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Can there be salvation outside of the Church?

What happens to a good person who is not a practising Christian?

By on Thursday, 19 July 2012

What happens to someone who is a good person but not a practising Christian? That was the second question put by my former parishioner, which I mentioned in the last post. 

This is a huge question, and one that has vexed theologians for a long time. It is also the one question that always commands immense attention whenever it comes up in discussions about the faith in a parish setting.

I do not want to go into the history of the question, or get into a footnote heavy discussion, but rather to provide a useful answer for the here and now.

First of all, there are a lot of good people about, people who never go to Church, and who seem to be able to live without religion, but who are nevertheless good people. It would be a mistake to deny that they are good, or to claim that their goodness is an illusion. But it would be true, I think, to say that their lives lack something.

Their lives lack an explicit spiritual dimension, though, in conversation with them, one might find that they do have some spiritual awareness, though this may be rather unfocussed. What we as Christians should try to do is to engage with them on this wavelength and see if we can find something explicit in this implicit spirituality.

Their lives clearly lack an explicit faith in God, and this, though they may not realise it, means that they lack something important, namely God’s approval. Ignorance is never pleasing to God (how could it be?) and God wants to be known and loved by all; therefore if someone does not know God, this is a serious lack in their life. Yet, even though God does not approve of their ignorance of Him, we cannot say that God does not love them. God is love. Moreover, God loves human goodness, and therefore he looks kindly on all those who live good lives. Their goodness is not illusory: God, looking at their good deeds sees and loves in them what he sees and loves in Jesus Christ His Son, the Virgin Mary and all the Saints.

And yet we are told in the Scriptures and in the constant tradition of the Church that salvation is of Christ the Lord and that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Outside Christ there is no salvation. This cannot be denied. I could quote numerous verses of Scripture to back this up – but I would rather just point to the whole of Scripture as bearing witness to Christ and salvation through Him.

Could these good people who do not know Christ explicitly, or who may have heard of Him but not responded to Him (at least not explicitly), could they somehow be people who belong to Christ without really knowing it themselves?

This is the usual answer to the question, one associated with the theology of Karl Rahner and his theory about what he calls “anonymous Christians”.

But I would prefer not to get stuck into Rahner, much as I think he was onto something of importance in his theory, even though it has its difficulties. I would rather go with the idea I once heard advanced in a sermon on Our Lord’s words about the vine and the branches. Some branches are clearly and visibly grafted onto the vine; other branches may be hanging onto the vine despite the fact that they have seemingly been broken off, yet they are part of the vine still.

Thus there may be baptised Christians fully participating in the life of the Church; and baptised Christians who seemingly are cut off, but are hanging by a thread or two, and receiving the grace of Christ. But it goes further: the grace of Christ in its operations transcends the physical structures of the Church. There may be those who participate in the grace of Christ without having any visible connection with his Church at all. Nevertheless that connexion may be real and effective.

I may have dug myself into a terrible hole over this, but I would stress one last thing. If someone, like my questioner’s son-in-law, is a good person who never goes to Church, and who seemingly has no need for or interest in religion, we should view this state of affairs as a challenge. We should not think he should be left as he is, but try our best to engage with him and to bring him into the Church. That must be the will of God, who, after all, founded the church to be the Ark of Salvation and a house of prayer for all nations.

  • paulpriest

    Banging head on the wall…there is absolutely no reason to dig holes when the answer is obvious:

    The Church is the purpose of Creation
    After death those who dwell in the Church Penitent or Triumphant – will all be Catholic!
    There is but One Baptism into One Church.

    ..and all those who have died neither knowing nor fully recognising & understanding Christ – will be given the opportunity to die to themselves and be reborn in Baptism.

    None will be lost save those who will it – who choose to enter Hell and lock the door behind them.

    Why wring one’s hands and fret over non-existent and fallaciously speculative hypotheticals while we have the Promises of Christ?

