On ‘Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus’ and Lumen Gentium by Jayson Brunelle

First published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 2015.

Section 13 of the document [Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church] addresses one of the single most misunderstood and controversial dogmas of the Church: “Outside the Church, there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Throughout the Church’s tumultuous history, especially during periods marked by significant theological controversy and schism (such as the Protestant Reformation), the Church felt the need to reinforce this teaching in an even more forceful fashion. An unfortunate consequence of the apparent “exclusionary” and negative articulation of this truth has given rise to significant misunderstanding of precisely what is meant by this phrase. Before we examine what is stated in Lumen Gentium, we would do well to look at how the Catechism of the Catholic Church has reformulated this truth of the faith in a more “inclusive” and positive fashion: “How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC §846).

Based on this reformulation, we are in a better position to examine the issue from the perspective of the conciliar document, which sheds a great and necessary light on an essential tenet of the faith that could otherwise very easily be misunderstood. Section 13 begins by underscoring the fundamental reality that “though there are many nations, there is but one People of God, which takes its citizens from every race, making them citizens of a kingdom which is of a heavenly, rather than of an earthly, nature” (LG. 13). This passage is important to keep in mind as we continue through the remainder of this section. Furthermore, the document reaffirms 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 (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) 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” (LG 14). From what has been stated, the Council is clear that it is precisely through membership in Christ’s Mystical Body that the “divinization” of human nature is made possible. Salvation simply cannot take place outside of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Thus, if any person of any faith tradition receives, from God, the tremendous grace of eternal salvation at the pivotal moment of death, it will necessarily have been through, with, and in Christ and his Mystical Body, the Church, which cannot be separated from Christ, her head, regardless of the subjectively held theological beliefs of individuals throughout the course of their earthly existence.

Moreover, how inconceivable would it be to imagine that someone’s invincible ignorance of the Catholic Church as the one, true Church, established by Christ as the Sacrament of Salvation to the world, could ever possibly serve as grounds for God’s withholding of that most essential of all graces; namely, the grace of eternal salvation?! Let’s not forget the fundamentals of Moral Theology, and the three criteria that must be met for one to be considered culpable for having committed a mortal sin unto spiritual death: (1) commission of a grave evil; (2) with full knowledge; (3) and full consent of the will. We know that any impediments to full knowledge (ignorance; invincible ignorance, in particular) and/or full consent of the will (such as habit, fear, extreme emotion, or external coercion) mitigate subjective culpability, thereby rendering an intrinsically evil, disordered, and unnatural act a venial sin at most, which cannot, of itself, deprive a soul of the Beatific Vision.

It is at this point that the document begins to distinguish between the various “degrees” of membership in the Body of Christ. First, “they are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure, and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops” (LG, 14). It is, however, quite possible to be a member of this visible body without remaining in the “heart” of this body by not exercising that charity which every Christian is called to. According to the document, such an individual “remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart.’ … If (such members) fail, moreover, to respond to … grace in thought, word, and deed, not only shall they not be saved, but they will be the more severely judged” (LG, 14). But, those seeking full unity with the Church and in the process of being initiated into the Church are, for that reason, embraced fully by the Church, and are already considered to be united in a full communion.

Section 15 of the document states the following: “The Church recognizes that, in many ways, she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter” (LG, 15). This section emphasizes the faith and zeal of Christians who accept the authority of Sacred Scripture as a norm for belief in the truths it contains, and adherence to the way of life that it presents. Also, the Sacred Synod points out that through a valid sacramental baptism, whereby water and the Trinitarian formula are used, such individuals are truly incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, and are thereby consecrated in Christ. In fact, the Church goes so far as to state that “in some real way, they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too he gives his gifts and graces whereby he is operative among them with his sanctifying power” (LG, 15).

Finally, the Church admits a certain mysterious connectedness even with those who only acknowledge and worship the one true God, stating that “those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God” (LG, 16). Of these, the Church recognizes first and foremost her Jewish brethren, for, “God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues” (LG, 16), and therefore, this “Chosen People” of God, from whom the Redeemer of humanity entered into the realm of space and time, “remains most dear to God” (LG, 16). And the Church recognizes as members, to some extent, various other groups of individuals who, insofar as they adhere to what is true, and, to the best of their ability, strive to live according to the dictates of their conscience, and hold fast to the most fundamental and self-evident axiom of natural law, which is to “do good, and avoid evil,” and who are sincere in their quest for truth.

Due to the profound importance of this issue, it is the opinion of this author that readers read for themselves precisely what the Sacred Synod has to say in its own words: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these, there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who, in shadows and images, seek the unknown God, for it is he who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God, and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and, with his grace, strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (LG, 16).

It would thus seem, according to the most doctrinally significant document that the Church has issued in modern times regarding her own nature and mission, salvation is, indeed, available to every human person who, with sincerity of heart, seeks the truth and strives to live a morally upright life in accord with the dictates of his or her conscience, even if, through no fault of their own, they have not come to an explicit knowledge of Christ and the Gospel. And it is the humble opinion of this author, that the Incarnation, in which the Second Person of the Holy Trinity forever united a true human nature to his divine nature, reconciling all of humanity with its Creator, bestowed upon each human person a dignity so profound as to make available the possibility of redemption. Granted, it will only be through the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, that everyone deemed worthy shall receive this free, unmerited gift, purchased with the Blood of Christ Jesus on the Cross. However, this more inclusive interpretation of “outside the Church, there is no salvation,” should not be viewed as incompatible with the dogmatic formulation. Rather, over the course of time, the Church has come to a deeper awareness of how she ought to understand herself in relation to both Christ, her Head, and the many peoples who, in some mysterious way, comprise varying degrees of membership in the Church.

While this understanding of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ may bring consolation to a great many, there are others who have voiced concern that such an understanding of “varying” degrees of membership in the Church effectively renders null and void the work of the missionary. For, the question might be posed, “If knowledge of Christ and the Gospel are not necessary for salvation, what, then, is the purpose of traveling to distant lands for the sake of evangelization? The Sacred Synod, however, anticipating such a reaction to the explanation provided in the Constitution, concludes this section with the following remarks: “As the Son was sent by the Father, so he too sent the Apostles, saying: ‘Go, therefore, 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 commanded you. And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.’ The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the Apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: ‘Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel,’ and continues unceasingly to send heralds of the Gospel until such time as the infant churches are fully established and can themselves continue the work of evangelizing. The Church is compelled by the Holy Spirit to do her part that God’s plan may be fully realized, whereby he has constituted Christ as the source of salvation for the whole world. By the proclamation of the Gospel, she prepares her hearers to receive and profess the faith. She gives them the dispositions necessary for baptism, snatches them from the slavery of error and of idols, and incorporates them in Christ so that, through charity, they may grow up into full maturity in Christ. Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is, not only saved from destruction, but is also cleansed, raised up, and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of man. The obligation of spreading the faith is imposed on every disciple of Christ, according to his state.” (LG, 17).