I am addressing this to you as my boss for Catholic Inquiry but also because your family was the main party involved in the discussion last Tuesday’s Courtyard Theology.  There were a couple areas of discussion I found disturbing and while they were probably oversimplified to fit the audience I think they left an impression that is not really Church teaching.


Here are the two areas and my impression of them followed by a rather lengthy explanation of my concern.


The first was Carla’s analogy of the Church being like a river flowing into an ocean which is heaven and all the other non-Catholic religions being tributaries that still lead people to heaven.  The impression this left me with is that it is perfectly acceptable to stray from the formal Catholic Church and if you are good, and “love” the Lord or “believe” in the Lord you will float along to heaven.


The second area regarded a question which I believe came from your mother-in-law about a daughter, your sister-in-law, who has chosen as an adult to leave the Catholic Church and I assume became some kind of Protestant Christian.  The answer given as I heard it and interpreted it was “That’s OK. No big deal.  Don’t worry.  As long as she loves the Lord she will get to heaven.”  I think it is a very big deal for someone to leave the Catholic Church.


Both these examples were made within the context of the Catholic teaching that you can still get to heaven even if you are not “officially” in the Catholic Church because you might be ignorant.  Overall I was left with the impression that the teaching is that most people will get to heaven as long as they don’t outright reject the Lord and/or his Church and they can reject the Church if they feel comfortable doing so.


Janice, I think the proper Catholic answer to your mother-in-law is that your sister-in-law was brought up in a good Catholic family and has had more than ample opportunity to know and love Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  She even has a sister-in-law (you) with a Masters degree in Theology.  For her to reject the Church, according to Church teaching, is a grave sin and seriously putting her eternal soul at risk.  While Jesus in His mercy may forgive this rejection His biblical teaching and the teaching of His Church do not tell us to count on that.


In the final pages of his book Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, Cardinal Ratzinger disagrees and says that “like the Corinthians, we too run the risk of fragmenting the Church into factional strife in which every contestant develops hies own idea of Christianity.  In this way the rightness of one’s own position becomes more important than God’s claim on us, than being right before him.  Our own idea conceals from the the word of the living God, and the Church disappears behind the parties that grow out of our personal opinion.” 


On more than one occasion I have heard Father Patrick refer to this as “creating God in our own image” instead of the other way around.  And yet I heard nothing like that the other night.  I only heard what I can only describe as niceties, political correctness, or the like.


I think that unfortunately, many Catholics do not understand the position of the Catholic Church concerning salvation apart from a formal link with the Church. Nor do they understand the relationship between other religions and the fullness of the truth we have in Christ. These two issues are very much related.


I know that it is popular to say that “anyone who is a good person will go to heaven, no matter what he or she believes,” but that is not the truth of the matter. What you believe and practice means everything in this life!  I know that no one went so far last night as to say the above statement but they came very close and absolutely minimized the necessity of being part of the Catholic Church.


A Jew will not make it to heaven by being a good Jew, or a Muslim by being a good Muslim, a Protestant by being a good Protestant etc. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man can come to the Father except by me.” He seems to be quite plain in this text that he is essential to the equation. And not only is Christ essential to the equation, but also Christ speaking through his Church! “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16).


Janice, your sister-in-law heard the successors of the apostles through the Catholic Church and by leaving the Church has rejected them, and by rejecting them has rejected Christ.  The very first paragraphs of the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism state this very plainly when it states “Those who are now born into those communities and who are brought up in the faith of Christ cannot be accused with the sin of sof separation”.  This statement surely implies that those who of their own free will leave the Catholic Church would be guilty of the sin of separation.


 The Church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). The Church is Christ in the world. It is almighty God who willed “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known” (Ephesians 3:10). To reject the Church is to reject Christ because it was Christ who gave authority to the Church and said, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:17-18).


Right before that Jesus said if you have disagreements “take it to the Church”.  He does not say “find another church”, or “found your own church” or “do what you feel comfortable doing”.


