“Ask a Priest: What of Salvation Outside the Church?”

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Q: Let me preface this by saying I am not religious, so forgive me if I say something incorrect. I have two friends who are both strong Catholics; both of them attend Mass on a weekly basis, are confirmed, and have been members of the Church since their youth. Recently, we got onto the topics of ascension to heaven, and salvation outside of the Catholic faith. Both friends agreed that nearly all people who are granted salvation first go through purgatory to be cleansed of their sins, and they both seemed to agree that one could still attain salvation outside of the Catholic Church. However, the disagreement started when talking about specifically who outside of the Church could attain it. One friend claimed people who were ignorant of the Church (those from remote areas, other religions, etc.) would be saved but spend a longer time in purgatory. He also said that people who were aware of the Church and did not follow it (atheists, etc.) but lived good, caring lives could also attain salvation, but, again, would spend longer time in purgatory. Friend No. 2 seemed to have no problem with the first point of those who did not know of the Church’s teachings; however, he strongly disagreed with the point of those who lived good lives being able to go to heaven without faith. He called it Pelagianism and claimed my first friend believed in heresy. He cited some parts of the Catechism which talk of “willful ignorance” and said that only those who are unknowing or incapable of understanding would be granted salvation, NOT those who choose to deny it. He did admit God was allowed to “bend the rules,” so to speak, but that officially, deniers do not get heaven, regardless of how their lives were lived. At that point, I was inclined to believe friend No. 2, as he was able to cite these specific passages. However, friend No. 1 pointed out a particular interview he saw in which a cardinal said being an atheist (assuming he lives his life morally) is fine in God’s eyes, as it is that individual’s way of seeking God’s truth. However, this seems to me to be contradictory to the points in the Catechism. I’m sorry if this is long-winded, but I’m having trouble as to what to make of this. -K.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your note and for your obvious deep interest in following some complicated issues.

The questions you raise have sparked debates for a long time. It’s not easy to put things in nice, neat categories, especially since we are dealing with a certain amount of mystery.

I could clarify a few points. The phrase “No salvation outside the Church” has caused a lot of heated debate, especially since some people point to a papal teaching from centuries ago that seems to exclude non-Christians from any chance at salvation.

Suffice it to say that no salvation outside the Church means that, however God might save a soul, he will do this through the merits of his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is head of the Church, and so it can be said that salvation flows through him and thus through the Church he founded.

An analogy might help. Let’s say the police force in your town is very good at keeping down crime. The protection afforded by the police protects all the citizens, whether they are even aware of the police force or not. So it is with the Church: Whether people realize it or not, the grace they need to attain salvation is filtered, so to speak, through the Church.

As to people who are visibly outside the Church or who have never heard of Christianity, the Second Vatican Council in its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, said, “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” (no. 16).

People who aren’t Catholic, thus, could attain salvation by following their conscience and trying to live good lives. God will bless them.

Where it gets tricky is when we speak of people who have heard of Christianity, have heard of the Catholic Church, are aware of some of its doctrines and practices, etc., and yet they don’t join it or even actively reject it. Do they have a chance at salvation? It depends.

It depends on how accurate their knowledge of the Church is, on what their intentions were, or whether they were influenced by the scandalous lives of Catholics. Only God knows the human heart, and only he alone can really judge the state of a soul.

As to the length of time a soul spends in purgatory, that is impossible to say. Time as such isn’t the same after a person’s death as before. Also, Christians and especially Catholics will be held to a higher standard of conduct than, say, a person who never had much religious formation.

I’m not sure exactly what that cardinal said about atheists and when, so I can only guess here.

He might have in mind a person who sincerely is trying to live a good life and who is searching for the truth. Since God is the absolute Good and the absolute Truth, an “atheist” might in effect be searching for the Almighty without realizing it. In other words, what a self-described atheist calls “absolute truth,” a believer calls “God.” In a sense, both express something of the Almighty.

If all this seems complicated, there is another factor to consider. Faith is a gift. It requires some kind of assent from a person, yet it is also a gift of God. Which explains why some people have it and others – including seemingly very good people – don’t have it.

I won’t pretend to have any explanation for why God seems to give the gift to some people (who might squander it) and not to others (who seem to want it). But then God cautioned, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8).

I hope some of this helps. God bless.

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