Has the Church contradicted herself on “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”?

For what it’s worth, here is a paper I wrote several years ago in response to a Protestant friend, with whom I was debating the doctrine of papal infallibility with regard specifically do the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church”. Has the Church contradicted herself on this doctrine?

  1. Response to your message

1.1.     Critique of your argument

You write,

“A. Infallibility is the inability to commit error;

B.  Where a contradiction exists error is necessarily present;

C.  Church A has contradicted herself;

D.  Therefore Church A has committed error;

E.  Therefore Church A does not possess the charism of infallibility”

While steps B through D of your syllogism are valid, A is materially defective, leading to your false conclusion E.

The reason is that premise A, insofar as it purports to define infallibility as it applies to the Catholic Church, is incomplete. When the Church calls itself infallible, it does not mean, “The Church never commits error.” Rather, as I have explained before, it means the Church is protected from committing error under certain specific circumstances. Those circumstances are, when the bishops in union with the pope teach a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals, which usually takes place in ecumenical council; or, when the pope himself teaches a doctrine pertaining to faith and morals. And it only applies when they are intending to define something infallibly to the entire Church.   (For ease of typing, I will refer to the circumstances in which infallibility applies, as “the Circumstances of Infallibility”, or “COI” for short.)

Infallibility may be refuted in one of two ways: (1) by showing that something which was defined infallibly is demonstrably false; or (2) by showing that something which was defined infallibly contradicts something else that was defined infallibly.

So if you are going to show that the Church has contradicted itself in a way that refutes infallibility, it’s not enough to show that one pope has contradicted another pope, or that a pope has contradicted a council. You have to show that a pope or council, when intending to speak infallibly, has contradicted what another pope or council has taught when intending to speak infallibly or in other words, under COI.

So your syllogism, in order to prove what you are trying to prove, would need to run like this:

A. The Catholic Church’s claim to be infallible, means that under COI, the Church cannot commit error or contradict herself.

B. The Catholic Church has contradicted herself under COI.

C. Therefore the Church is not infallible.

Thus in order to prove the Church is not infallible, you have to show that premise B. is true: that the Church has contradicted herself under COI.

In your attempt to show this, you have provided two citations, one a papal bull and another a statement of an ecumenical council, both of which teach that there is no salvation outside the Church.

Then in an attempt to show a contradiction, you have cited the statements of Vatican II that I provided, which say that it’s possible for someone who is not a formal member of the Church to be saved.

The problem, of course, is that the V2 statements I provided were not intended to be infallible definitions of faith and morals (as I explained previously), and therefore do not fall within COI. So you have not established premise B. If premise B. fails, the syllogism fails, and you have not proven your point.

1.2.    Response to your other statements

You write, “Even if you want to say that VII was not teaching infallibly it certainly seems to have confused the issue.”

Although you may be right about this, it has nothing to do with disproving infallibility. “Infallibility” and “inconfusability” are not the same thing.

The Church never said that it would never cause confusion. The earthly Church is composed of human beings and is certainly subject to their flaws and foibles. A lot of Catholics think V2 caused a lot of confusion. I have referred to this before, concerning the changes to the Mass. I personally think it was not done in the right way, if it should have been done at all. And I think a lot of damage was done to the Church as a result. But Christ never promised that he would prevent the members of the Church from doing damage to the Church. You can already see instances of this in the Bible, where even Apostles act in ways that show poor judgment.

Besides which, if you are going to indict the Church for causing confusion, then what are you going to say about so-called “Bible-only Christians”? Do you think people who claim to use the Bible alone as their rule of faith, have never caused confusion?   Even if there are not 23,000 Protestant denominations, as some have claimed, suppose there are only half that amount? Or a fourth? Suppose there are “only” 5,750 Protestant denominations, or even 500, or 50. Do you think that fact alone has not caused confusion or scandal?

And if you are going to indict the Church for not being able to “make up her mind”, then do you equally indict the 5,750 Protestant denominations for not being able to make up their minds what is true concerning the myriad points of doctrine on which they disagree?

