The Catholic Church and Salvation

In the Light of Recent Pronouncements by the Holy See

by Monsignor Joseph Clifford Fenton

[Westminster , MA: Newman Press, 1958]


In his encyclical Humani generis Pope Pius XII referred to a statement by his great predecessor, Pope Pius XI, to the effect that the noblest function of sacred theology is that of showing how the doctrine defined by the Church is found in the sources of revelation - that is, in Sacred Scripture and in divine apostolic tradition - in the very sense in which the Church has proposed it. This book is the result of a laborious and humble effort to do this with reference to what the ecclesiastical teaching authority has taught and defined about the necessity of the Church for the attainment of eternal salvation.

Few dogmas of the Catholic faith have been commented upon and interpreted in twentieth-century theological and religious literature as frequently and extensively as that which teaches us that there is no salvation outside the true Church of Jesus Christ. Hence any new book on this subject ought at least to try to offer some theological advantage on this subject not already available in currently accessible Catholic literature. The author of this present work sincerely believes that its publication is justified for these three reasons:

(1) This book quotes, and quotes at length, pertinent statements and definitions by the Holy See and by the Church's Oecumenical Councils on the necessity of the Church for the attainment of eternal salvation. It analyzes these pronouncements and brings out explicitly the Catholic teachings referred to and implied in them. Then it examines the dogma, as it has been stated and explained by the Church's magisterium, in the light of what the sources of revelation have to say about the nature of the Church and about the process of salvation and sanctification. Thus it is able to show that what the Church itself has always taught and defined on this subject is precisely what the divine message, contained in Scripture and tradition, has to say about salvation and about God's supernatural kingdom.

Any person who is at all familiar with what the great mass of religious and theological writings of our times have had to say about this dogma is quite well aware of the fact that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, these writings have been mainly, almost exclusively, concerned with proving and explaining how this dogma does not mean that only members of the Catholic Church can be saved. This, of course, is perfectly true. The ecclesiastical magisterium, in teaching and guarding this dogma, insists that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church and at the same time likewise insists that people who die without ever becoming members of the Catholic Church can obtain the Beatific Vision.

But if we, for all practical purposes, limit our explanation of the dogma to an assurance that it does not mean that every man who dies a non-member of the Catholic Church is not necessarily lost forever - as so many modern writings on this subject seem to do - we tend to lose sight of the central mysteries of God's merciful dispensation in the supernatural order. For, let us not forget it, the revealed truths about the necessity of the Catholic Church for the attainment of eternal salvation belong to the order of the great supernatural mysteries. They belong with God's revealed doctrine about grace, about the process of salvation, the work of the Redemption, and the Blessed Trinity. In showing how the teachings of the ecclesiastical magisterium are contained in the sources of revelation in the very sense in which they have been stated and defined by the Church itself, we can see this dogma of the Church precisely as the accurate and authoritative expression of a revealed mystery.

(2) During the pontificate of the present Holy Father [note: Pope Pius XII] three authoritative documents issued by the Holy See have instructed the members of the Church about the meaning of the dogma that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Two of these are encyclical letters, the Mystici Corporis Christi , issued June 29, 1943, and the Humani generis , dated August 12, 1950. The third is the Holy Office letter Suprema haec sacra, addressed by the order of the Holy Father on August 8, 1949, to the Most Reverend Archbishop of Boston. The doctrinal section of this last document is devoted exclusively to an explanation of this dogma. It is the most completely detailed statement of this teaching ever set forth in an authoritative document of the Church's magisterium.

There would obviously seem to be, not only room for, but an actual need of, a book that would present and analyze the teachings on this subject brought out in these three recent documents from the Holy See. And, in the lack of any other work in English devoted exclusively to the explanation of this portion of Catholic doctrine and written since the appearance of these three documents, the present book is humbly offered in the hope that it may satisfy that need.

