsists in the Catholic Church.
Christ gave the Church authority over the sacraments, and he gave it authority to teach the fullness of what God has revealed for our salvation. Christ didn’t establish a variety of churches and denominations. He established one Church.
That means God is not indifferent toward what is commonly referred to as churches or denominations. In fact, some of them teach very different things, and some of them (perhaps unwittingly) undercut Christ’s plan for the Church.
Many denominations, for instance, reject the idea of the Eucharist and the priesthood and the sacrament of confession. Jehovah’s Witnesses go so far as to claim that Christ is inferior to God and that he was created. These aren’t small matters.
With good reason Jesus prayed for his followers, “that they may all be one” (John 17:21). He knew that disunity and a falling away from the true Church would occur, and that wasn’t his ideal plan for us.
Now, a person who grew up, say, in a denomination and who tried to live a good life and who didn’t know much about the Catholic Church – this person could nevertheless grow in favor before God.
He wouldn’t have the fullness of what Christ wants to offer through the sacraments. But such a person could still attain to heaven if he followed his conscience and lived an upright life.
This isn’t, however, quite the same as saying that it doesn’t matter what religious affiliation a person embraces.
God will judge more lightly those who, by no fault of their own, don’t come to full knowledge of the Church.
But the fact remains that Christ established the Church, not a denomination or a sect. Beliefs matter.
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