You say, “since the Bible is written down it cannot change its mind.” But what good is that, if those who read it cannot avoid coming to contradictory conclusions?

Even on “the most basic important issue”, salvation, Bible-only Christians have reached contradictory conclusions, with some saying you can lose your salvation and others saying “once saved always saved”; some saying salvation is dependent on free will, while others say your salvation is predetermined by God regardless of any act or decision of yours; some saying baptism is necessary to salvation and confers actual graces, and others saying it confers nothing but is only an outward symbolic act.

All this is aside from the fact that any teaching proven from the Bible using sola scriptura rests on a shaky foundation, as I believe I showed previously.

  1. Unam Sanctam

2.1.    Textual context

Now to address Unam Sanctam (referred to herein as “U.S.”). My first thought as to how to respond, was to read U.S. in its entirety for myself, so as to read the quote you give in context. My first impression upon finishing was, that while your quote focuses on who is saved and who isn’t, U.S. itself is not primarily about salvation at all. It’s mainly about authority.

Boniface first explains that the Church is one, in other words Christ founded a single church, not many churches. He supports this with citations from scripture. He then says, the one Church has one head, not multiple heads. Thus the Greek Orthodox, in rejecting the headship of the pope, have rejected the headship of Christ.

He then says that the Church bears two swords, the temporal and the spiritual. In other words, it has authority in temporal affairs as well as spiritual affairs. In support of this he cites, ‘There is no power except from God, and the things that are, are ordained of God’ [Rom 13:1-2]. You will recall also that Jesus told Pilate that he only has authority because his father had granted it to him. Thus even temporal authority comes from God.

Since the Church is God’s vicar, it rightfully rules over temporal authority, in the sense of directing and correcting it. Thus Boniface writes, “For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good.”

He proceeds to show that lower powers are judged and ruled by higher powers, and things of lower perfection are brought to a state of higher perfection by following the dictates of the powers possessing the higher perfection. This stands to reason. For example, an ignorant pupil obtains knowledge by following the direction of his teacher.

Being a higher authority than the temporal power, the Church may judge the temporal power but not vice versa. ‘The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man’ [1 Cor 2:15]. And the pope being the head of the Church, he may judge others within the Church, but not vice versa. Whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists God’s ordinance.   “Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Rom. 13:2.

It is only after all this that he says, “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (As an aside, let me point out that the word translated “absolutely” in the quote you provided, is “omnino.” According to http://arts.cuhk.edu.hk/Lexis/Latin/, “omnino” means “altogether, entirely, wholly, certainly, completely”. Other translations of U.S. use “altogether” rather than “absolutely”.)

In the context of the entire bull then, it seems to me a statement not primarily about who is and who is not saved — indeed the very last sentence is the only time the word “salvation” is mentioned — rather it’s about who has the highest authority and who needs to be subject to that authority; the answer being, “everyone”.

2.2.   Historical context

Looking at the still wider context of it, apparently it was written in response to a series of disputes between Boniface and the king of France, largely involving attempts by the kings of France and England to tax the clergy in order to finance wars. So the Pope was writing in response to this situation, saying, “You have no authority to tax the Church without its consent.” No one bosses the Church around, because the Church is the highest authority on earth. The Church, being a spiritual authority, is rightfully subject to no temporal authority. Rather, all temporal authorities, and indeed everyone on earth, needs to be subject to the Church, and therefore to its head, the pope. To refuse to be subject to it is to refuse to be subject to God’s ordinances. Again, “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” Rom. 13:2.

You will note that Rom. 13:2 is actually referring to temporal authority. But if refusing to be subject even to temporal authority incurs condemnation, how much more the refusal to be subject to the higher, spiritual authority.   It is in this sense that the bull is saying that it’s necessary to salvation to be subject to the pope — in other words, to avoid the condemnation of Rom. 13:2, for “opposing the ordinance of God”.

So the thing that brings condemnation is the refusal to submit: refusal to submit to temporal power; and temporal powers refusing to submit to the spiritual power established by God. But, those who are born Muslim or Hindu or Protestant, and never learn the truths of the Catholic faith, never even have the chance to submit. Therefore they are not refusing to submit, therefore they don’t incur the specific condemnation spoken of in the bull.

