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The Latin phrase Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: "Outside the Church there is no salvation". The most recent Catholic Catechism interpreted this to mean that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body."[1]

This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the 3rd century. The axiom is often used as short-hand for the doctrine, upheld by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church is absolutely necessary for salvation ("one true faith"). The theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.

An Eastern Orthodox bishop has expressed this doctrine as follows:[2]

"Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church" (G. Florovsky, "Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church", in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a "visible" and an "invisible Church", yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.
Kallistos Ware

The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that the doctrine does not mean that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned (see below).

Some of the most pertinent Roman Catholic expressions of this doctrine are: the profession of faith of Pope Innocent III (1208), the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bull Unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (1302), and the profession of faith of the Council of Florence (1442). The axiom "No salvation outside the Church" has been frequently repeated over the centuries in different terms by the ordinary magisterium.

Roman Catholic statements of this teaching

The original saying by Saint Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century AD) is found among his Letters (lxxii. Ad Jubajanum de haereticis baptizandis) and in Latin reads: "Quia salus extra ecclesiam non est." In this letter[3] Cyprian is arguing that baptism by heretics is invalid, an opinion that brought him into conflict with Pope Stephen I.

Fourth Lateran Council (1215): "There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved."

Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam sanctam (1302): "We are compelled in virtue of our faith to believe and maintain that there is only one holy Catholic Church, and that one is apostolic. This we firmly believe and profess without qualification. Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins, the Spouse in the Canticle proclaiming: 'One is my dove, my perfect one. One is she of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her' (Canticle of Canticles 6:8); which represents the one mystical body whose head is Christ, of Christ indeed, as God. And in this, 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Ephesians 4:5). Certainly Noah had one ark at the time of the flood, prefiguring one Church which perfect to one cubit having one ruler and guide, namely Noah, outside of which we read all living things were destroyed… We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

Pope Eugene IV, Cantate Domino (1441): "The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the "eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41), unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church."

Pope Boniface I, Epistle 14.1: "It is clear that this Roman Church is to all churches throughout the world as the head is to the members, and that whoever separates himself from it becomes an exile from the Christian religion, since he ceases to belong to its fellowship."

Pope Pelagius II (578-590): "Consider the fact that whoever has not been in the peace and unity of the Church cannot have the Lord… Although given over to flames and fires, they burn, or, thrown to wild beasts, they lay down their lives, there will not be (for them) that crown of faith but the punishment of faithlessness… Such a one can be slain, he cannot be crowned… [If] slain outside the Church, he cannot attain the rewards of the Church" (Denzinger, 469).

Saint Gregory the Great (590-604), Moralia: "Now the holy Church universal proclaims that God cannot be truly worshipped saving within herself, asserting that all they that are without her shall never be saved."

Pope Sylvester II, Profession of Faith, June AD 991: "I believe that in Baptism all sins are forgiven, that one which was committed originally as much as those which are voluntarily committed, and I profess that outside the Catholic Church no one is saved."

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), Profession of Faith prescribed for the Waldensians: "With our hearts we believe and with our lips we confess but one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside which we believe that no one is saved" (Denzinger 792).

Pope Clement VI, Letter Super Quibusdam (to Consolator the Catholicos of Armenia), September 20, 1351: "In the second place, we ask whether you and the Armenians obedient to you believe that no man of the wayfarers outside of the faith of this Church, and outside the obedience of the Pope of Rome, can finally be saved… In the ninth place, if you have believed and do believe that all who have raised themselves against the faith of the Roman Church and have died in final impenitence have been damned and have descended to the eternal punishments of hell."

Pope Leo XII (1823-1829), Encyclical Ubi Primum: "It is impossible for the most true God, who is Truth Itself, the best, the wisest Provider, and rewarder of good men, to approve all sects who profess false teachings which are often inconsistent with one another and contradictory, and to confer eternal rewards on their members. For we have a surer word of the prophet, and in writing to you We speak wisdom among the perfect; not the wisdom of this world but the wisdom of God in a mystery. By it we are taught, and by divine faith we hold, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and that no other name under heaven is given to men except the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth in which we must be saved. This is why we profess that there is no salvation outside the Church… For the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth. With reference to those words Augustine says: 'If any man be outside the Church he will be excluded from the number of sons, and will not have God for Father since he has not the Church for mother.'"

Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846), Encyclical Summo Jugiter Studio (on Mixed marriages), 5-6, May 27, 1832: "You know how zealously Our predecessors taught that very article of faith which these dare to deny, namely the necessity of the Catholic faith and of unity for salvation. The words of that celebrated disciple of the Apostles, martyred Saint Ignatius, in his letter to the Philadelphians are relevant to this matter: 'Be not deceived, my brother; if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not attain the inheritance of the kingdom of God.' Moreover, Saint Augustine and the other African bishops who met in the Council of Cirta in the year 412 explained the same thing at greater length: 'Whoever has separated himself from the Catholic Church, no matter how laudably he lives, will not have eternal life, but has earned the anger of God because of this one crime: that he abandoned his union with Christ' (Epsitle 141). Omitting other appropriate passages which are almost numberless in the writings of the Fathers, We shall praise Saint Gregory the Great, who expressly testifies that this is indeed the teaching of the Catholic Church. He says: 'The holy universal Church teaches that it is not possible to worship God truly except in her and asserts that all who are outside of her will not be saved' (Moral. in Job, 16.5). Official acts of the Church proclaim the same dogma. Thus, in the decree on faith which Innocent III published with the synod of the Lateran IV, these things are written: 'There is one universal Church of the faithful outside of which no one at all is saved.' Finally, the same dogma is expressly mentioned in the profession of faith proposed by the Apostolic See, not only that which all Latin churches use (Creed of the Council of Trent), but also that which the Greek Orthodox Church uses (cf. Gregory XIII, Profession 'Sanctissimus') and that which other Eastern Catholics use (cf. Benedict XIV, Profession 'Nuper ad Nos')… We are so concerned about this serious and well known dogma, which has been attacked with such remarkable audacity, that We could not restrain Our pen from reinforcing this truth with many testimonies."

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), Allocution Singulari Quadem, December 9, 1854: "Not without sorrow we have learned that another error, no less destructive, has taken possession of some parts of the Catholic world, and has taken up its abode in the souls of many Catholics who think that one should have good hope of the eternal salvation of all those who have never lived in the true Church of Christ. Therefore, they are wont to ask very often what will be the lot and condition of those who have not submitted in any way to the Catholic faith, and, by bringing forward most vain reasons, they make a response favorable to their false opinion. Far be it from Us, Venerable Brethren, to presume on the limits of the divine mercy which is infinite; far from Us, to wish to scrutinize the hidden counsel and "judgements of God" which are "a great abyss" (Ps. 35.7) and cannot be penetrated by human thought. But, as is Our Apostolic Duty, we wish your episcopal solicitude and vigilance to be aroused, so that you will strive as much as you can to drive form the mind of men that impious and equally fatal opinion, namely, that the way of eternal salvation can be found in any religion whatsoever. May you demonstrate with skill and learning in which you excel, to the people entrusted to your care that the dogmas of the Catholic faith are in no wise opposed to divine mercy and justice.
"For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains 'we shall see God as He is' (1 John 3.2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is "one God, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4.5); it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.
"But, just as the way of charity demands, let us pour forth continual prayers that all nations everywhere may be converted to Christ; and let us be devoted to the common salvation of men in proportion to our strength, 'for the hand of the Lord is not shortened' (Isa. 9.1) and the gifts of heavenly grace will not be wanting to those who sincerely wish and ask to be refreshed by this light."[4]

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), Encyclical Singulari Quidem March 17, 1856): "Teach that just as there is only one God, one Christ, one Holy Spirit, so there is also only one truth which is divinely revealed. There is only one divine faith which is the beginning of salvation for mankind and the basis of all justification, the faith by which the just person lives and without which it is impossible to please God and come to the community of His children (Romans 1; Hebrews 11; Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 8). There is only one true, holy, Catholic Church, which is the Apostolic Roman Church. There is only one See founded on Peter by the word of the Lord (St. Cyprian, Epistle 43), outside of which we cannot find either true faith or eternal salvation. He who does not have the Church for a mother cannot have God for a father, and whoever abandons the See of Peter on which the Church is established trusts falsely that he is in the Church (ibid, On the Unity of the Catholic Church). ... Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control."[5]

Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863: "And here, beloved Sons and Venerable Brothers, We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. Indeed, this is certainly quite contrary to Catholic teaching. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who persistently separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom 'the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior,' (Council of Chalcedon, Letter to Pope Leo I) cannot obtain eternal salvation. The words of Christ are clear enough: 'And if he will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican' (Matthew 18:17); 'He that heareth you, heareth Me; and he that dispeth you, despiseth Me; and he that dispiseth Me, despiseth Him that sent Me' (Luke 10:16); 'He that believeth not shall be condemned' (Mark 16:16); 'He that doth not believe, is already judged" (John 3:18); 'He that is not with Me, is against Me; and he that gathereth not with Me, scattereth' (Luke 11:23). The Apostle Paul says that such persons are 'perverted and self-condemned' (Titus 3:11); the Prince of the Apostles calls the 'false prophets… who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction' (2 Peter 2:1)."[6]

Pope Pius IX The Syllabus of Errors, attached to Encyclical Quanta Cura, 1864: [The following are prescribed errors:] "16. Men can, in the cult of any religion, find the way of eternal salvation and attain eternal salvation. - Encyclical Qui pluribus, November 9, 1846.
"17. One ought to at least have good hope for the eternal salvation of all those who in no way dwell in the true Church of Christ. - Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863, etc."

Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), Encyclical Annum Ingressi Sumus: "This is our last lesson to you; receive it, engrave it in your minds, all of you: by God's commandment salvation is to be found nowhere but in the Church."

idem, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae:"He scatters and gathers not who gathers not with the Church and with Jesus Christ, and all who fight not jointly with Him and with the Church are in very truth contending against God."

Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914), Encyclical Jucunda Sane: "It is our duty to recall to everyone great and small, as the Holy Pontiff Gregory did in ages past, the absolute necessity which is ours, to have recourse to this Church to effect our eternal salvation."

Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum: "Such is the nature of the Catholic faith that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole, or as a whole rejected: This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved."

Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), Encyclical Mortalium Animos: "The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation… Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ, no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors."

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), Encyclical Humani Generis, August 12, 1950: "Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation."

Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), Allocution to the Gregorian University (17 October 1953): "By divine mandate the interpreter and guardian of the Scriptures, and the depository of Sacred Tradition living within her, the Church alone is the entrance to salvation: She alone, by herself, and under the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the source of truth."

Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 14: "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."

Roman Catholic interpretation

The Church's understanding of the significance of the phrase :"Outside the Church there is no salvation" is expressed in its Catechism of the Catholic Church, 846-848, 851 as follows:

"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:
"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" (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 14).
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" (Second Vatican Council, 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 (Hebrews 11:6), the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men" (Second Vatican Council, Ad Gentes, 1).
Missionary Motivation. It is from God's love for all men that the Church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigor of her missionary dynamism, "for the love of Christ urges us on," (2 Corinthians 5:14; cf. Apostolicam actuositatem 6, Roman Missal 11). Indeed, God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4); that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth. Because she believes in God's universal plan of salvation, the Church must be missionary.

This conjunction of statements in the Catechism makes it clear that the Catholic Church sees the dogma "outside of the Church there is no salvation" as the basis for the missionary activity of the Church, because those who are innocently outside the Church but are also seeking to follow the will of God are thus the proper object of the Church's missionary activity - so as to bring them explicitly the saving truths of the Christian Faith which they are seeking, and by which God desires to effect their salvation through the knowledge of Jesus Christ. "And this is life everlasting that they know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent." (John 17.3), "And there is not salvation in any other. For neither is there any other name under heaven given to men, wherein we must be saved." (Acts 4.12)

The Catechism explicitly affirms this interpretation in paragraph 161 by insisting upon the necessity of actual faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One Who sent Him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:36; 6:40; et al.). "Since 'without faith it is impossible to please [God]' and to attain to the fellowship of His sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life `but he who endures to the end,'" (Vatican I, Dei Fillius 3; cf. Matthew 10:22; 24:13 and Hebrews 11:6; Council of Trent Decree on Justification, 8)

The Popes quoted above as stating that outside of the Church there is no salvation did not see this statement as contradicting their other statements that salvation is possible for those who, while not knowing the Church as necessary for salvation and thus not explicitly entering the Church, nevertheless accept whatever grace Christ gives them and thus receive what the Council of Trent called Baptism of Desire.

