Is belief in dogma necessary for salvation?

[This is adapted from a comment of mine on Kelly Wilson’s post, Ratzinger’s Neglected Child.]

It is often argued that belief in doctrine is extraneous to salvation. The parable of the Last Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46) is cited to show that Jesus wants us to help the poor and less fortunate, and that’s pretty much all that’s needed.

All you need is love?

Kelly Wilson posted a paraphrased excerpt from Josef Ratzinger’s book, What it Means to Be a Christian (published in 1965 and republished in 2006 by Ignatius), in which Ratzinger writes, “In this parable [of the Last Judgment], the Judge does not ask what kind of theory a person has held about God and the world. He is not asking about a confession of dogma, solely about love. That is enough, and it saves a man. Whoever loves is a Christian.”

This made me wonder:  Is Ratzinger saying that membership in the Church is irrelevant to salvation?  Though you can be saved outside the Church, can you be saved just as easily outside as in?

Not having read the book I asked Kelly that question, but he didn’t seem to have a direct answer.  However I did find this excerpt from Ratzinger’s book:

[W]hat faith basically means is just that this shortfall that we all have in our love is made up by the surplus of Jesus Christ’s love, acting on our behalf. He simply tells us that God himself has poured out among us a superabundance of his love and has thus made good in advance all our deficiency.

Ultimately, faith means nothing other than admitting that we have this kind of shortfall; it means opening our hand and accepting a gift. In its simplest and innermost form, faith is nothing but reaching that point in love at which we recognize that we, too, need to be given something. Faith is thus that stage in love which really distinguishes it as love; it consists in overcoming the complacency and self-satisfaction of the person who says, ‘I have done everything, I don’t need any further help.’ It is only in ‘faith’ like this that selfishness, the real opposite of love, comes to an end. To that extent, faith is already present in and with true loving; it simply represents that impulse in love which leads to its finding its true self: the openness of someone who does not insist on his own capabilities, but is aware of receiving something as a gift and of standing in need of it.

He seems to be saying that faith is necessary to true loving, since in order to love, we need to give up our “complacency and self-satisfaction” and admit that our love is deficient, and therefore need God to “[pour] out among us a superabundance of his love” to make up for our deficiency.

But to make such an admission implies our assent to certain definite propositions, for example that God exists, and that Jesus Christ exists and is able to “[act] on our behalf” to make up the shortfall in our own love, let alone willing to do it.

It also implies faith in the Church from which we learn of the existence of God and of Jesus Christ, since how else would we know about Jesus except from the scriptures which come to us through that Church, or else through that Church’s own preaching?

Yet Ratzinger writes, “[I]t remains true, consequently, that those people who are truly loving, who are as such also believers, may be called Christians.”

He mentions those who are “as such” also believers; in other words, believers by virtue of being truly loving — which seems to turn on its head what he said before: That you become truly loving via Christian faith, i.e. admitting that your loving deficiency needs to be made up for by Christ. Now is he saying that you become Christian by truly loving? Which comes first?

CDF to the rescue

I don’t have the book in order to go into an analysis to see whether, and if so how, he resolves this seeming contradiction. But in answer to the question whether belief in dogma is necessary to salvation, I did come across a CDF document which addresses the question pretty squarely:

It is of course true that through the faith that leads to salvation men are converted to God,(32) who reveals Himself in His Son Jesus Christ; but it would be wrong to deduce from this that the Church’s dogmas can be belittled or even denied. Indeed the conversion to God which we should realize through faith is a form of obedience (cf. Rom. 16:26), which should correspond to the nature of divine Revelation and its demands.

Now this Revelation, in the whole plan of salvation, reveals the mystery of God who sent His Son into the world (cf. 1 Jn.4:14) and teaches its application to Christian conduct. Moreover it demands that, in full obedience of the intellect and will to God who reveals,(33) we accept the proclamation of the good news of salvation as it is infallibly taught by the pastors of the Church. The faithful, therefore, through faith are converted as they should to God, who reveals Himself in Christ, when they adhere to Him in the integral doctrine of the Catholic faith.

Applying this to the instant discussion, I admit that charity may be the primary condition for attaining salvation. But I submit that it’s not the only one. The reason the tenets of the faith must be adhered to is because they are given by God so that we might know the truth. In rejecting them we are rejecting truth – God is Love, but he is also Truth. Just as in rejecting the love that he manifests in Christ, we are rejecting God; by the same token, in rejecting revealed truth we are also rejecting God.

Now of course there remains the question of each individual’s culpability in rejecting the revealed Gospel. But as an objective matter, to reject revelation is to reject Truth.

You also have to obey

Of course, as stated in the quote, there is also the matter of obedience. Christ submitted himself to humiliation, torture and death, for the simple reason that it was his Father’s will that he do so; in other words, out of obedience. Taking up our cross and following in his steps, means obeying the demands of, yes, charity, but also those of humility and obedience, even (or especially) when those demands conflict with our wishes or even our physical well-being.

As professed Catholics, believing the tenets of the Faith is a matter of obedience to the shepherds whom God has appointed over us. Refusal to do so would seem to be an act not of obedience and humility but of rebellion and pride. Hardly compatible with Jesus’ injunction to we who would be his disciples, to take up our cross and follow in his steps.