This is the point that Vatican II makes, when it says for example: “[T]hey could not be saved who, knowing the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it” (Lumen Gentium 14). This would be a refusal to submit to the divinely appointed authority.   But the necessary implication of the same statement is, that someone who does not know the Catholic Church was “founded as necessary by God through Christ”, cannot incur condemnation by refusing to enter it.

2.3.   Does U.S. require formal membership for salvation?

In citing U.S. to prove your point, you apparently take it to mean that only those who are formal members of the Catholic Church may be saved. That is what it means to be “subject to the Roman Pontiff”.

2.3.1.       Formal membership defined

If so, then the question is, what does it mean to be a member of the Catholic Church? How do you define “membership”? Basically, you become a member of the Church by being baptized.

“Holy Baptism holds the first place among the sacraments, because it is the door of the spiritual life; for by it we are made members of Christ and incorporated with the Church.” (The Decree for the Armenians, in the Bull “Exultate Deo” of Pope Eugene IV.)

‘Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: “Therefore . . . we are members one of another.” Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”’ Catechism, 1267.

So you become a formal member of the Church by being baptized. But does the Church believe that only formal members can be saved? You imply that before Vatican II, that was the Church’s belief, but due to modern pressures V2 waffled and decided that non-members could also be saved.

2.3.2.      Baptism of blood and of desire

In that regard I direct your attention to the following quotes from some early Church Fathers:

Ambrose: “But I hear you lamenting because he [the Emperor Valentinian] had not received the sacraments of baptism. Tell me, what else could we have, except the will to it, the asking for it? He too had just now this desire, and after he came into Italy it was begun, and a short time ago he signified that he wished to be baptized by me. Did he, then, not have the grace which he desired? Did he not have what he eagerly sought? Certainly, because he sought it, he received it. What else does it mean: `Whatever just man shall be overtaken by death, his soul shall be at rest [Wis. 4:7]’?” (Sympathy at the Death of Valentinian [A.D. 392]).

Augustine: “When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark” (ibid. 5:28:39).

These readings discuss what is called “baptism of desire”. Here are some more which discuss “baptism of blood”:

John Chrysostom: “Do not be surprised that I call martyrdom a baptism, for here too the Spirit comes in great haste and there is the taking away of sins and a wonderful and marvelous cleansing of the soul, and just as those being baptized are washed in water, so too those being martyred are washed in their own blood” (Panegyric on St. Lucian 2 [A.D. 388]).

Gregory of Nazianz:   “[Besides the baptisms associated with Moses, John, and Jesus] I know also a fourth baptism, that by martyrdom and blood, by which also Christ himself was baptized. This one is far more august than the others, since it cannot be defiled by later sins” (Oration on the Holy Lights 39:17 [A.D. 381]).

Augustine: “That the place of baptism is sometimes supplied by suffering is supported by a substantial argument which the same blessed Cyprian draws from the circumstance of the thief, to whom, although not baptized, it was said, `Today you shall be with me in paradise’ [Luke 23:43]. Considering this over and over again, I find that not only suffering for the name of Christ can supply for that which is lacking by way of baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart if, perhaps, because of the circumstances of the time, recourse cannot be had to the celebration of the mystery of baptism” (ibid. 4:22:29).

Both baptism of blood and baptism of desire have long been accepted doctrines in the Church. Many other Church Fathers acknowledge the possibility of being saved by these kinds of baptism. I chose only a representative sampling, and I chose these because these particular Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory, St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, were all later named Doctors of the Church.

The Catechism says this about these kinds of baptism:

CCC 1258: ‘The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.’

CCC 1259: ‘For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.’

One thing to note is that baptism of desire and baptism of blood are not sacraments. They are not actual, sacramental baptism. Thus, they do not make you a formal member of the Church. Yet, according to longstanding Church doctrine, they enable you to be saved.

2.3.3.      Formal membership absolutely necessary or only normatively necessary for salvation?

Since the Church Fathers wrote about baptism of desire and of blood during the fourth century and earlier, and since “the Church has always held the firm conviction” that these kinds of baptism were efficacious for salvation, presumably Boniface VIII, as pope, was aware of their existence.