You cannot separate rejecting the Church with rejecting Christ according to Scripture, and as I will try and show below, according to the teaching of the Church as well. In other words, one cannot just create their own religion and follow the “Jesus” of their own choosing, according to the Bible.  The 40,000+ Christian denominations are not 40,000+ tributaries all leading to the ocean of heaven.


"We are the guardians of something given, and given to the Church universal; something which is not the result of reflection, however competent, on cultural and social questions of the day, and is not merely the best path among many, but the one and only path to salvation." (John Paul II, "I Confirm You to Truth," Address to Joint Assembly of the U. S. Archbishops and the Department Heads of the Roman Curia, March 11, 1989, The Pope Speaks, 34 (September/October, 1989), pp. 254-55).


Having said all that, the Church also teaches the possibility of salvation for people who do not have a formal relationship with the Church (see CCC 839-848), but do have a salvific relationship with the Church. Why do we believe this? Well, similar to what we saw above, it begins with Christ. In the very next chapter after Jesus makes his famous statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life…” the same Jesus said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin” (see also John 9:41). Jesus presents a very important principle here. A person is not responsible for what they could not have known. The implication here is that it is possible to have a salvific link with Christ without knowing him formally. In the same way, one can have a salvific relationship with the Church without knowing the truth that the Church is the fullness of Christ on this earth (see also the case of Cornelius in Acts 10:1-4, 34-35).


I believe what is meant by a “formal relationship” with the Church is that a person is Catholic, in a state of grace, and considers themselves officially a member of the Catholic Church. . However, as I said before, a person can possibly have a salvific link with Christ and his Church in various ways some of which are known to God alone (see Lumen Gentium 16). This can be via the valid sacraments they may have, e.g., all seven with the Orthodox, baptism and matrimony with Protestants, etc. Or, it may be via the bits and pieces of truth that the various world religions possess. James 1:17 assures us that “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Truth is truth anywhere it is found and Christ is the truth. So, if these folks are truly seeking God and have not rejected the fullness of the truth in the Church (because again, Lumen Gentium 14 says, “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it, or to remain in it.”), they can be saved.


That does not mean they will be saved. It means they can be.  I think the impression left by the statements made in the Courtyard Theology was they will be saved, no big deal if they were officially Catholic or not.  The other are minimized was “ignorance”.  I think a problem people have is “willful ignorance”.  I want to do what I want to do so I will claim ignorance.  We are called to know, love, and serve God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  St Augustine says “if you truly believe the Catholic Church is wrong you are honor bound to leave it  but in the context I believe he warns that you better do your homework.


If you sister-in-law left the Church she had better be able to present solid arguments of how she – with all her mind, heart, and strength – studied all the issues and came to that conclusion.  How she rejected the Eucharist, Confession, the Papacy, the Mass, etc, etc, etc.


As Pope Pius XII said in his encyclical letter of June 29, 1943, Mystici Corporis: “Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed.” He goes on to say that others are “related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire.” He makes clear that these can be saved, but “they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.”


So to imply your sister-in-law’s rejection of the Catholic Church is no big deal is to imply that such great gifts of Christ found only in the Catholic Church such as the Eucharist and Confession and the Mass are also “no big deal”.  Yikes!


I think I should emphasize what Pope Pius XII mentioned in that last statement above; that is, that it is difficult to be saved apart from a formal union with the Church. The Church has taught that there must be three things present in order for salvation to be possible for those who are not in a formal relationship with the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a letter of August 8, 1949, by direction of Pope Pius XII, said:


“But it must not be thought that any kind of desire of entering the Church suffices that one may be saved. It is necessary that the desire by which one is related to the Church be animated by perfect charity. Nor can an implicit desire produce its effect, unless a person has supernatural faith: “For he who comes to God must believe that God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Hebrew 11:6).”