Pope Pius IX wrote in Quanto conficiamur moerore, 7: "There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin." He saw their situation as different from that of people "living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity … stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff," namely those of whom the Second Vatican Council said, as quoted above: "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." For the invincibly ignorant, he saw their path to salvation as being through the mediation of the Church's missionary activity: "the sons of the Catholic Church… should always be zealous to seek them out and aid them, whether poor, or sick, or afflicted with any other burdens, with all the offices of Christian charity; and they should especially endeavor to snatch them from the darkness of error in which they unhappily lie, and lead them back to Catholic truth and to the most loving Mother the Church, who never ceases to stretch out her maternal hands lovingly to them, and to call them back to her bosom so that, established and firm in faith, hope, and charity, and 'being fruitful in every good work' (Colossians 1:10), they may attain eternal salvation."

In his encyclical Mystici Corporis, 103 Pope Pius XII said that "those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church… We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be secure about their salvation.[Cf. Pius IX, Iam Vos Omnes, 13 Sept. 1868] For even though by an unconscious desire and longing have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church."

As indicated above, the Catholic Church rejects both Feeneyism and (by stating that "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") the contrary notion that one can be saved while knowingly and deliberately rejecting the Catholic Church.

It holds that, among those who "do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter… those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" and that "(t)hose who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838-839).

The Second Vatican Council further explained the status of non-Catholic Christians ("separated brethren") as follows (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3):

But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.

Moreover, some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.

The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. These most certainly can truly engender a life of grace in ways that vary according to the condition of each Church or Community. These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.

It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.

Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those to whom He has given new birth into one body, and whom He has quickened to newness of life - that unity which the Holy Scriptures and the ancient Tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one body of Christ into which all those must be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God…

The Second Vatican Council also reemphasized the missionary motivation of this dogma (Lumen Gentium 13, 16):

All men are called to this catholic unity which prefigures and promotes universal peace. And in different ways to it belong, or are related: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God's grace to salvation…

Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord's command, "preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16.16) takes zealous care to foster the missions.

And also (Ad Gentes, 3):

The reason for missionary activity lies in the will of God, "Who wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Jesus Christ, Who gave himself as a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2.4-5), "neither is there salvation in any other" (Acts 4.12). Everyone, therefore, ought to become converted to Christ, who is known through the preaching of the Church, and they ought, by baptism, to become incorporated into Him, and into the Church which is His body. Christ Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16.16, John 3.5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church, which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence, those cannot be saved, who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded through Jesus Christ, by God, as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or to remain in it. So, although in ways known only 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 (Hebrews 11.6), the Church nevertheless, still has the obligation and sacred right to evangelize. And today, as always, missionary activity retains its full force and necessity.

By means of this activity the mystical Body of Christ unceasingly gathers and directs its energies towards its own increase (Ephesians 4:11-16). The members of the Church are impelled to engage in this activity because of the charity with which they love God and by which they desire to share with all men in the spiritual goods of this life and the life to come…

Christ is the Truth and the Way which the preaching of the Gospel lays open to all men when it speaks those words of Christ in their ear: "Repent, and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1;15). Since he who does not believe is already judged (cf. John 3:18), the words of Christ are at once words of judgement and grace, of life and death. For it is only by putting to death that which is old that we can come to the newness of life. Now although this refers primarily to people, it is also true of various worldly goods which bear the mark both of man's sin and the blessing of God: "For all have sinned and have need of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23). No one is freed from sin by himself or by his own efforts, no one is raised above himself or completely delivered from his own weakness, solitude or slavery; all have need of Christ Who is the model, master, liberator, savior, and giver of life (cf. Irenaeus, Av. Haer. 3.15.3: "They were preachers of truth and apostles of liberty.")

The 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that "it must be firmly believed 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 (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door." Dominus Iesus then adds that "for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit; it has a relationship with the Church, which, according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit."[1]

Inculpable ignorance

In its statements of this doctrine quoted above, the Church expressly teaches that "it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God" (Singulari Quadam), that "outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control" (Singulari Quidem), that "they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life" (Quanto Conficiamur Moerore).

Inculpable ignorance is not a means of salvation.[7] But if by no fault of the individual ignorance cannot be overcome (if, that is, it is inculpable and invincible), it does not prevent the grace that comes from Christ, a grace that has a relationship with the Church, saving that person.