Therefore if you assert that U.S. requires formal membership in the Church for salvation, there are two possibilities: (1) Boniface was ignoring established Church doctrine that said people can be saved without formal membership, or (2) he was speaking of what is normative for salvation, but was not excluding possible exceptions such as those saved by baptism of desire or of blood.

When you say something is necessary, you may mean that it’s absolutely necessary, or that it’s normatively necessary. An example is driving on the right side of the road. It’s necessary under the law, but there are times when it’s allowable to drive on the left, for example when passing (where otherwise allowed), or when swerving to avoid a hazard or a pedestrian.   In other words, driving on the right is normally necessary, but exceptions are allowed, therefore it’s not absolutely necessary. (Credit for this explanation goes to Jimmy Akin.)

The law books don’t have to spell out all the possible exceptions when they state that something is illegal, nevertheless it’s understood that exceptions might apply to many laws. For example burglary is illegal.   But everyone would agree that if you’re wandering through a desert, starving and dying of thirst, and you come across a house, and no one is home, it is morally and legally allowable to break a window in order to get in and find something to eat and drink.

I think your point regarding Unam Sanctam was that it makes submission to the pope absolutely necessary – no exceptions; whereas Vatican II makes it only normatively necessary – allowing for some exceptions. Thus, there’s a contradiction.   But in light of the Catholic doctrine of baptism by desire and baptism by blood, it’s clear that the Church believed that there could be exceptions, long before V2.

I submit that Boniface VIII was aware of these exceptions, but did not feel the need to state the exceptions when laying down the normative conditions for salvation.   Besides which, the context of the rest of the bull, and the historical context, make clear that his main point in U.S. was that refusal of temporal authorities, and anyone else for that matter, to be subject to the Roman Pontiff, incurred condemnation for opposing the ordinance of God. Which V2 agrees with when it says, “They cannot be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or remain in it (cf. Lumen Gentium 14).”

  1. Council of Florence

3.1.    Whether quoted matter is COI

Regarding the Council of Florence, there are a couple of points to note. First, “while infallibility is involved in the universal resolutions of a lawfully ratified Ecumenical Council, this does not mean that the texts of the Council are either verbally inspired or that they necessarily state a teaching in the best possible way.”   In other words a statement may be true, and infallibly so, even if it is stated in a way that could possibly lead to misunderstanding. (Quoted matter in this section is taken from http://matt1618.freeyellow.com/critic2.html.)

Second, “There is also the fact that the statement itself, while definitive, is not formally so. . .   In that sense the exposition element of the teaching would not necessarily fall under the mantle of infallible teaching – particularly since this Decree was to a particular church and not one promulgated to the universal church either expressly or tacitly.”   The point being, the statement is not prefaced by, “we hereby declare, define and proclaim the following to the whole Church”.   Rather, it’s part of a summary of doctrines which are defined elsewhere. Thus it’s disputable whether it falls under COI.

3.1.1.        Whether every word of a council decree is COI

Suppose a council document addressed the bishops of the world as “Venerable Brethren”. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the intention of the document to formally define that all bishops are individually venerable. It’s just a customary figure of speech.

In fact, there may be some bishops who are not venerable, who are outright scoundrels. What the phrase actually means though, is that their office, that of successor to the Apostles, is venerable, even though the office may be occupied by a rat in some cases.

The council document would not spell all this out. But we would know it by considering the phrase in the context of Catholic usage of the term throughout history, as well as Catholic theology concerning the office of bishop.

I believe this example shows two things: First, that not every word of every document issued by a council falls under COI; and second, that even council documents which fall under COI need to be interpreted in the light of Catholic teaching as a whole, since they will assume certain things which may not be spelled out.

3.2.   Historical context

Again looking at the historical context, the Council of Florence was working to reconcile the Churches of the East with the Catholic Church. The section in which your quote occurs specifically concerns the Coptic Christians of Egypt. It states that the Copts sent a representative to the Council, and the Council presented him with a summary of Catholic beliefs, asking whether he would assent to those beliefs.   He said he would. So the decree in which the quote appears, in which the reconciliation with the Copts is announced and decreed, contains a summary of the beliefs that the Coptic representative assented to.

