Orestes Brownson on Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

(From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for April, 1874)

Editor’s Introduction: Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876) will always be remembered as one of the most prolific American converts to the Catholic Church. Brownson had already achieved notoriety as an essayist and lecturer when his incessant quest for truth led him beyond the shifting sands of Protestantism, Transcendentalism and Socialism to the Catholic Faith, the rock of truth and salvation.

In the following article Brownson masterfully defends what is today the most universally denied Catholic doctrine, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus , Outside the Church there is no Salvation.

Our Holy Father Pius IX, gloriously reigning, though despoiled by liberal Catholics and a prisoner in the Vatican, has told France and other countries that their calamities are due to so-called liberal Catholics. We are not wholly free from their influence in this country, either in politics, or in theology. We have Catholics, or men that call themselves Catholics, who, without knowing it, defend in politics, pure secularism, only another name for political atheism, and – not always the same individuals indeed – who defend in theology what, to our understanding, is a most destructive latitudinarianism. It is seldom we meet a Catholic, man or woman, priest or layman, who will permit us to say that “out of the Church no one can be saved,” without requiring us to qualify the assertion, or so to explain it as to make it meaningless to plain people who are ignorant of the subtilties, nice distinctions, and refinements of theologians.

How many of our Catholics, though holding Protestantism to be an error against Faith and antagonistic to the Church, hold that the mass of Protestants are out of the way of salvation, and can never see God in the beatific vision, unless before they die they become Catholics, united to Christ in the Church, which is His Body? If we assert the contrary, are we not met with theological distinction, logical refinements, subtle explanations and qualification, which place us altogether in the wrong? We are told and told truly, that all validly baptized infants, by whomsoever baptized, dying in infancy or before arriving at the use of reason, are saved, enter the kingdom of heaven; next, we are told, not so truly, that all persons remaining in false or heretical sects, not knowing that they are false or heretical and invincibly ignorant of the True Church, may be saved; and finally, that those who are prevented from seeking for and accepting the True Church by the bitter prejudices against her, instilled into their minds by parents and teachers, are to be reputed invincibly ignorant.

The Church teaches, as we have learned her doctrine, that the infant validly baptized, by whomsoever the baptism is administered, receives in the sacrament the infused habit of faith and sanctity, and that his habit (habitus) suffices for salvation till the child comes to the use of reason; hence all baptized infants dying in infancy are saved. But when arrived at the use of reason, the child need something beyond this infused habit, and is bound to elicit the act of faith. The habit is not actual faith, and is only a supernatural facility, infused by grace, of eliciting the actual virtue of faith. The habit of sanctity is lost by mortal sin, but the habit of faith, we are told, can be lost only by a positive act of infidelity. This is not strictly true; for the habit may be lost by omission to elicit the act of faith, which neither is nor can be elicited out of the Catholic Church; for out of her the credible object, which is Deus revelans et ecclesia proponens, is wanting. Consequently, outside of the Church there can be no salvation for any one, even though baptized, who has come to the use of reason, The habit given in baptism, then, ceases to suffice, and the obligation to elicit the act begins.

We may be told that it may not be through one’s own fault that he omits to elicit the act, especially when born and brought up in a community hostile or alien to the Church. Who denies it? But from that it does not follow either that the habit is not lost by the omission, or that the elicitation of the act is not necessary, in the case of every adult, to salvation. Invincible ignorance excuses from sin, we admit, in that hereof one is invincibly ignorant, but it confers no virtue, and is purely negative. It excuses from sin, if you will, the omission, to elicit the act, but it cannot supply the defect caused by the omission. Something more than to be excused from the sin of infidelity is necessary to salvation.

To us there is something shocking in the supposition that the dogma, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus , is only generally true and therefore not a Catholic dogma. All Catholic dogmas, if Catholic, are not only generally, but universally true, and admit no exception or restriction whatever. If men can come to Christ and be saved without the Church or union with Christ in the Church, she is not Catholic, and it is false to call her the only holy Catholic Church, as in the creed. The latitudinarianism which explains away the dogma of exclusive salvation, and which is so widely prevalent, is a denial, in principle, of the Catholicity of the Church, and of the Faith she holds and teaches, and seems to us to grow out of forgetfulness of the relation of the Church to the Incarnation, her office in the economy of salvation, the teleological character of the Christian order, the religion of the end, and the disposition of the modern world to mistake liberality of charity. The Church grows, so to speak, out of the Incarnation, of which she is, as Moehler well says in his Symbolik, in some sort, the visible continuation on earth, and from which she is inseparable. Saint Paul calls the Church “the body of Christ.” She lives in Christ, and He in her; His life is her life, and individuals are joined to Him and live His life by being joined to her and living His life in her. To be separated from her is to be separated from Him, is to be separated from the incarnate Word Himself, the one Mediator of God and men and from our end, as well as the medium of its attainment.

