See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The problem of evil

Not long ago I got two converging questions from two divergent points of view, one from a lapsed Catholic friend and one from a conservative Catholic believer.

My lapsed Catholic friend, troubled by my belief that the Catholic faith is the unique and definitive way of salvation, wanted to know whether I thought that only Catholics would be saved.

My conservative Catholic friend, concerned by my high regard for non-Catholic Christians like Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis and by my respect for the piety of non-Christian believers, including devout Jews and Muslims, wanted to know whether I thought there was any great need for evangelization if non-Catholics can be saved.

My answer to both questions begins the same way: It’s complicated.

Neither exclusivism (the belief that all non-Catholics are damned) nor indifferentism (the belief that it doesn’t matter which religion you belong to) are compatible with Church teaching.

Catholics don’t believe that every religion is as good as every other, that all roads lead to God, and so whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or atheist makes no difference as long as we try to lead a good life. But we also don’t believe that only duly baptized members of the Catholic Church can be saved and everyone else is damned.

Since the days of the Early Fathers, Catholics have believed both that a) there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church and also that b) some people are saved outside the visible communion of the Catholic Church.

Extra eccelsiam nulla salus — “Outside the Church there is no salvation” — is the firm and constant teaching of the Catholic Church, most famously associated with the papal bull Unam Sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII, which further defines that it is “absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

At the same time, it was widely posited in the early Church, to begin with, that not only were various Old Testament figures (from Elijah and Elisha to David and Moses and even back to Adam and Eve) saved by Christ, salvation through Christ was also thought by some to be available for pagan Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

That’s not all. As early as the third century Pope St. Stephen rejected the idea of rebaptizing those who came to the Church after being baptized outside the Church by schismatic heretics; they should simply receive absolution, he says, and be admitted to holy communion. St. Augustine likewise accepted the baptisms of the Donatist schismatic heresy as valid.

Now, because there is only one baptism, and because in the waters of baptism we are reborn as children of Mother Church as well as of God the Father, it can be said that all the baptized — including Protestants today — are in a way children of the Catholic Church, even if they lack the fullness of membership.

But the early Church was also confronted with unbaptized catechumens or adult converts preparing for baptism dying or even being martyred before receiving the sacrament. This experience led to figurative phrases like “baptism of blood” and “baptism of desire,” expressing the idea that under some circumstances God can and does grant the grace of the sacrament to people who through no fault of their own never received the sacrament itself.  

St. Thomas Aquinas further stipulated that “baptism of desire” need not be explicit; one “receives the forgiveness of sins before Baptism in so far as he has Baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly” (ST III, 69, 4).

In other words, it is possible to receive salvation in Christ not only without baptism itself, but even without an explicit desire for baptism per se, but having only a broader or more general desire that in some way implies or includes desire for baptism, or for that to which baptism gives access.

Now, St. Thomas was probably thinking of people who had already begun to receive Christian instruction and who had some kind of faith in Christ, even if they hadn’t necessarily received instruction regarding baptism.

But subsequent theological reflection extended the logic of this notion of “implicit baptism of desire” to account for people either had not yet heard of Christ at all (or perhaps had not heard him proclaimed in an adequate way, or in a way suited to their condition and their particular obstacles to coming to faith): individuals who, for whatever reason, through no fault of their own, have had no real opportunity, not only to receive or even to explicitly desire baptism, but even to begin to believe in Christ.

Thus Pope Pius XII, in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (On the Mystical Body of Christ), held out hope of salvation for non-Christians who “are related to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by a certain unconscious yearning and desire.”

This teaching was further developed in a well-known 1949 letter from the Holy Office (today known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or CDF) to Boston’s Archbishop Richard J. Cushing concerning a priest named Fr. Leonard Feeney, who insisted on a strict interpretation of Extra eccelsiam nulla salus, a view sometimes called “Feeneyism.” (Fr. Feeney was excommunicated four years later. He reconciled with the Church six years before his death in 1978.)