  • Parepidemos

    Wasn’t it Augustine who said, “Many whom God has, the Church does not have”? Christ is, indeed, the Saviour of the human race and He died and rose to save all people. Salvation is not something we ‘get’ by accepting Christ (as fundamentalist Protestants would declare); we are already saved by what happened some 2,000 years ago. It is up to us to accept that redemption according to our circumstances. I agree that there is something vital missing in the lives of those who are atheist or agnostic. I also believe that there is something beautiful missing, not only in the lives of non-Christian people of faith but also those who are not Catholic. This does not mean that we are any better, simply more blessed.

    I know a former primary school teacher (now in her 90s) who lived through World War II. She shared that, upon entering Heaven, once she said “Hello”  Christ, Mary, her favourite saints and her family, she wanted to find Adolph Hitler and ask him why he did what he did. I find such an attitude towards salvation tremendously encouraging. This doesn’t rob people of free will, but does place due and proper emphasis on God’s understanding of who we are and why we do what we do.

  • Jason Clifford

    It is wrong to call someone good who has no relationship with God. Doing so relies upon a definition of goodness that is centred upon something other than God – upon man’s own definition of what is right and wrong in defiance, whether deliberate or not, of God.

    This does not mean that a godless person is bad however we must never forget that the godless man simply cannot be good.

    There is no salvation outside the Church because there is no salvation without Jesus Christ. It’s not about membership is an organisation or about practice of religion. On their own these things are good for nothing but the fact remains that our salvation comes only through membership of Christ in the Church and obedience to His commands including his commands of religious observance.

    A man living what seems to be a good life without God may be in a worse position that a man living a “bad” life for the “good” man may believe that he is “good” on his own strength and power and so be unwilling to throw himself onto the mercy of God when faced with the truth of his sins.

  • Chris Parker

    Honestly? Hitler in Heaven?

    That’s not an encouraging view of salvation at all.

    If you can’t be confident about his damnation, you can hardly be confident in a just God.

  • pooka

    The title of the article asks a very straight forward question.  “Can there be salvation outside of the Church?”  which the article singularly fails to answer. “Yes”, “No” or “Don’t know” would do.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    I’m no Universalist, but I think it’s important to know what we mean by justice. Originally, justice never meant retribution, but restoration i.e. things being fixed.

    Okay, I really doubt that Hitler is in Heaven, but what would that say about God?

    It would say that God’s love can conquer anything, and that is a very, very long way from being unencouraging!

  • Catholic Youth Work

    This is a topic which comes up again and again in pastoral settings. A few years back I even had a friend who works for the Church asking me (not sure why me?) for some affirmation that his lapsed adult children would be with him in heaven.

    The best answer I have ever found on this topic comes from Dominus Iesus, the 2000 (I think?) document from the CDF. As an old friend of mine put it, ‘Ratzinger’s CDF at it’s very best.’

    It’s a great document which begins with Catholics and then goes through every different group – Orthodox, Protestants, Other monotheists, other religions, and finally those with no faith at all – and recounts their relationship with Christ and his Church. At every stage, the possibility of Salvation is held out and the door is never completely closed.

    It’s a fascinating area, which I suspect has even more to tell us about God’s love than we realise.

  • karlf

    “At every stage, the possibility of Salvation is held out and the door is never completely closed” So surely after death, when people see that God and Jesus exist they will all become Christians. What’s the problem?

  • karlf

     After all, God sat back and watched Hitler murder millions of innocents without lifting a finger to help them.

  • Alan

    Surely the article has answered “yes”?  But this does not, of course, mean that Church membership is unimportant. 
    On the broader issue, should we really be obsessing so much about who will, or will not, be saved?  We should live our lives as best we can (which, for Catholics, means belonging to the Church) and leave the judgement to God.