One thing is certain, namely, that no one can be saved, enter into the kingdom of God, or attain to beatitude, without being regenerated or born again of the incarnate Word, or if not united to regenerated humanity in Christ. One can no more be a Christian without being born of Christ, begotten anew by the Holy Ghost in Christ Jesus, than one can be a man without being born of Adam by way of natural generation. Without the Incarnation or union with it, there is never any salvation, for without it there is no regenerated humanity, no teleological order, no fulfillment of man’s existence. But the Church grows out of the Incarnation, and is inseparable from it. Under one aspect, she is herself regenerated humanity, or the human race propagated by the election of grace, as humanity in the initial order is propagated or explicated by natural generation. Without being united to regenerated humanity, men remain forever in the initial order below their destiny, inchoate existences, with their nature unfilled, devoured alike by an everlasting want which cannot be supplied, and an everlasting selfreproach for having by their own fault neglected the means of salvation once within their reach. Hence the never-ending sufferings of those who die unregenerate. Even infants dying unbaptized, that is, in the initial order, unregenerate, the holy Council of Florence defines, go to hell – in infernos; though they will not suffer for any actual sins of commission or omission, of which they were incapable. Some tender-hearted theologians think they will not suffer at all, but no rational creature can remain forever below his destiny, with the purpose of his being unfilled, without experiencing a want, and therefore not without a greater or less degree of suffering.

Under one aspect, the Church consists of the regenerated race, as we have said of all who have by the election of grace been born again, begotten anew by the Holy Ghost in Christ Jesus. Out of the Church, in this sense, no one can pretend that there is any salvation. But the Church, under another aspect, is the body of Christ, and is the medium through which the Incarnation reaches and practically instructs, regenerates, elevates, sustains, guides and directs the soul in the palingenesiac order, or in reference to the end for which man is created and exists. In a word, the Church is the medium by which the soul is elevated above the natural order, introduced into the teleological order, united to Christ, and therefore to God, its final cause. Without the Church, in this sense, the Incarnation, it seems to us, would be to the soul, to mankind, as if it were not. There would be no dialectic reason for it in the Creator’s plan. Indeed, in all Protestant sects, the Incarnation is either denied outright, or serves no purpose. The Word could not have died to redeem us, or to make satisfaction for us, if He had not assumed human nature to be as really and as truly His nature as is the divine nature itself; for God could not die in His divine nature, since in the divine nature He is immortal. He could die only in His human nature, hypostatically united to the divine person of the Word. But even as incarnate, He could make satisfaction for us only as our head, and therefore, in actu, only for those who are actually His members, or who become so by regeneration. He is potentially the head of every man, and therefore is said to have died for all men, but He is actually the head only of those who are joined to Him as His members. The atonement is sufficient for all, but to receive its benefits, it must be applied and it is applied, only to those who are born of Him; for they only participate in it through their Head as members. Those who are separated from Him do not suffer in His sufferings, or satisfy in His satisfaction; for they are not members of which He is the Head, and His merits neither are nor can be theirs while they are separated from Him, or until they are joined to Him by the new birth, and made one with Him. They have no connection with Him as their head; He is not their progenitor – has not begotten them; and they are simply natural men, children of Adam, in the order of generation, initial or inchoate existences, infinitely below the plane of their destiny.