Controversy for the Catholic Church

Those who disagree with the Church's interpretation of the teaching "outside the Church there is no salvation" claim that the Church has contradicted itself in its teachings on faith and morals. They say that the medieval Church statements indicate that no person could possibly be saved unless a member of the physical Church on earth, and that this was the meaning intended by the Popes of the time, who made no "lenient statements" on the matter. People like Father Leonard Feeney and some traditionalists believe their understanding of the original doctrine to be correct and that, if the Church were now to teach that the salvation of non-Catholics is possible, it would contradict its earlier teaching, and would violate the doctrine of the Church's infallibility. Some sedevacantists hold that the Second Vatican Council did in fact defect from the Church's infallible teaching, and that what is today generally recognized as the Catholic Church is a counterfeit, which therefore is not infallible.

Protestant interpretation of the dogma

The Latin phrase's antiquity has assured its continuance even within the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther, the foremost leader of the reformation, spoke of the necessity of belonging to the church (albeit in the sense of perceived "company of believing people" in Protestantism, not the Roman Catholic Church) in order to be saved:

Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.[8]
The Genevan reformer John Calvin, writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion at the very time of the Reformation, wrote therein "beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for".[9] Calvin wrote also that "those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother,"[10] echoing the words of the originator of the Latin phrase himself, Cyprian: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother."[11]

The mother of Philip Melanchthon had followed her son in the Protestant Reformation. Dying, she adjured him to tell her unreservedly in which faith she should die. He answered: "My mother, the new faith is the most convenient; the other is most secure."[12]

The idea is further affirmed in the Puritan Anglican Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 that "the visible Church . . . is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." Despite this, it is not necessarily a commonly held belief within modern Protestantism, especially Evangelicalism and those denominations which believe in the autonomy of the local church. The dogma is related to the universal Protestant dogma that the church is the body of all believers and debates within Protestantism usually centre on the meaning of "church" (ecclesiam) and "apart" (extra).

See Sola Ecclesia for a Calvinist exposition of extra ecclesiam nulla salus.

Notes

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church 846-848, 851
  2. Bishop Kallistos Ware: The Orthodox Church
  3. An English translation is found at Fathers of the Church, Cyprian, Epistle 72. The phrase in question is in section 21.
  4. Singulari Quadam
  5. Singulari Quidem
  6. Quanto Conficiamur Moerore
  7. "Inculpable or invincible ignorance has never been and will never be a means of salvation. To be saved, it is necessary to be justified, or to be in the state of sanctifying grace. In order to obtain sanctifying grace, it is necessary to have the proper dispositions for justification; that is, true divine faith in at least the necessary truths of salvation, confident hope in the divine Savior, sincere sorrow for sin, together with the firm purpose of doing all that God has commanded, etc. Now, these supernatural acts of faith, hope, charity, contrition, etc., which prepare the soul for receiving sanctifying grace, can never be supplied by invincible ignorance; and if invincible ignorance cannot supply the preparation for receiving sanctifying grace, much less can it bestow sanctifying grace itself. "Invincible ignorance", says St. Thomas Aquinas, "is a punishment for sin". (De Infid. q. x., art. 1.) It is, then, a curse, but not a blessing or a means of salvation. But if we say that inculpable ignorance cannot save a man, we thereby do not say that invincible ignorance damns a man. Far from it. To say, invincible ignorance is no means of salvation, is one thing; and to say, invincible ignorance is the cause of damnation, is another. To maintain the latter would be wrong, for inculpable ignorance of the fundamental principles of faith excuses a heathen from the sin of infidelity, and a Protestant from the sin of heresy; because such invincible ignorance, being only a simple involuntary privation, is no sin." (Michael Müller, Invincible or Inculpable Ignorance Neither Saves nor Damns a Person Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary : Questions and Answers on Salvation by Rev. Michael Muller, C.SS.R
  8. Sermon for the Early Christmas Service; Luke 2:15-20 (1521-1522). Luther's Works, American Ed., Hans J. Hillerbrand, Helmut T. Lehmann ed., Philadelphia, Concordia Publishing House/Fortress Press, 1974, ISBN 0-8006-0352-4 (Sermons II), vol. 52:39-40
  9. Institutes, Book IV, Chapter i, Section.iv
  10. Institutes, Book IV, Chapter i, Section.i.
  11. The Unity of the Catholic Church, ch. 6
  12. Jean-M.-Vincent Audin, History of the Life, Writings, and Doctrines of Luther, tr. William B. Turnbull, London, C. Dolman, 1854, vol.2, p. 360. In turn, Audin's book quotes as its source Ægidius Albertinus, im 4. Theile des deutschen Lusthauses, p. 143: "Dieses ist zwar annehmlicher, der Catholische aber sicherer."

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