  • Tomcanning

    Jason exactly at Aquinas added his exemption – to people who have never been approached by a priest to Learn the words of Christ  BUT acts like he has – will also be saved – those who reject  the words of Christ will be condemned 

  • Tomcanning

            well no but your idea is very popular – fact is wars are punishments for not doing God’s will – and we deserve them- now have aquick look around the world – how many wars etc – how many have rejected God – how many are in JPII’s “silent Apostasy” – you don’t think we are ALL being punished – how many earthquakes – floods – fires – financial fiddlers – where’s the money to fix all  these problems … ? Think about it to-day…! 

  • C_monsta

    Millions of innocent children are left to suffer horribly, as they have been left to suffer throughout history. You think about that Tom.

  • aearon43

    I read it as saying “no,” but qualifying that with a nuanced account of what constitutes membership…

  • amator Dei

    Religious people are very good at bandying around their high-sounding religious talk as if it means something and they know what it means, but a lot of the time it is most unclear. How can you talk about where salvation is to be found if you do not first establish what salvation is? I read, I think in the the code of canon law, that baptism is necessary for salvation. If that is so, what about the zillions of people who, for no fault of their own, lived before there was any baptism? Is it God’s will that they should not be saved? The only sensible thing to believe is that if God is a God of infinite love and compassion, as I imagine Christians including Catholics think he is, then it must be his will that everyone be saved and he has some means of bringing it about even for those who explicitly reject him. So everyone potentially can be drawn by God intra ecclesiam. This is what the Church needs to make clear – rather than making up God’s mind about who can be saved for him.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    The problem is that it’s not  test of intellect or loyalty; it’s about goodness and virtue. Christ is the way to Salvation because he is the perfect embodiment of that, and not because of an arbitrary demand for worship.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    Like your comment above, this is a very complex area, which doesn’t really lend itself to the thrust and parry of combox discussions!

    I guess a really short answer would be that we don’t know exactly what God did in those situations, but we can be certain that he has to leave the world with a certain amount of randomness and chaos for free-will to have any meaning whatsoever.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    I don’t think anybody remotely sane says that they “deserve it”.

    It’s a view you might find on the web here and there but it’s a long way from the mainstream Christian view of things.

    Some might say that wars are a result of ignoring God and ignoring what’s good and right, but to go from there to saying that those who suffer deserve it is just plain crazy!

  • Cestius

    The problem is the Bible tells you what you need to do for salvation, and the sacraments of Holy Church are gifts of the Holy Spirit to help you along the right path, but the Bible doesn’t tell you any more than that.  Speculative questions about what happens to unbelievers, atheists and those that have never heard the word of God are not particularly helpful to us in what we need to do now.  The final judgement is God’s and His alone, and His mercy is greater than any of ours. But whether individual people that do not believe can finally overcome their pride and accept His forgiveness is only known to them and Him.

  • Realist

    ”..and all those who have died neither knowing nor fully recognising & understanding Christ – will be given the opportunity to die to themselves and be reborn in Baptism.”

    So no worry then. Just wait, and choose after death! where does it say that in the Bible?

  • johnm

    God must think that they deserve to suffer otherwise he would make ir otherwise.

  • ChrisM10

    Amen.  God is love.  How can someone who loves and does good not be part of His love?  An excellent article, and in this secular age, very relevant.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    If you take away suffering you take away free will, and then you take away life!!

  • Peter

    The Church gives too much emphasis on sins of commission, and the sacrament of penance to absolve them, and far too little on sins of omission.

    Catholics who participate fully in the life of the Church, attending regular mass, communion and confession, as well as tirelessly fundraising for parish expenses, may be guitly of the sin of indifference towards the poor which is easy to do in a rich society.

    It is this very indifference which will prevent our salvation regardless of how many masses we attend or church roofs we repair.

  • rjt1

    Lumen Gentium states that “At the end of time it [the Church] will gloriously achieve completion, when, as is read in the Fathers, all the just, from Adam and “from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect,”(2*) will be gathered together with the Father in the universal Church.”