In other words, it is not intended to be an infallible definition of dogma, but rather a summary of Catholic beliefs, within the context of a document that serves an entirely different purpose. The purpose of the document is not to define doctrine or even to teach doctrine, it’s to announce and ratify the official reconciliation and reunion with the Coptic sect of Christianity. Therefore the specific passage you cite doesn’t necessarily fall under COI.

3.3.   Analysis of text

3.3.1.       Doesn’t specify formal membership necessary for salvation

The quote may be divided into two parts. First, ‘It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock;’.

But, “[h]ow must they be joined to the Church to be saved??? Florence does not state that it must be corporate or visible in every instance and therefore those who read the statement this way are transposing their own interpretations unto the text.” In other words, it says they must be “added to the flock”, but it does not specify formal initiation through baptism.

3.3.2.      Second part applies to those already Catholic

The second part says ‘that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church’s sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.’

‘Notice what this is saying: it is directed to those already in the ecclesiastical body and it is saying that they cannot benefit from the sacraments or any of the corporal works of mercy, or even shedding their blood for Christ, unless they do so in the bosom of the Catholic Church. . . . In essence, anyone culpably leaving the Catholic Church who was within her bosom commits a mortal sin and will be damned for it unless before they die they repent of this crime and are reconciled. There is nothing in this teaching that is in any way contradicted by the later papal magisterium of the popes or by Vatican II. The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium specifies this same teaching “to the Catholic faithful”: “Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.”’

But even aside from these issues, there is the issue of the proper interpretation of the passage you cite.   Again, you apparently believe that Florence is saying, that anyone who is not a formal member of the Church is damned. However, there is good reason to believe that even if this is the intended meaning, the Council was assuming at least the exceptions noted above, namely baptism of desire and of blood.

  1. History of teaching re necessity of Church for salvation

4.1.    Timeline through Council of Trent

In an attempt to clarify my meaning, I will provide a little timeline:

Fourth Century: Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Gregory affirm the possibility of salvation through baptism of blood or baptism of desire, i.e. without formal initiation into the Church. (See quotes above.)

1273: Thomas Aquinas publishes Summa Theologica, in which he too affirms the possibility of salvation through baptism of desire or of blood:

‘Baptism of Water has its efficacy from Christ’s Passion, to which a man is conformed by Baptism, and also from the Holy Ghost, as first cause. Now although the effect depends on the first cause, the cause far surpasses the effect, nor does it depend on it. Consequently, a man may, without Baptism of Water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ’s Passion, in so far as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him. . .   In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance. . . . Thus, therefore, each of these other Baptisms is called Baptism, forasmuch as it takes the place of Baptism. Wherefore Augustine says (De Unico Baptismo Parvulorum iv): “The Blessed Cyprian argues with considerable reason from the thief to whom, though not baptized, it was said: ‘Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise’ that suffering can take the place of Baptism. Having weighed this in my mind again and again, I perceive that not only can suffering for the name of Christ supply for what was lacking in Baptism, but even faith and conversion of heart, if perchance on account of the stress of the times the celebration of the mystery of Baptism is not practicable.”’


‘Secondly, the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of “faith that worketh by charity,” whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: “I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for.’

1298: Sts. Ambrose and Augustine are named Doctors of the Church.

1302: Pope Boniface VIII issues Unam Sanctam, stating submission to the pope is necessary to salvation.

1323: Thomas Aquinas is canonized.

1442: The Council of Florence ratifies its Bull of Union with the Copts (from which your quotation is taken).

1545-1563: The Council of Trent infallibly defines baptism of desire:

Chapter four of Trent’s Decree on Justification defines justification as “a translation from that state in which man is born a child of the first Adam to the state of grace and of the ‘adoption of the sons’ of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Savior.” Justification thus includes the state of grace (salvation). The chapter then states that “this translation, after the promulgation of the gospel, cannot be effected except through the laver of regeneration or a desire for it, as it is written: ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ [John 3:5].”