This letter makes it clear that baptism is a normative necessity for salvation: that is, it is commanded by God, and this command cannot be flouted without rejecting Christ. Thus,

… no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth. [Emphasis added]

Where such knowledge is lacking through no fault of the person (what is traditionally called “invincible ignorance”), on the other hand,

God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.

Thus, the grace of salvation in Jesus Christ can potentially reach non-Christians. This was later taught by the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church),

To be clear about what this does not mean: It doesn’t mean that anyone is saved apart from Jesus or that anyone does not need grace to be saved. It certainly doesn’t mean that if non-Christians simply try their best and lead decent or even exemplary moral lives, that is enough to get them to heaven.

Everyone needs the grace of regeneration and remission of sins (at least original sin in the case of the very young, and actual sin for everyone else) to be saved. No one who has reached the age of reason can be saved without some kind of desire for forgiveness and salvation, some kind of receptivity to grace — receptivity that is itself the fruit of grace — leading to supernatural faith and charity.

Still, the fact is that we do believe that non-Christians can be saved.

So why evangelize?

Why confront people in their non-culpaable ignorance with the gospel, imposing on them a duty to accept baptism or face eternal damnation? Might we even be doing them a disservice?

No, of course not.

That necessity of accepting the grace offered in baptism, explicitly or implicitly, already exists — and, after all, if implicit acceptance of salvation is possible, so is implicit rejection.

Non-culpable ignorance isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card. It certainly doesn’t make it easier to be saved! Quite the contrary.

The Church is “Catholic” in two senses. “Catholic” means “universal” or “pertaining to the whole” (Greek kata + holos), and this describes, first, the universality of the Church’s mission: The Church was founded by Jesus Christ, the universal savior of all of humanity, as the instrument of salvation for all of humanity.

“Catholic” also refers to the wholeness or fullness of the Church’s faith and teaching and of the means of salvation given to her. These include the sacraments, the liturgy, the apostolic succession and ministerial priesthood, as well as the cult of saints, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Christians who are not Catholic, while they have access to means of grace (especially baptism), do not have all the means God wishes us to have.

Protestants lack most of the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist, and sacramental confession, which is a normative necessity for salvation for those who fall into grave sin after baptism.

One may be restored to the state of grace through perfect contrition; for Catholics this must be combined with a firm purpose to receive absolution as soon as possible. This is a normative necessity that would not apply to Protestants who are invincibly ignorant of their obligation to be Catholic. Still: The grace of the sacrament helps.

So Protestants can be saved, but to lack the fullness of the means of salvation — the graces of all the sacraments, the fruits of the liturgy, the fullness of Catholic teaching — is a real privation and a hardship. On the road to salvation, they have more roadblocks and fewer aids.

As for those who are not baptized at all, or who are not practicing a Christian life, their situation is worse. Pope Pius XII, in the same encyclical quoted above, cautioned that even those on the road to salvation through unconscious desire

still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with Us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the Society of glorious love. Persevering in prayer to the Spirit of love and truth, We wait for them with open and outstretched arms to come not to a stranger’s house, but to their own, their father's home.

More recently, the 2000 CDF declaration Dominus Iesus (On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church) declared:

If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.

Subjectively, of course, they may be following their consciences, honoring God according to their best lights, and seeking his grace in whatever way they can; if so, God will honor and reward that. Even so, “objectively gravely deficient” is not a great place to be.

God is loving and merciful, and we can hope for the salvation of people of good will in all religious traditions, or even of none, but their way to God is more difficult and doubtful.

Christ has given us the Catholic Church on earth, and with it the fullness of the means of salvation, for our great good and benefit in this life and assurance of eternal life to come.

This is why he commanded us to evangelize — and, of course, if we don’t do what Christ commanded, we don’t deserve to be called Christians at all.

I hope and expect to have the joy of meeting many people in heaven who belonged in this life to other religions, or to none.

But it is also a joy to see people enter the communion of the Church on earth, and it gives both them and us a greater founded hope for their salvation.

See also: It’s Complicated: Islam and violence | The problem of evil