    This is a statement about the future life. All those who are saved will, as a matter of fact, be in the Church.

    I don’t think it is necessary to posit “anonymous Christians” but it might be necessary to posit potential Christians – those who are, as it were, on their way – by responding to God’s grace – even if they do not complete their journey into the Church by a public act in this life. One might hope that God will complete their progress at or before(?) death, perhaps by a baptism of desire.

    The Council of Trent taught: In the fourth chapter of the sixth session, in speaking of the necessity of baptism, it says that men can not obtain original justice “except by the washing of regeneration or its desire” (online Catholic Encyclopedia).

  • C_monsta

    What utter nonsense! Do you want to suffer like all those millions who do, and have done so terribly? Would you have more free will and more life? Be honest with yourself at least for goodness sake.
    We have seen that God never helps all those poor and desperate children, whether in Nazi extermination camps or in earthquake rubble. Stop making these silly excuses about free will and randomness and wake up to reality.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    Sorry… you’re too angry for a sensible conversation, so I’m out :)

  • C_monsta

    I’m not ‘too angry’. You are just making an excuse to avoid facing up to what I’m saying.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    No. It’s the first thing!

  • karlf

    “we can be certain that he has to leave the world with a certain amount of randomness and chaos for free-will to have any meaning whatsoever” – even if we did believe that could be true, why then does God not help those afflicted by natural disasters?

  • Catholic Youth Work

    I still think this isn’t great combox fodder, but I’ll try to give you a more complete answer.

    This is fairly simple stuff in theology and philosophy. Here’s how I explain it to students…
    The correlation between free will and unpredictable life is obvious, but once they’ve accepted that most people’s next question is ‘okay, but what about murder or natural disasters’… or cancer, or rape, or any other hot-button topic (usually involving Hitler eventually!)

    Why, they ask, can’t God just cut out the very worst things?

    Well, the answer is that there will always be ‘worst things’ and those things will always seem horrific. If God eliminates earthquakes and paedophiles and cancer then eventually people will say ‘okay, but what about broken legs and getting fired?’ Then God eliminates those and people say ‘okay, but what about headaches and traffic jams?’

    Then it gets to the point where people are asking how an unjust God could allow slow browsing speeds and unseasonal weather.

    Free will required freedom and freedom requires the ability to live a life which isn’t predictable and controlled, and that in turn means that things may not go our way. Sometimes badly so.

    Those who die in natural disasters aren’t forgotten by God. If they die in his grace and favour (and I pray they all will) then they will live with him in happiness forever. Indeed, once we experience just a second or two of heaven, even the worst of what we had on earth will quickly fade away!

    That’s as clear as I can make it in a combox. Especially one which gets thinner with each reply!!

    There are loads of resources on the web if you want to know more. Google ‘Problem of Evil’

  • theroadmaster

    Catholic theology recognizes that ignorance of the reality of Jesus Christ by people around the world can be based on either a willful disregard for His teachings or an unawareness due to a blameless lack of knowledge..  The former condition is termed Culpable Ignorance while the latter is called Invincible ignorance.  In the first case,  if someone who has been brought up in the Christian Faith, and is fully aware of the hope of Salvation promised by Christ, persists in rejecting the Lord by his or her gravely sinful lifestyle, then their souls are in danger of not entering Paradise.  In the second case, people may not be cognisant of the historical and Divine nature of Jesus through no fault of their own, and may yet lead lives of great virtue.  In today’s Internet age, this may sound absurd, but censorship and the reality of competing ideologies and religion still leaves many millions of people unaware of the Christian gospels Technically they are outside the visible Church that Christ founded, and have not been baptized of water and spirit, but through their striving for moral perfection, have shown themselves to be on the path willed by their Creator.  Thus they will not be rejected at the Last Judgement.  Heaven is a house of many mansions as our Lord stated, and the Church in Her wisdom recognizes that

  • Oconnord

    These articles are hugely frustrating. Second guessing by a devout priest. How can someone who has never lapsed understand the lapsed. How could you understand someone who thinks god doesn’t exist, if you’ve spent your live serving him.