(3) In the Humani generis the present Holy Father sternly rebuked some contemporary Catholic writers because, as he said, "they reduce to an empty formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to attain to eternal salvation." Actually this particular part of Catholic doctrine is unique in that an inaccurate interpretation or presentation of it by a Catholic writer does actually constitute, in most cases, the reduction of this teaching to an empty formula.

Furthermore the vagaries of some writers, particularly in the field of popular religious literature, on the subject, are in some way explicable in terms of the peculiar history of the tractatus de ecclesia within the body of scholastic theology. A sketch of this history is available in the present volume, since I believe that the man who knows something about the basis of some of the more colorful misinterpretations of the dogma will be in a better position to appreciate and to defend the genuine teaching of the Church in this field.

This introduction would not be complete without an expression of sincere gratitude to the Very Reverend Dr. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., for these last fourteen years my brilliant and faithful associate in the work of The American Ecclesiastical Review. He has been kind enough to read and to correct the manuscript of this book with the same charitable care he has given to the reading and the correction of all I have written for publication since our association began.

Chapter I

In the Firmiter, the first chapter of the doctrinal declarations of the Fourth Lateran Council, we find the following declaration: "There is, then, one universal Church of the faithful (una ... fidelium universalis ecclesia), outside of which no one at all is saved (extra quam nullus omnino salvatur)." (Denz. 430)

This formula bears a singular resemblance to one contained in the profession of faith prescribed by Pope Innocent III in 1208 for the Waldensians who wished to return to the Catholic Church: "We believe in our hearts and we profess orally that there is one Church, not that of the heretics, but the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic [Church], outside of which we believe that no one will be saved." (Denz. 423)

Each of these documents presents three distinct statements as truths actually revealed by God, and consequently as doctrines which men are obliged to accept with the assent of divine faith itself. By immediate and necessary implication, they condemn as heretical the teachings contradictory to these three dogmas of the Catholic faith. They assert that:

(1) It is a divinely revealed truth that there is only one true ecclesia or Church of God

(2) It is a divinely revealed truth that this one true ecclesia is the Roman Catholic Church, the social unit properly termed "the universal Church of the faithful."

(3) No one at all, according to God's own revelation, can be saved if, at the moment of his death, he is "outside" this society

As a result, according to the teaching of these documents, it would be heretical to imagine that there is more than one social unit in this world that can be designated as God's true ecclesia, that the Roman Catholic Church is not this true ecclesia, or that any person could attain to salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church.

In a study like ours, the special value of these two documents is to be found in the fact that they place the dogma of the Church's necessity for the attainment of salvation against its proper background, and that they, particularly the statement of the Lateran Council, bring out clearly the real and complete necessity of the Church according to the actual designs of God's providence.

These two declarations of the teaching Church during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III set the dogma of the Church's necessity for the attainment of eternal salvation in its only proper perspective precisely because they state this teaching against the background of the divinely revealed truths that there is only one try supernatural kingdom of God (or ecclesia) in the world, and that this ecclesia is the Roman Catholic Church. The true supernatural kingdom of God on earth, God's ecclesia, is something definable and understandable in terms of its necessity for the attainment of the Beatific Vision. If we are to understand the terminology of the teaching set forth by the Fourth Council of the Lateran, we must realize that the men who drew up this profession of faith and all the men of the thirteenth century, both Catholics and heretics, were well aware of the fact that "the social unit outside of which no one at all is saved" and "the true Church or kingdom of God" are objectively identical. The heretics denied that the social unit over which the Bishop of Rome presides as visible head is actually the true ecclesia of God described in the Scriptures. But they certainly would not and did not question the fact that, wherever it was to be found, this true ecclesia is the company outside of which no one at all may attain the possession of the Beatific Vision.

For all of these men, Catholics and heretics alike, the genuine Church of God was the company of His chosen people, the people of His covenant. It was the company of those who professed their acceptance of the divine and supernatural law by which God directs men to the attainment of the one ultimate and eternal happiness available to them, the happiness which is to be obtained only in the possession of the Beatific Vision. The true Church was the beneficiary of God's promises. It was the repository of His supernatural revelation. It dwelt in this world as in a place of pilgrimage, awaiting the glory of the fatherland of heaven.