So, one must be 1) Invincibly ignorant of the truth, i.e., not responsible for their ignorance. 2) They must be animated by perfect charity. 3) They must have supernatural faith.


I say again “Yikes”!


One can never know if one has attained to “perfect charity” in this life. That is a high standard. It is possible, but it is a high standard. This should make very clear that we must evangelize everyone so that they can have the certainty of hope that only comes via the sacraments and union with the Church.


Having said that I think it is important that we emphasize that “No Salvation Outside the Church” is a dogma of our Faith. I believe that in many quarters the possibility of salvation for those who are not formally Catholic has been taken to such an extreme that it has led to a type of religious indifferentism and is sinful.


“No Salvation Outside the Church” has been infallibly taught and reiterated by the Fourth Lateran Council, Pope Boniface VIII (Unam Sanctam) the Councils of Lyons, Florence, Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II and more. And this is for a reason I quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 846-848, which also quotes paragraphs 14 and 16 of Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, from Vatican II):


‘Outside the Church there is no salvation’—How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body (emphasis added):


Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the 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 (citing Lumen Gentium 14).


This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church (emphasis added):


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 (Lumen Gentium 16).


‘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’ (Ad Gentes 7).” (CCC 846-848)


Janice, this reminds me of the saying “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  I can’t believe based on my limited knowledge of your family that your sister-in-law could be ignorant of the truth “through no fault of her own.”  We live in a culture that tries to deny responsibility for all its actions.  Ask yourself, “Is the Smith family one where justifiable ignorance of the Catholic Church can be found?”  I highly doubt it.


You might also want to check out the footnotes in paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium (nos. 17 and 18) which reference St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica III q. 8 a. 3 ad 1 and the Instruction of the Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949 that I quoted earlier. These make very clear that anyone who is ever saved is not saved by his or her false religions (i.e. Judaism that rejects Christ, Islam, etc.); rather, they are saved in spite of them. If they are ignorant of the truth through no fault of their own (they have never had the opportunity to hear and understand the truth), then the limited amount of truth that they do have “among shadows and images” and “all goodness and truth found in these religions [serve] as ‘a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life’ (CCC 843).”


There are four key points that I believe we need to remember here. 1) No one who rejects the truth will be saved. It doesn’t matter how good of a Muslim, Jew, Baptist, or anything else one is. If one rejects the truth of Christ and his Church they will be lost. If you, I or any Catholic rejects the truth of the Catholic Faith, we will be lost! 2) Religions that have as tenants of their respective faiths, the rejection of Jesus and his Church have no power to save anyone. It is “the truth that makes us free” (cf. John 8:32) not falsehood. 3) In the case of one who is ignorant of the truth of the Catholic Faith, “through no fault of their own” they can be saved, if they are truly “invincibly ignorant, [not willfully ignorant] are given the supernatural virtue of faith and have perfect charity in their hearts” (cf. Instruction of Holy Office of Dec. 20, 1949). 4) We must remember that we are not the judges of salvation. God is the only and final judge. We do not know who is truly “invincibly ignorant” and who is not. Therefore, we must be careful to “evangelize all men” as the Catechism commands us and leave the judging to God (see I Cor. 4:2-5).


We have to remember as the fathers of Vatican II said, “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life” (Lumen Gentium 16). The truths that Muslims, Jews, Protestants, etc. have serve as a preparation for the gospel. And if they seek the true God given the light they have received, they have the possibility of salvation. But this does not mean they are not in need of the Eucharist! Without the grace that comes from the sacraments, one is at a decided disadvantage to get to heaven. And if one has rejected the truth, then there is no way they can get to heaven! The Church makes very clear: “The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God” (CCC 1445).


