It is not a popular thing to say that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. When Catholics who uncompromisingly believe this doctrine actually profess it, the contrary reactions can be very acerbic, which is one of many reasons to be grateful to Bishop Athanasius Schneider for his recent statements occasioned by an ecumenical event with indifferentist overtones: “[T]here is also a danger that we the Catholic Church should not appear simply as one of the many religions. …We’re not one of the many religions, we’re the only one true religion which God commanded to all people to believe. … There is no other way to salvation [emphasis mine].”
Many people do not like it when Catholics speak this way. But, while the reaction is often sharp, it is also generally serious. For the sake of contrast, let us engage in a thought experiment for brief moment. Suppose that the Missouri Synod Lutherans were to claim that there is no salvation outside their particular denomination. Or the Southern Baptists. Or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The dominant reaction, I believe, would be one of either laughter or pity over the sheer folly of the claim. To my knowledge, none of these organizations actually believes this because all of them realize that they were founded by men. They are essentially organizations of people who came together with certain shared beliefs. To a greater or lesser degree, each denomination asserts that it somehow helps the individual believer in his personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity, but none makes exclusive claim to be that “Body of Christ” Saint Paul writes of in Holy Scripture (cf. Eph. 4:12,1 Cor. 12:27).
The objective of our little thought experiment is not to be provocatively offensive to members of those denominations — which of itself would be pointless — but to clarify the issue by the use of contrast. The Catholic Church has always held itself to be that one exclusive Body, and she did so before any of the above named existed. Take, for instance, these Papal utterances:
“We are compelled, our faith urging us, to believe and to hold — and we do firmly believe and simply confess — that there is one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins; her Spouse proclaiming it in the canticles, ‘My dove, my undefiled is but one, she is the choice one of her that bore her’; which represents one mystical body, of which body the head is Christ, but of Christ, God.” (Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam)
“One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved….” (Lateran Council IV)
Ecclesiastical bodies that are not the Catholic Church are loathe to make such professions because they consider themselves non-exclusive parts of a larger reality which is essentially invisible and is made up of other parts that they may or may not recognize as fellow members of the Biblical “Body of Christ.” For them, ecclesiology is a highly inexact science.
When Catholics assert the unique prerogatives of our Church, it is not because we are vain, proud, hubristic, or hateful to non-Catholics. It is simply because, by the theological virtue of faith, we know our Church to be that one, unique, supernatural organism founded by and exclusively united to Jesus Christ as His Spouse and His Mystical Body. This entity is so important in the Divine Mind that it gets its very own article — the ninth — in the Apostles’ Creed, with the corresponding article of the longer Nicene Creed specifying that that holy Catholic Church is also one and apostolic.
Consider this, dear reader: In our Creed, faith in the Church is placed alongside faith in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the eternal Logos, and everlasting life! This fact says so much.
Many of those who might otherwise object to this juxtaposition of the Catholic Church alongside the Trinity and the Incarnation in the Creed have to face the fact that they, too, profess this very Creed. Such an objection would render their ecclesiological inexactitude a form of religious incoherence. Those self-professed Christians who object to the Nicene Creed and refuse to profess it, simply exclude themselves from the continuity of historical Christianity. They may as well admit to being Arians or Gnostics.
There is nothing at all arbitrary about the exclusive claim of the Catholic Church in the matter of salvation. Comparing the love of a husband for his wife, St. Paul tells men “love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it…” (Eph. 5:25). What more can we say of the Church than what St. Paul said, that “Christ delivered himself up for it”? Divine Lover that He is, Jesus died for His beloved. And, if He is a Lover, Christ is a chaste Lover; therefore, His beloved is only one, as the Canticle of Canticles says. No mere human institution can claim those divine affections. The truth of this last statement stands out in greater relief when we consider that all the mere human institutions that claim to be Christian churches have set themselves apart from the Divine institution that is Christ’s one Church. He cannot love that which sets itself in opposition to His Spouse.
Loving individuals within those bodies is another question. He can and does love such people into His one, true Church all the time.
At Saint Benedict Center’s upcoming conference (October 7-8), the theme of which is “The Catholic Church Has the Answer,” my talk will be entitled, “The Catholic Church Has (and Is) the Answer on Salvation.” Please consider joining us. There is still room.