Question: Does the Church really claim that there is "no salvation outside the Catholic Church?" What was Unam Sanctam? Doesn't such teaching turn people away from the Church? Didn't Vatican II change all that sort of thing?
Answer: As may be seen in the opening statement of Pope John XXIII and the closing speech of Pope Paul VI, Vatican II did not claim to be a dogmatic council. Therefore it did not change anything already defined in sacred Scripture or by the formal Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. Indeed, no council could change the defined teachings of the Church, for such definitions are statements of unchangeable truth. To the degree that the documents of Vatican II seem to change defined dogma and morality, they must be rejected by Catholics as erroneous or misleading.
What the Church claims is that salvation is possible only through Jesus Christ (Acts vii: 11, 12), and that Jesus Christ founded the Church as the means through which individuals are to be saved. This is reflected in the pronouncements of the popes, from Peter himself until those of modern times.
Perhaps the strongest assertion of the necessity of the Church for salvation is found in Pope Boniface VIII's bull, Unam Sanctam, of 1302. It closes with the words, "We declare, assert, define, and pronounce that submission to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for every human being who wishes to be saved." While this was written during a power struggle with Philip IV of France over taxation of the clergy, it remains an ex cathedra pronouncement despite its political overtones.
Similar strong statements of this doctrine were made by various popes:
Pelagius II: "Whosoever will not remain within the peace and unity of the Church, will not possess the Savior."
Innocent III: "We confess with our lips one and only one Church, not the church of the heretics, but the Roman, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, out of which no one can be saved."
Pius IX: "It must be held as an article of faith that out of the Apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, for she is the one and only ark of salvation, which unless one gain entrance into, he must perish in the deluge."
Likewise, the Ecumenical Councils have clearly stated:
Lateran IV: "There is only one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which absolutely no one is saved."
Florence: "Anyone who is not within the fold of the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but Jews, heretics, and schismatics can have no share in the life eternal... and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those who remain within its pale can profit by the Sacraments of the Church unto salvation."
When compared with the prescriptions of the Old Testament, the Church seems downright liberal in its attitude toward false worship. Under the Mosaic Law the penalty for enticing God's followers to honor a false god was death. If the enticement came from among the non-Jews of a certain city, the city was to be "doomed"; all of the inhabitants and livestock put to death, and the entire city burned to the ground. The Jews were subjected to the wrath of God when the did otherwise. (Deuteronomy xiii, Psalm cv: 34-40)
Many modern people find the Church's claim offensive, precisely because they deny that there is such a thing as "objective truth." Their own activities are governed more by personal taste or convenience than by objective principles. They think something is "good" for them if it strikes their fancy, fits within their budget, happens at a convenient time, and so on. Whether or not the thing is desired by God just does not enter into their calculations.
The fact that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became a man, established a Church, and died for them on the cross is comparatively unimportant for the modern person selecting a church. Much more important is the Sunday schedule, the socio-political status of the congregation, the distance to its building, the quality of its musical program, and the entertainment provided from the pulpit.
Catholics are simply putting God's desires ahead of their own when we say that we must belong to the Church He established. We are also acknowledging the fact that, to the best of his ability, everyone has a positive obligation to discover God's objective truth. It is sinful to remain unnecessarily ignorant of God's demands, as it is to ignore them once known. The Church demands that all men who come to know Her make a genuine effort to understand and accept Her teachings.
It is, of course, possible for people to know of the Catholic Church while remaining unconvinced of her claim to represent God on earth. The inquirer may be misled by his own shortcomings, both cultural and intellectual. He may be mislead by the shortcomings of those within the Church; their poor example, or inability to state accurately the Church's teachings. Such an individual cannot be held responsible or punished for his failure to join the Church. Pope Pius IX tells us that:
Those afflicted with invincible ignorance of our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law that have been written by God in the hearts of all men, if they are prepared to obey God, and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can attain eternal life by the power of divine light and grace. For God, who reads comprehensively in every detail the minds and souls, the thoughts and habits of all men, will not permit, in accordance with His infinite goodness and mercy, anyone who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to suffer eternal punishment. However also well known is the dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church, that those who obstinately oppose the authority and definitions of that Church, and who stubbornly remain separated from the unity of the Church and from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff (to whom the Savior entrusted the care of His vineyard), cannot obtain salvation (Pope Pius IX, Quanto conficiamur moerore, 10 August 1863, to the bishops of Italy. Denzinger1677/2866).
The ignorance of which the Pope speaks must be "invincible," that is it must not be an ignorance cultivated for the purpose of not having to act on God's will; it must not be an ignorance purposefully affected for the sake of pride or convenience. And, one is not "saved through ignorance," but by a sincere lifelong effort to do the will of God as best as it is subjectively known.
There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, through which God's graces flow to mankind. Yet the "honest and upright" may well, in some way, belong to that Church. Their membership may not be obvious even to themselves. Their baptism may be by water if they are at least nominal Christians, or by desire if they ardently wish to do God's will. Saint Augustine puts it this way:
When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body.... All who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark.
Obviously their salvation will be difficult, in that they will more rarely receive the graces regularly granted to Catholics in the Sacraments. Most will lack the strength of will received from Confirmation, the abhorrence of sin gained from frequent confession, and the nourishment derived from receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. Many will face death without the soothing Unction. But then too, it is reasonable to believe that God will expect less of them then of "those to whom much has been given."
Pope Pius IX further reminds us:
As charity demands, let us pray continuously for the conversion to Christ of all nations everywhere. Let us devote ourselves to the salvation of all men as far as we can, for the hand of God is not shortened (Cf. Isaias 59:1). The gifts of heavenly grace will assuredly not be denied to those who sincerely want and pray for refreshment by the divine light. These truths need to be fixed deeply in the minds of the faithful so that they cannot be infected with doctrines tending to foster the religious indifferentism which We see spreading widely, with growing strength, and with destructive effect upon souls (Singulari quidam, 9 December 1854).
"There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church," and that might give us who are Catholics pause to reflect on what is expected of us, and the ways in which we might unfortunately separate ourselves from the graces of God given freely through His Church.
Reflect upon them and avoid them!
Psalm xv: 34-48