They knew that the Church triumphant in heaven was to be the continuation and the flowering of the Church militant now existing on this earth, and that the people of the Church triumphant were, in point of fact, the people who had passed from this life "within" the Church militant and living the life of sanctifying grace. Thus they saw that the Church militant was actually something understandable in terms of necessity for the attainment of eternal salvation.

The profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council and the formula which the returning Waldensians were obliged to accept both insisted upon the unity and the unicity of the Church outside of which no one can be saved. Both asserted that this ecclesia, definable and understandable as the social unit outside of which no on can attain eternal salvation, is the religious society over which the Bishop of Rome presides. The profession of faith the for the returning Waldensians states that this ecclesia of God is not the Church of the heretics, but that it is "the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic" Church. The Firmiter teaches exactly the same thing when it asserts that this one ecclesia outside of which no one at all is saved is the "one universal Church of the faithful."

The term fidelis had and still has a definite technical meaning in the language of Christianity. The fideles, or the faithful, are not merely the individuals who have made an act of divine faith in accepting the teachings of God's public and Christian revelation. They are actually those who have made the baptismal profession of faith, and who have not cut themselves off from the unity of the Church by public apostasy or heresy or schism and have not been cast out of the Church by the process of excommunication. In other words, according to the present terminology of sacred theology, the fidelis is simply the Catholic, the member of the Catholic Church. Thus the Church of the faithful, the universalis ecclesia fidelium, is nothing but the visible Catholic Church itself. And the formula of the Fourth Council of the Lateran tells us that this ecclesia fidelium is the one supernatural kingdom of God on earth, the company outside of which no one at all can attain eternal salvation.

Actually, in the traditional language of the Church, the term christianus itself had a wider application than the word fidelis. A catechumen might be designated as christianus, but never as a fidelis. (Cf. Duchesne, Origines du culte chretien [Paris, 1898], p. 281; and Fenton, "Faith and the Church," in AER, CXX, 1 [Jan. 1949], 60) A man gained the dignity and the position of a fidelis through the reception of the sacrament of baptism. This sacrament is precisely the sacrament of faith. By the force of the character it imparts, it incorporates the person who receives it into that community which is the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. The effect of that incorporation is broken only by public heresy or apostasy, by schism, or by the full measure of excommunication. The man in whom the incorporating work of the baptismal character remains unbroken is the fidelis, the member of the Catholic Church. The social unit composed of these fideles is, according to the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council, the true Church, outside which no one at all is saved.

Now, the Council teaches that a man must be in some way "within" the Church of the faithful in order to be saved. It does not, however, in any way teach or even imply that no one other than one of the fideles can actually attain to the Beatific Vision. And, for that matter, no other authoritative declaration of the Church issues such a teaching or supports any such implication. It is not, and it has never been, the teaching of the Catholic Church that only actual members of the Church can attain eternal salvation. According to the teaching of the Church's own magisterium, salvation can be attained and, as a matter of fact, has been attained by persons who, at the moment of their death, were not members of this Church. The Church has thus never confused the notion of being "outside the Church" with that of being a non-member of this society.

Thus the Fathers of the Fourth Lateran Council and all the other churchmen who have drawn up authoritative statements of the Church's teaching on the necessity of the Church for the attainment of eternal salvation were well aware of what St. Augustine had taught about men who suffered martyrdom for the sake of Christ before having had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of baptism. In his De civitate Dei, St. Augustine taught that "whosoever dies for Christ, not having received the laver of regeneration, has this avail him for the forgiveness of sins as much as if these sins had been forgiven in the sacred font of baptism." (De civitate Dei, XIII, 7. MPL, XLI, 381) Since the forgiveness of mortal or original sin is accomplished only in the infusion of the life of sanctifying grace, the person whose sins are forgiven is in the state of grace. If such a person dies in the state of grace, he will inevitably attain to the Beatific Vision. He will be saved, as having died "within" and not "outside" the true Church.

