I’ve had a lot of questions in the past on the doctrine – “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”- Outside the Church there is no salvation. Recently, over at Fisheaters, Vox Clamantis posted on this, quoting from the Catholic Encyclopedia (search for “Necessary Means of Salvation to get to that part at the CE).
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains this very well. I get a lot of questions from my Protestant friends, and their relationship to the Church (they have a different conception of “Church”). I have highlighted a section in the below part that deals with that as well.
I hope this acts as a resource for future conversations.
The necessary means of salvation
In the preceding examination of the Scriptural doctrine regarding the Church, it has been seen how clearly it is laid down that only by entering the Church can we participate in the redemption wrought for us by Christ. Incorporation with the Church can alone unite us to the family of the second Adam, and alone can engraft us into the true Vine. Moreover, it is to the Church that Christ has committed those means of grace through which the gifts He earned for men are communicated to them. The Church alone dispenses the sacraments. It alone makes known the light of revealed truth. Outside the Church these gifts cannot be obtained. From all this there is but one conclusion: Union with the Church is not merely one out of various means by which salvation may be obtained: it is the only means.
This doctrine of the absolute necessity of union with the Church was taught in explicit terms by Christ. Baptism, the act of incorporation among her members, He affirmed to be essential to salvation. “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Any disciple who shall throw off obedience to the Church is to be reckoned as one of the heathen: he has no part in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 18:17). St. Paul is equally explicit. “A man that is a heretic”, he writes to Titus, “after the first and second admonition avoid, knowing that he that is such a one is . . . condemned by his own judgment” (Titus 3:10 sq.). The doctrine is summed up in the phrase, Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. This saying has been the occasion of so many objections that some consideration of its meaning seems desirable. It certainly does not mean that none can be saved except those who are in visible communion with the Church. The Catholic Church has ever taught that nothing else is needed to obtain justification than an act of perfect charity and of contrition. Whoever, under the impulse of actual grace, elicits these acts receives immediately the gift of sanctifying grace, and is numbered among the children of God. Should he die in these dispositions, he will assuredly attain heaven. It is true such acts could not possibly be elicited by one who was aware that God has commanded all to join the Church, and who nevertheless should willfully remain outside her fold. For love of God carries with it the practical desire to fulfill His commandments. But of those who die without visible communion with the Church, not all are guilty of willful disobedience to God’s commands. Many are kept from the Church by ignorance. Such may be the case of numbers among those who have been brought up in heresy. To others the external means of grace may be unattainable. Thus an excommunicated person may have no opportunity of seeking reconciliation at the last, and yet may repair his faults by inward acts of contrition and charity.
It should be observed that those who are thus saved are not entirely outside the pale of the Church. The will to fulfill all God’s commandments is, and must be, present in all of them. Such a wish implicitly includes the desire for incorporation with the visible Church: for this, though they know it not, has been commanded by God. They thus belong to the Church by desire (voto). Moreover, there is a true sense in which they may be said to be saved through the Church. In the order of Divine Providence, salvation is given to man in the Church: membership in the Church Triumphant is given through membership in the Church Militant. Sanctifying grace, the title to salvation, is peculiarly the grace of those who are united to Christ in the Church: it is the birthright of the children of God. The primary purpose of those actual graces which God bestows upon those outside the Church is to draw them within the fold. Thus, even in the case in which God saves men apart from the Church, He does so through the Church’s graces. They are joined to the Church in spiritual communion, though not in visible and external communion. In the expression of theologians, they belong to the soul of the Church, though not to its body. Yet the possibility of salvation apart from visible communion with the Church must not blind us to the loss suffered by those who are thus situated. They are cut off from the sacraments God has given as the support of the soul. In the ordinary channels of grace, which are ever open to the faithful Catholic, they cannot participate. Countless means of sanctification which the Church offers are denied to them. It is often urged that this is a stern and narrow doctrine. The reply to this objection is that the doctrine is stern, but only in the sense in which sternness is inseparable from love. It is the same sternness which we find in Christ’s words, when he said: “If you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sin” (John 8:24). The Church is animated with the spirit of Christ; she is filled with the same love for souls, the same desire for their salvation. Since, then, she knows that the way of salvation is through union with her, that in her and in her alone are stored the benefits of the Passion, she must needs be uncompromising and even stern in the assertion of her claims. To fail here would be to fail in the duty entrusted to her by her Lord. Even where the message is unwelcome, she must deliver it.
It is instructive to observe that this doctrine has been proclaimed at every period of the Church’s history. It is no accretion of a later age. The earliest successors of the Apostles speak as plainly as the medieval theologians, and the medieval theologians are not more emphatic than those of today. From the first century to the twentieth there is absolute unanimity. St. Ignatius of Antioch writes: “Be not deceived, my brethren. If any man followeth one that maketh schism, he doth not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walketh in strange doctrine, he hath no fellowship with the Passion” (Philadelphians 3). Origen says: “Let no man deceive himself. Outside this house, i.e. outside the Church, none is saved” (Hom. in Jos., iii, n. 5 in P.G., XII, 841). St. Cyprian speaks to the same effect: “He cannot have God for his father, who has not the Church for his mother” (Treatise on Unity 6). The words of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Lateran (1215) define the doctrine thus in its decree against the Albigenses: “Una est fidelium universalis Ecclesia, extra quam nullus omnino salvatur” (Denzinger, n. 357); and Pius IX employed almost identical language in his Encyclical to the bishops of Italy (10 August, 1863): “Notissimum est catholicum dogma neminem scilicet extra catholicam ecclesiam posse salvari” (Denzinger, n. 1529).