No Salvation Outside the Church
When I was a little boy, I was convinced that the term for cutting the grass was “lowing the mawn.” In my young mind, I imagined the “mawn” must be the grass, and when you cut it, you were lowering it. “Lowing the mawn” made perfect sense to me; but to those around me, it was just the cute language of a toddler. Still, in my mind, I didn’t need to ask any questions for clarification. I was right. I got it. And… eventually I would have to be corrected. My thinking would have to develop.
We do something similar in theology occasionally. We hear something. We interpret it. We are sure it makes sense. And then—the dangerous part!—we are absolutely certain we are right. We have no need of further questions. We write it in stone.
Take today’s Gospel, for example. It seems pretty clear, “Whoever believes in [Jesus] will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” There are similar expressions elsewhere in the New Testament, including, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). It is not a big leap to reach the conclusion that only Christians will be saved, or to use the language of theology, extra ecclesiam nulla salus: outside the Church there is no salvation.
This exact theology caused a brouhaha in Washington this week. In a Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders questioned the beliefs of Russell Vought, who is the nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders was concerned about Vought’s belief that those who are Muslim are damned. Since theology has proven to have serious, deadly, consequences historically and currently around the world, Sanders equated Vought’s beliefs with Islamophobia and claimed they made him unfit to be a fair public servant in a country where Christianity (or any other religion) cannot be established, de iure or de facto.
What sparked Sanders’ ire was a blog written by Vought referring to a situation at a Christian college, Wheaton, in which the school terminated a faculty member for expressing solidarity with Muslims. Dr. Larycia Hawkins had expressed that Muslims worship the same God. For many Christians, this statement makes no sense. Our God is Jesus Christ, after all, and since Muslims do not worship Jesus, the conclusion they draw is that the God of Islam is not the God of Christianity.¹ Vought wrote, in part, “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology… They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”
Catholics, for a long stretch of our history, might have come to a similar conclusion. Pope Boniface VIII famously wrote in a papal bull called Unam Sanctam in 1302 that “…the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins… Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
In context, Pope Boniface was engaging in a dispute with King Phillip the Fair of France about the bounds of civil authority. He was claiming that both the temporal and the spiritual authority were ordained by God—something to which his contemporaries would agree—but that the supreme authority is vested in the pope above all. In the age of Christendom, kingdoms were understood to be Christian lands, and so the pope’s argument made good sense. Shouldn’t a Catholic kingdom be subject to the pope? (We have a parallel question today: shouldn’t a university or other organization ultimately be subject to the pope if it is to be called Catholic?)
A lot has changed in the world since the Middle Ages, including Catholic theology. Led by the Spirit, the doctrine of salvation has developed. By 1302, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and others had already expressed that although baptism is necessary for salvation, there may be a baptism of desire (living one’s life in accord with God’s will such that if one knew that baptism were necessary, the person would choose it) or a baptism of blood (giving one’s life for Christ). This has become official Church teaching. In the Catechism, for example, we read, “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” (CCC #847; cf. Lumen Gentium 16)². The famous 20th century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called them “anonymous Christians.” Regardless of what they believe, it is Christ who saves them, through His Church, even without their knowing it. In this sense, we may still say there is no salvation outside the Church, but with a vastly different understanding.
As we have discussed in the last few blogs, doctrine develops. The Spirit continues to lead us. Our job is to be humble enough to recognize that we don’t have it all figured out already.
¹ Evangelical Christian theologian and Yale scholar Miroslav Volf refutes this idea with great skill in his excellent book, Allah: A Christian Response. In the book, which I highly recommend, he makes the claim that while Christians and Muslims understand God differently, that does not mean it is a different God to which they are referring. Fundamentally, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the One God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
² Specifically concerning Muslims, the bishops at Vatican II wrote in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) #16: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, 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.”