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“Ask a Priest: Can Non-Catholic Christians Be Saved?”
Q: Okay, so I’m a Catholic but my parents are devout Baptists, and I recently discovered the “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” doctrine. Does this say that they will not be saved since they aren’t Catholics? I’m really worried about them. -B.M.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Thanks for your show of love for your parents. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church there is no salvation) is a commonly misunderstood teaching. It assuredly does not mean that non-Catholics are doomed.
What it does do is point to Christ as the one mediator and path of salvation. And since he continues to be present on earth in his body the Church, the Church by its nature is an instrument for salvation.
The Catechism in No. 846 recognizes the need for this doctrine to be understood properly: “Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the [Second Vatican] Council teaches 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, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence 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.”
No. 847 adds, “This affirmation 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.”
These points could be restated like this: Whether a person realizes or not, his salvation would come through the Church as the body of Christ. This is part of Christ’s plan. Even a non-Christian could be saved, since through no fault of his own he might never have heard of the Gospel or made the connection between the Gospel message and the Church. No. 1257 of the Catechism notes, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” This doesn’t mean that we Catholics should neglect our duty to spread the truth of the Gospel; it just means that God will never be unfair.
This principle applies to non-Catholic Christians as well; many have a deep love for Christ and live exemplary lives yet for various reasons they never entered into full communion with the Church.
All this assumes good will on the part of the person, of course. The good news is that there is hope for everyone to obtain salvation. Your own example as a loving son and a fervent Catholic might go a long way to bring your parents closer to the Church. I pray that that happens. God bless.