Furthermore, they knew that there is no such thing as real membership in the Church militant of the New Testament, the true and only ecclesia fidelium, apart from the reception of the sacrament of baptism. Thus, when the Fathers of the Fourth Oecumenical Council of the Lateran, and the other authoritative teachers of the Catholic Church, followed St. Augustine in holding that a man could be saved if he dies as a martyr for Our Lord while still unbaptized, they were clearly showing that, in their declarations that no one can be saved outside the Church, they did not mean that only members of the Church may obtain the Beatific Vision. The unbaptized martyr for Our Lord passed from this life "within" the ecclesia fidelium, despite the fact that he died without having attained the status of fidelis.

Again, the Fathers of the Fourth Oecumenical Council of the Lateran were well aware of the fact that an unbaptized man could be saved even if he did not die a martyr's death. All of them accepted as Catholic doctrine the teaching St. Ambrose had set forth in his sermon De obitu Valentiniani:

But I hear that you are sorrowing because he [the Emperor Valentinian II] did not receive the rites of baptism. Tell me, what else is there in us but will, but petition? Now, quite recently it was his intention to be baptized before coming into Italy. He let it be known that he wanted to be baptized by me very shortly, and it was for that reason, above all others, that he decided to have me sent for. Does he not, then, have the grace he desired? Does he not have what he prayed for? Surely, because he prayed for it, he has received it. Hence it is that "the soul of the just man will be at rest, whatever kind of death may overtake him." (De obitu Valentiniani, 51. MPL, XVI, 1374)

St. Ambrose was speaking of an instance in which a man who had been a catechumen had died before he had an opportunity to receive the sacrament of baptism. He had passed from this life, then, as a non-member of the ecclesia fidelium. At the moment of his death he was not one of the fideles. Yet, according to St. Ambrose, this man had died a good death. He had prayed for the grace of baptism, and God had given him this answer to his prayer. (Cf. Fenton, "The Necessity of the Church and the Efficacy of Prayer," in AER, CXXXII, 5 [May, 1955], 336-49) He had passed from this life "within" rather than "outside" the Church of the faithful. He had been able to attain eternal salvation.

Such was the doctrinal background against which the Fathers of the Fourth Lateran Council issued their teaching on the necessity of the Catholic Church for the attainment of the Beatific Vision. They believed that non-members of the Catholic Church could achieve salvation. Thus, when they taught that no one at all could be saved "outside" the one Church of the faithful, they obviously did not mean to say that being outside of the Church was equivalent to being a non-member of this social unit.

On the other hand, they just as obviously did not mean that being a member of the Church, or even desiring to enter the Church, constituted any absolute guarantee of salvation. It is unfortunately possible to have a man die as a member of the true Church, and die in the state of mortal sin. It is likewise possible to have a man actually desire to enter the Church, and die before he has the opportunity to be baptized, and to have that man lose his soul through some other offense against God. In other words, it is possible for a man to lose his soul if he dies "within" the Church. The Fourth General Council of the Lateran brought out the fact that it is absolutely impossible to attain to eternal salvation if a man passes from this life, "outside" the true Church.

Thus, according to the infallibly true teaching of this section of the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council, we may draw the following conclusions:

(1) At the moment of death a man must be in some way "within" the Catholic Church (either as a member or as one who desires and prays to enter it) if he is to attain to eternal salvation.

(2) There is absolutely no exception to this rule. Otherwise the statement that "on one at all (nullus omnino)" is saved outside of the one universal Church of the faithful would not be true. And that statement is true. It is an infallible dogmatic pronouncement of an Oecumenical Council of the Catholic Church.

(3) Any attempt to explain the Church's necessity for salvation by claiming that it is only the "ordinary" means, or by imagining that it is requisite only for those who are aware of its dignity and position, is completely false and unacceptable.