Promising Salvation to Non-Catholics: A Sin against Charity

We all hate it when someone makes a promise and doesn’t keep it. “But you promised!” we will say, and, depending on the level of blame and sensitivity of conscience on the part of the offending party, the reaction can be one of great shame. If this is true of promises one is simply unable to keep because circumstances forbade it, it is more so in the case of false promises: that is, those made with no intention of keeping them, or those one had absolutely no authority to make. To promise salvation to a non-Catholic, either directly or indirectly, falls in the latter category as being particularly shameful. It is shameful because it is sinful. It is sinful because it offends not only against faith, but against the greatest Christian virtue: charity.

That the Church has defined there is no salvation outside her means that this proposition is true, and we know it is so with a divinely guaranteed certitude. Genuine charity is rooted in truth. A lie is an affront to truth and therefore an offense against charity. The ontological and psychological connection between truth and charity is a basic Christian concept, whose origin is in the Trinity Itself. Pope Benedict XVI recently highlighted this truth-charity nexus:

To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity. Charity, in fact, “rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:6). … Only in truth does charity shine forth, only in truth can charity be authentically lived. (Caritas in Veritate, No. 1, 3, emphasis in original.)

There are various theories regarding how non-Catholics get to heaven as non-Catholics. Many of these have been advanced by churchmen of high rank. Rather than attempt to disprove these opinions in polemical fashion, I would prefer to show the truth of their contrary, and the consequent duty we have in charity not to waver from it. Out of love for God and for our non-Catholic neighbor, we must not give false or even uncertain assurances concerning how salvation is to be attained, and, consequently, how damnation is to be avoided. That would not be “doing the truth in charity” (Eph. 4:15), as St. Paul enjoins upon Christians.

Let’s consider an oft-cited infallible definition:

“The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Pope Eugene IV, the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441.)

We often hear the objection that someone does not need to be a “formal” member of the Church in order to be saved. The implication is that the spiritual trumps the juridical, and that God is not a stickler for names on baptismal registers and the like. But the implication often reaches further than such trivialities, to include what the Church has defined is necessary for salvation. The objection frames the issue of being Catholic in a far-too-juridical way. What makes us inside the Church? Three things: Divine and Catholic Faith (explicit in the principal mysteries — the Trinity and the Incarnation — and at least implicit in all other articles), sacramental baptism, and subjection to the Holy Father. These defining elements of Church membership expounded by St. Robert Bellarmine were authoritatively postulated by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis:

Actually only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. “For in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.” [I Cor., XII, 13] As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. [Cf. Eph., IV, 5] And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. [Cf. Matth., XVIII, 17] It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit. (No. 22)

There are many people who would not be considered “formal” members of the Church who are, in fact, Catholics in the dogmatic sense. Consider a case I’m personally familiar with: a teenager baptized in a (schismatic) Orthodox church in Russia. Adopted by a Catholic couple when she was about eleven years old, she continued to communicate and confess in the Catholic Church as she had in the Orthodox parish in Russia. The Catholic priest in this country said that as long as she believed in the pope — which she did — she was free to receive the sacraments. Yet I have been assured that, juridically, she is still considered Orthodox. I am fairly certain that her name appears on no Catholic parish register. For all that, she meets the three of the requisites above. This young lady could not be more Catholic. What is important are not the “juridical” issues, but the ecclesiological, sacramental, and “creedal” elements that truly make one a Catholic. Perhaps we can put it in terms that might make a canonist cringe: de facto Catholicism is what matters, not de jure Catholicism.

Saint Francis Xavier would not allow his hearers to think they could be saved outside the Church.

Saint Francis Xavier would not allow his hearers to think they could be saved outside the Church.

The overly legalistic analysis strikes me as somewhat disingenuous, too, inasmuch as those who advance it generally accuse us (“Feeneyites”) of being hung up on some sort of formalism. Assuredly we are not; but we are hung up on Catholicism.

Note in the definition of the Council of Florence that “pagans, … Jews and heretics and schismatics” are all categorically described as “existing outside the Catholic Church” and, consequently, they cannot “have a share in life eternal.” With only two exceptions, those “outside” the Church according to Florence correspond exactly to those not included as “members” by Pius XII. Those exceptions are 1) unbaptized believers (e.g., catechumens), whom Florence does not mention in Cantate Domino, but whom Pius XII clearly states are not members; and 2) excommunicates, whom Florence does not mention.