1568: Sts. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianz are named Doctors of the Church.

In short, here is what you have: 1. Church Fathers say exceptions are possible; 2. U.S. says no exceptions; 3. Aquinas says exceptions; 4. Florence says no exceptions; 5. Trent says exceptions. Either the Church is flip-flopping every century or two, or else the decrees are assuming the exceptions without spelling them out. But since nowhere do you find protests or condemnations of the exceptions – on the contrary, the Church Fathers who endorsed baptism of blood and of desire are named Doctors of the Church, and Thomas Aquinas is canonized — there is no reason to doubt that the exceptions were assumed all along, despite not always being specifically mentioned.

4.2.   And after Trent

The timeline continues:

1863: Pope Pius IX writes:

‘Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.’

Which is immediately followed by,

‘Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, to whom “the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior.”’

Quanto Conficiamur Moerore, Encyclical of Pope Pius IX, August 10, 1863.

Thus in a single document Pius IX expresses both views — that the Church is necessary for salvation, and that there are exceptions to the normal rule. This shows that there is no necessary conflict, and also shows that when he expresses “no salvation outside the Church”, he is assuming the exceptions even though he doesn’t mention them in the immediate context.

1943: ‘We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church, solemnly declaring that after the example of the Good Shepherd We desire nothing more ardently than that they may have life and have it more abundantly. . . We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church.’ Mystici Corporis, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII.

So you see that the idea that those who are not formal members of the Church can be saved, is not a mere modern capitulation of Vatican II, but existed and was taught long before.

  1. Church doesn’t damn individuals

Another way of approaching the problem is this:

One theologian I consulted, Karl Adam, points out that while the Church makes statements about who is in heaven, it never makes statements about who is in hell. For example when the Church canonizes a saint, it declares that someone like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Paul, etc., is known to be in heaven. But the Church never declares that some individual is known to be in hell; not even Judas Iscariot. If the Church’s pronouncements about the impossibility of being saved outside the Church allowed of no exceptions whatsoever, then the Church could list page after page of people known to be in hell. The reason it can’t is that in the case of individuals, it can’t know for sure if someone is damned.

In that vein, Adam says that when it’s declared that pagans, Jews, heretics, etc. cannot be saved, it is meant corporately, not individually: ‘To begin with, it is certain that the declaration that there is no salvation outside the Church is not aimed at individual non-Catholics, at any persons as persons, but at non-Catholic churches and communions, in so far as they are non-Catholic communions.’

In other words, those groups cannot be saved, and you cannot be saved if you formally leave the Church for one of those groups. But it makes no statement about any individual pagan, Jew or heretic, in whom God may be working in ways unknown to us. In other words, paganism, Judaism and heresy themselves cannot save you, and to the extent that pagans, Jews and heretics put their faith solely in paganism, Judaism or heresy, they cannot be saved. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that God could not save a pagan despite his being a pagan, if he were to cooperate with God’s grace in some way known only to God.

Adam also writes, ‘[T]he Church expressly distinguishes between “formal” and “material” heretics. A “formal” heretic rejects the Church and its teaching absolutely and with full deliberation; a “material” heretic rejects the Church from lack of knowledge, being influenced by false prejudice or by an anti-Catholic upbringing.’ A formal heretic could not be saved, but a material heretic might be, though it would be in spite of his heresy and not through it or because of it.

  1. In Conclusion

Fr. Ronald Knox wrote to Arnold Lunn (a future convert who would become a great apologist for the faith—their correspondence is found in the book Difficulties):

“Has it ever occurred to you how few are the alleged ‘failures of infallibility’? I mean, if somebody propounded in your presence the thesis that all the kings of England have been impeccable, you would not find yourself murmuring, ‘Oh, well, people said rather unpleasant things about Jane Shore . . . and the best historians seem to think that Charles II spent too much of his time with Nell Gwynn.’ Here have these popes been, fulminating anathema after anathema for centuries—certain in all human probability to contradict themselves or one another over again. Instead of which you get this measly crop of two or three alleged failures!”

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