If anyone makes it to heaven apart from the ordinary means of a formal union with the Church, they will only do so through a salvific link with the Church that comes via extraordinary means. And anyone who rejects the Church will be lost. It is absolutely contrary to the Faith to say that someone who has left the Faith “is okay.” It may well be that a person who left the Faith may have had such a distorted notion of what the Church truly is and what she teaches that there may not be culpability. Again, we don’t know. However, it may well be that they are culpable. And no amount of “church” attendance or prayer, etc. will get them to heaven. One might even “deliver [one’s] body to be burned” (I Cor. 13:3) and it will “profit nothing” apart from union with Christ and his Church because it is only the divine life and charity of Christ in us that can save us. So we must take extremely seriously anyone who has left the faith or anyone who is not in union with the Church because objectively speaking, (barring invincible ignorance, etc.) souls are on the line!


I will close with a rather long set of quotes:


Accordingly, the Most Eminent and Most Reverend Cardinals of this Supreme Congregation, in a plenary session held on Wednesday, July 27, 1949, decreed, and the august Pontiff in an audience on the following Thursday, July 28, 1949, deigned to give his approval, that the following explanations pertinent to the doctrine, and also that invitations and exhortations relevant to discipline be given:

We are bound by divine and Catholic faith to believe all those things which are contained in the word of God, whether it be Scripture or Tradition, and are proposed by the Church to be believed as divinely revealed, not only through solemn judgment but also through the ordinary and universal teaching office (Denzinger, n. 1792).

Now, among those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to preach is contained also that infallible statement by which we are taught that there is no salvation outside the Church.

However, this dogma must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it. For, it was not to private judgments that Our Savior gave for explanation those things that are contained in the deposit of faith, but to the teaching authority of the Church.

Now, in the first place, the Church teaches that in this matter there is question of a most strict command of Jesus Christ. For He explicitly enjoined on His apostles to teach all nations to observe all things whatsoever He Himself had commanded (Matt. 28: 19-20).

Now, among the commandments of Christ, that one holds not the least place by which we are commanded to be incorporated by baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church, and to remain united to Christ and to His Vicar, through whom He Himself in a visible manner governs the Church on earth.

Therefore, no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth.

Not only did the Savior command that all nations should enter the Church, but He also decreed the Church to be a means of salvation without which no one can enter the kingdom of eternal glory.

In His infinite mercy God has willed that the effects, necessary for one to be saved, of those helps to salvation which are directed toward man's final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing. This we see clearly stated in the Sacred Council of Trent, both in reference to the sacrament of regeneration and in reference to the sacrament of penance (Denzinger, nn. 797, 807).

The same in its own degree must be asserted of the Church, in as far as she is the general help to salvation. Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.

However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God. ...

Therefore, let them who in grave peril are ranged against the Church seriously bear in mind that after "Rome has spoken" they cannot be excused even by reasons of good faith. Certainly, their bond and duty of obedience toward the Church is much graver than that of those who as yet are related to the Church "only by an unconscious desire." Let them realize that they are children of the Church, lovingly nourished by her with the milk of doctrine and the sacraments, and hence, having heard the clear voice of their Mother, they cannot be excused from culpable ignorance, and therefore to them apply without any restriction that principle: submission to the Catholic Church and to the Sovereign Pontiff is required as necessary for salvation. (Holy Office under Pope Pius XII, Letter Suprema Haec Sacra)

Some say they are not bound by the doctrine, explained in Our Encyclical Letter of a few years ago, and based on the Sources of Revelation, which teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing. Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation. (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Humani Generis, §27)

This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. (Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, §14)

First, the council professes its belief that God Himself has made known to mankind the way in which men are to serve Him, and thus be saved in Christ and come to blessedness. We believe that this one true religion subsists in the Catholic and Apostolic Church, to which the Lord Jesus committed the duty of spreading it abroad among all men. Thus He spoke to the Apostles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have enjoined upon you" (Matt. 28: 19-20). On their part, all men are bound to seek the truth, especially in what concerns God and His Church, and to embrace the truth they come to know, and to hold fast to it. (Vatican Council II, Dignitatis Humanae, §1)