The unbaptized catechumen and analogous individuals bear a certain close relationship to the Church, as they have her faith, assent to her government, and seek her sacraments. I don’t see the need to be preoccupied with this question, as some are. God will provide for His own, and these people are His by those ties I’ve just mentioned. God will not cast off anyone who perseveres in His grace.1 Regarding excommunicates, we know from the grave nature of excommunication that those who die in that terrible state — if they really are excommunicated in foro interno — are lost. What concerns me most are the “pagans, … Jews and heretics and schismatics” that do not have the Church’s faith, do not assent to her government, and may or may not have a sacrament or two, or even seven. The Church infallibly assures us that those who fit these descriptions are not in the way of salvation and that “that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her.” Jesus commands us in the Holy Gospels to preach the unvarnished Catholic Gospel to these. If we let human respect get in the way of the great mandate, we damn ourselves.

These categories are not beyond comprehension. “Pagans” (or the synonymous “infidels”) would include not only unbelievers like atheists and agnostics, idolators like Hindus, or pantheists like Buddhists, but also Muslims, whom the Catholic world lumped into the category “pagan” in the fifteenth century when the Florentine Fathers met. “Jews” are hardly in need of explanation. They identify themselves as such. The words “heretic” and “schismatic” are rarely used in common parlance today, even in ecclesiastical circles, for they are considered “divisive” and even rude. Yet, the Church not only officially uses the words, but also clearly defines them in the current (1983) Code of Canon Law:

Can. 751 Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the christian faith. Schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him.

Elsewhere in the Code (1364 §1), we are informed that members of all three categories here mentioned automatically excommunicate themselves from the Church: “An apostate from the faith, a heretic or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication…”.

I am very well aware that theologians distinguish between formal and material heresy as well as between formal and material schism. These are perfectly legitimate distinctions. Someone baptized and brought up in an alien sect will inevitably be, for a time anyway, merely in material heresy or schism. Before the age of reason, it’s not even a question: the child is a Catholic plain and simple. There are no infant Lutherans, Syrian Jacobites, or Serbian Orthodox — only pagan ones and Catholic ones. At what point one brought up in such a sect formally adheres to heresy or schism is God’s business and I’ll not lose the least amount of sleep over the question. What is the duty of the Church, however, and what ought to make us lose a few winks, is the duty we have to witness to the truth of where salvation is to be found. To keep people somnolent in their errors is just plain damnable. Let us suppose for a moment that one of the infants we’ve just considered lives to his teens in a blissful merely material heresy. Supposing he commits a mortal sin? Where does he seek forgiveness? Let’s say that his particular denomination believes that sin cannot separate us from God’s love — as so many believe? What then? Will the same priest who puts the fear of God into a Catholic boy struggling against vice do a volte-face and assure the non-Catholic suffering the same moral afflictions a place in Paradise should he die — even though he will not seek the sacrament of God’s mercy because his parents taught him it’s a popish abomination?

Indifferentism breeds strange contradictions.

While these distinctions are real, and have a valuable place in Catholic theology, they are not intended to contradict the plain meaning of dogma. Theology is meant to serve the revealed word, not to annul it.

The explanation that I recently read on the blog of a particularly intelligent priest, to the effect that God can save someone outside the Church very much misses the point. To argue from God’s sheer power while prescinding from His revelation is a dangerous thing. God could, by His naked omnipotence, use me — who am not a priest — to confect the Eucharist, couldn’t He? By His omnipotence, God could arrange for a child of our own times to be immaculately conceived. Neither of these things entails an inherent contradiction like squaring a circle, but both contradict defined dogma. It would be wiser to believe that God’s grace and providence will make things happen in conformity to His revelation — despite the apparent “unlikeliness” of it.

If we trust God’s grace, justice, and mercy to conform perfectly to the dogmatic teaching of His Church, we will never regret it. And that, I can promise.

  1. And who would have the temerity to suggest that God cannot or will not provide sacramental baptism for him, even miraculously?