As to non-Catholics, they would not be bound to obey the bishops the same way a Catholic is, who has professed to believe explicitly all that the Church believes and teaches. Nevertheless, the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament do indicate that there is condemnation for rejecting the Gospel. Again the degree of culpability varies in individual cases, nevertheless the scriptures do imply that there is virtue in believing and vice in rejecting the Gospel (e.g., Jesus said that his sheep recognize his voice and follow him (John 10:26-27), and that those who reject him do so because their deeds are evil (John 3:18-21)) – since again, to reject the Gospel is to reject God’s own revealed truth.

So in sum, while I agree that charity might be the highest consideration, I would argue that whether or not one assents to specific propositions of the Faith does have a bearing on salvation; not in the sense of getting the wrong answers on a test, but as a question of whether one is inclined to accept and submit to the revealed truths that God wished to reveal to us and which we are called upon to obey; and if not, why not.

First things first

When you think about it, what does the Gospel message demand of us first? As noted in my prior post, in response to the question, “What must we do?” (after Peter had chided them for putting to death the Just One), Peter’s first response is, “Repent”, followed by, “be baptized.” As a result of this, your sins will be forgiven and you will receive the Holy Spirit. After this, you are to meet constantly and hear the Apostles teaching (Liturgy of the Word?), and break bread (Liturgy of the Eucharist?).

So you receive salvation by first believing, which leads to repentance, and then being baptized. Once you have done those things, then how do you proceed to live life as a Christian? Pray, worship, listen to teaching, and receive the sacraments.

Now after all this, in other words once you’ve become a Christian, I would agree that your highest priority is charity.

Peter didn’t preach the good news that “all you need is love”. In answer to the question, “What are we do to?”, he didn’t reply, “Love one another! That’s all!” If love alone were sufficient, without belief in Christ, then Peter didn’t have to go around making people feel bad for having killed “the Just One”, and letting them know that death couldn’t hold him and he was therefore raised from the dead, and now sits at God’s right hand. If love is all you need to be saved as a Christian, then what was the point of all that?

4 thoughts on “Is belief in dogma necessary for salvation?

  1. It would seem to suggest, then, that the more knowledge of or participation in Christianity in general and Catholicism more specifically, the higher the responsibility one has. If one has little knowledge of Christianity, but loves as God desires, he may be saved. If one is baptized a Christian, there seems to be the added responsibility of trying to live as Christ taught, to the best of ones knowledge and understanding (which, I suspect the Church would suggest that following this sincerely would lead one ever closer to the Catholic Church) and finally, if one is Catholic, then one is expected to be, as you stated, obedient to the teachings of the Church, because one has knowledge that herein lies the most revealed Truth. So more is expected from those who have more, so to speak. Interesting post.


  2. I agree that more is expected from those who have more, as the scriptures say, and which I think is intended to warn Christians not to assume that just because they are Christians they have it made.

    It’s interesting the way you put it, when you say that people may be saved if they have little knowledge of Christianity but love as God desires; combined with the contrasting statement that Christians may actually have less of a chance of being saved, since more is expected of them.

    It has occurred to me before: that, taken to its logical extreme, this might lead us to believe that it’s actually better to suppress the Gospel, lest fewer people be saved because of being held to a higher standard! In reality, obviously, it’s the very purpose of the preaching of the Gospel to save souls. Therefore, those who have heard the Gospel *must* have a better chance of being saved. Otherwise the Gospel would be poison, to be avoided like the plague!

    Regarding the situation of people who have never heard the Gospel, yet love anyway: How often would you say that occurs? Obviously, nearly everyone loves someone: Parents, children, siblings, spouse, etc. I doubt that’s the kind of love that saves you. As Jesus said, “What merit is there in that? Even the tax collectors do as much!”

    The kind of love that saves you, then, must be the extraordinary kind, the kind expressed in the Beatitudes: Love of enemy and mercy towards the hungry, thirsty and imprisoned.

    But how many people, who have never heard of Jesus, love like that? Precious few even among Christians do as much. In most places, loving enemies sounds absurd, as it did in Jesus’ day. What would possess people to do such a thing? Yet I’m not saying no one does. I’m sure there are some in every place and time, whom God touches with grace and infuses the supernatural virtues. But based on the history of hatred and conflict throughout history and throughout the world, I’m going to guess that it’s not very many.

    As always, I appreciate your comment.


  3. I would agree with you. i think people who fear that the Catholic Church took a step toward religious relativism…(charges which were certainly leveled at John Courtney Murray and others who worked for Ecumenism and dialogue, as well as at those who engage in inter-religious dialogue, including Pope John Paul II with the interreligious prayer service at Assissi) when it decided that there is the possibility of salvation outside of the Church, mistake the concept of possibility with the concept of certainty. I certainly am more comfortable with the idea of our fellow Christians being seen as brothers who are traveling with less revelation, rather than strangers to be feared. The fact that my baptism was an acceptable Christian Baptism even though I wasn’t Catholic is meaningful for me, since my family of origin is not Catholic.


  4. I agree that it’s more comforting to think of Protestants as fellow Christians. Though I can’t help thinking, that insofar as they make it their mission to “save” Catholics from the Catholic faith, i.e. cause them to leave the sacraments and deny Catholic doctrine, they are objectively enemies of the faith. Then again, the ones who do not try to save Catholics, tend to be more lukewarm in their own faith. All around it’s a bad situation. But insofar as they do know Christ through the practice of their own respective religions, that has to be a good thing.


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