    As always the two lazy assumptions are used. A bad experience with the religious or lack of understanding. I would suggest attending a secularist/humanitarian/atheist group meeting. 

  • Parasum

     “Can there be salvation outside of the Church?”

    ## Of course there can’t.

  • Parasum

    “It is wrong to call someone good who has no relationship with God. Doing
    so relies upon a definition of goodness that is centred upon something
    other than God – upon man’s own definition of what is right and wrong in
    defiance, whether deliberate or not, of God.”

    ## Since God is the only standard of right, so that any subordinate standards have to conform to Him, that is undeniable. And it badly needs saying. What happened to “Call no-one “good”, but God alone” ?

  • JabbaPapa

    Salvation is a Grace of God, provided by God, who is Sovereign in these, as in all other, matters.

    No man can say who among the living and the dead that God has chosen for the membership of His Celestial Church — but we are told that the only reliable pathway to that salvation is through membership and adherence to the teachings and structures of His Earthly Church.

  • Cjkeeffe

    Suffering is not neccesarily the will of the Father in Heaven. You may wish to read teh Book of Job
    Kind regards

  • karlf

    “If God eliminates earthquakes and paedophiles and cancer
    then eventually people will say ‘okay, but what about broken legs and getting
    fired?’” This argument would laughable if the implications were not so tragic!
    Can you not even try to consider the extreme, prolonged suffering experienced
    by so many? Do you seriously think we would miss a few wars or famines or atrocities
    if God had secretly prevented them from happening? Would we be complaining that
    our ‘free will’ had been compromised? Unbelievable!

    As Dan Dennett said “The Problem of Evil, capital letters
    and all, is the central enigma confronting theists. There is no solution. Isn’t
    that obvious? All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of
    getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent
    contract–and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the
    implications of the double standard they have invented.”  :)

  • Patrickhowes

    Dear Father Alex,

    You will forgive my rather cynical reply but here goes:

    I actually think that the question should have been.Is there any spirit of Salvation left within the Church?.Throughout  history we have all learned about the heroic actions of priests and other religious to save human souls and indeed people who were willing to lay their life down for the Church.They were resolute in faith and convictions.Nowadays,,Iam of the impression that a priest would not cross over the road to help anyone.They are more obsessed with raising funds for the roof,contradicting the Church´s teaching and “covering their backs”.As for most of the Bishops,they are out of touch with their flock,never reply to correspondence and all trying demonstrate their innocence with regards to the abuse scandals.The problem is not at the top,The Pope is part of the solution.To be a Catholic in 20th century Europe is to be a comfortable Catholic.A politically correct Catholic who has no convictions on anything.Says Yes to everything that society throws your way.

    Many a Catholic and I often think a good catholic is lapsed.Disenchanted with weak leadership and poor examples of so called spiritual people.Jesus Christ was a man of great character and devoid of any material ambitions.He had very clear principles and dedicated his life to save mankind.The Catholic of the past also used to be like that.The likes of Maximillian Kobe etcetera.The Church has not lost its grace but many of those who represent it,have sadly.They are petrified to lift their heads above the parapets for fear of internal politics and their flock writing them nasty letters.So I can understand that many good and disenchanted people will enter heaven,perhaps by the back door.But at least,they will not have betrayed their values and convictions like so many within the Church have.Faiths lose their way in life.the Jewish and Anglican faiths are examples of these.The former by refusing to recognise the Messiah and the latter through its heretical and relativist beginnings.Man cannot eat of bread alone,but what if you are put off by a Church that offers nothing but waffle,empty words and is obsessed with begging all the time.The damage done to the European Catholic Church by its dissident Bishops,surely points to the need to lessen their power.It is archaic and medieval to allocate so much power yet so little accountability and responsability.Sometimes the sheep can teach the shepherd a trick or two!Surely being a Christian is about imitating Christ.The Bishops should be copies of Him but they are more like cardboard effigies of themselvesThey peddle their own agendas and often not the Church´s and sow confusion everywhere.The frustration within the Catholic fold is palpatable.

    We are All made in God´s image and increasingly we have to recall this to find Christ rather than what goes on in Church.”Thous hast made us for ourselves Oh Lord and our hearts are restless til they rest in Thee.Note how St Aug.uses the word heart.To be Christ like is to  love and those who know what true love is,will not be turned away from Heaven.There is no greater Love than He who lays down his life for his friend.We have no greater friend than Christ Himself and it is the Church´s mission to form a relationship between Him and Us.But when they do not do this anymore.When all you get is waffle and unfelt sermons?.When you get twenty versions of the Catholic faith?Is it no wonder that people think that they can save their own souls by themselves.Of course we cannot as Man is flawed through original sin and needs spiritual guidance and the scaraments to sustain Him,but to adminsiter these successfully we need a Church that is like the one John Paul ll used to resist the dark days of communism

  • rjt1

    But how will we obtain conversion from this indifference without the grace which comes from the sacrifice of Christ made present in the Mass and communicated to us especially when we receive his Body and Blood?

  • rjt1

    Did God do nothing?

    Do you think God should prevent all evil?

    Is it possible to have a created order in which there is no evil? I tend to think it is not.

  • Catholic Youth Work

    I think we’re going round in cicrles here.

    I’ll leave you with one question. If there is no God, and therefore no meaning to life at all, why do we even care? Why is an event like the holocaust any more than simply the atoms and molecules in our brains reacting in one way rather than another. Why does it have significance and matter? 

    Now if you can answer that without saying that a sovereign concept can come out of nowhere I’ll be impressed :)

  • Ave Verum

    A balanced and pastoral answer to a perennially urgent question which implies that our Lord’s compassion and scope must be infinitely far more encompassing and nuanced than ours can ever be.

  • karlf

     answer: because people exist and have feelings.

  • karlf

    You think not because you want to carry on believing your fantasy of a loving God. How exactly would we be worse off if psychopaths and Tsunamis didn’t exist, for example?

  • rjt1

    You blame God for something that you have previously said you do not understand.
    Of course, if God does not exist, he cannot be blamed for anything and the world is meaningless and indifferent.
    What I wanted to say above is that the choice may be between a world in which there is the possibility of evil or no world at all.

  • karlf

    Have you noticed how brutal the natural world is, while animals don’t have any free will. Is an ichneumon wasp evil?

  • rjt1

    Not quite sure I see the connection with our previous discussion.
    Bearing in mind the distinction between metaphysical evil and moral evil: the wasp is not morally evil (you can’t commit a moral evil if you have no free will). What the wasp’s prey suffers is an evil – the deprivation of life – but in preying on its prey the wasp is acquiring a good – it’s own survival. The evil suffered by the prey is a condition of the good accruing to the wasp. That might be relevant to what we were saying in a previous discussion (is evil an unavoidable part of the world?).
    Moreover, in killing its prey the wasp is being a ‘good ichneumon wasp’, that is it is fulfilling its nature as an ichneumon wasp. If it failed to do what ichneumon wasps are supposed to do, it would be a ‘bad’ ichneumon wasp. 
    From a human perspective, that may seem cruel but I think that is probably imposing our own perspective based on our feelings if we were the prey.

  • karlf

    You must be glad that the God of love spared your family from his necessary extreme evil?

  • karlf

    “The Problem of Evil, capital letters and all, is the central enigma confronting theists. There is no solution. Isn’t that
    obvious? All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of
    getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent contract–and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the implications of the double standard they have invented.”  Dan Dennett