If, as every Catholic must hold, or deny all office or significance to the Church in the economy of salvation, the Church is the medium by which men come to Christ, and by the Holy Ghost, Who dwells and operates in her, are united to Christ as their Head, and participate, through the Union of the Head and the members, in His sufferings, His work of atonement and His merits as living members participate in whatever is suffered or done by their living head, how then can we conceive the possibility of salvation out of the Church? To admit it would deny her catholicity: would, it seems to us, deny the living connection of the Church with the Incarnation, and in fact the Incarnation itself, and the whole teleological or palingenesiac order which it founds, or the God-Man creates. We do not pretend that the doctrines of the Church are demonstrable by natural reason from principles evident by the light of nature, for they are known only by divine or supernatural revelation, and are held only by faith; but we do contend that the Creator’s works are strictly dialectic; that His plan or design in creation and redemption, though known only as revealed, is logically coherent in all its parts, and that the several parts are mutually related as parts of one complete and uniform whole. To admit salvation to be possible to any not joined to Christ in His body, the Church, breaks, as it seems to us, the logic or dialectic consistency of the divine plan or design as revealed to us in the written and unwritten word of God and reduces Catholicity to the level of the sects, all of which are founded on compromise, and are incoherent, made up of heterogeneous elements, like the feet of the image in Nabuchodonosor’s dream. Hence the theologians, who by their explanations open wide the door of salvation, labor with all their might to prove that those who apparently die outside of the Church, and whose salvation, they tell us, is not to be despaired of, do not really die out of her communion, but, in fact, in it and as Catholics. That is, men may be in the communion of the church while apparently out of it, and adhering to sects hostile to it, being excused through invincible ignorance.

Yet, if there is any truth in what we have said of the teleological character of the Christian order, and that it is and can be entered only by the new birth, or “new creation,” as Saint Paul calls it, this invincible ignorance, even if really invincible, which it rarely is, though it excuses from the sin of heresy or infidelity, does not of itself leave the soul in a salvable state, for it confers no positive virtue, elevates not the soul to the teleological or supernatural order, nor places it on the plane of its destiny. Else, why are not unbaptized infants dying in infancy saved? Why can they never see God in the beatific vision? They are incapable of actual sin, and are assuredly invincibly ignorant. The reason is that the teleological or supernatural order, though it presupposes the initial or natural order, is not developed or evolved from it. We are not placed by our birth from Adam on the plane of our beatitude, but to reach it must be born again, crated anew in Christ Jesus; a new and a higher life must be begotten in us, the life which flows out from the Incarnation, a life of which the Word made flesh is the author and fountain. Salvation, or what is the same thing, heaven, beatitude, is not reached by any possible natural progress for it does not lie in the plane of nature, or the natural order, that is, the order of generation, as the rationalists pretend. They recognize no teleological order, no end or final cause of man’s existence, and their heaven is no higher than the Christian’s hell.

Now it is clear that one may be excused from the sin of infidelity, or the guilt of heresy, and yet not be in the way of salvation, for he may lack the positive supernatural virtues which place him on the plane of his supernatural end or beatitude, and which can neither be acquired nor lived without Faith. What we wish to impress upon the mind of the reader is, that the simple negation of sin does not suffice for heaven. We do not say that, if man had not sinned, God would have become incarnate, but we do say that man cannot attain to his end without being not only discharged from guilt, but reconstituted in the supernatural justice in which Adam was originally constituted. The two, the discharge from guilt and the restoration to justice, are, in hac providentia, coincident and inseparable, if we speak of original sin, and the one is never without the other; yet are they distinguishable, and the former does not suffice for glorification in heaven. For that, the adult must be raised to and live a supernatural life.

In the case of poorly instructed or misinstructed Catholics, yet really in the visible communion of the Church, who involuntarily err even in regard to very important matters, but are docile and willing to be set right, we not only regard them as inculpable, but as in the way of salvation; for they have or may have the positive supernatural virtues required. The seed is in them. But we are unable to extend the same rule to persons in communions, or sects rather, notoriously separated from the Church and under anathema. To them the principle of invincible ignorance, it seems to us, does not apply, any more than it does to open and avowed infidels, pantheists, or atheists. These have not the seed in them, and if they die as they are, must go in infernos, however invincibly ignorant. If they received the seed in baptism, it has been lost, as we have seen, by their omission, or even inability to elicit the act of faith, on coming to the use of reason. The seed is choked and prevented from germinating, or the fowls of the air – evil spirits – gather it up as soon as sown. The invincibly ignorant may not be doomed to so severe a punishment as the vincibly ignorant, but ignorance itself is always either a sin or the penalty of sin, and is, as Saint Augustine says, “just cause of damnation.”

With regard to the several Protestant sects in whose good faith we know them too well to believe, we do not judge individuals, for judgment has not been committed to us; and we dare not say when a Protestant dies that he is assuredly lost, for we know not what passed between God and his soul at the last moment when the breath left the body; but this we do dare say, that, if one dies a Protestant, and the presumption, if he remains an adhering Protestant up to the last moment, is that he does so die, he is most assuredly damned, that is, forever deprived of heaven and will never see God as He is. Protestantism is an open and avowed revolt against the church of God, a total rejection, in principle, of Christ and His authority, therefore of Christianity itself and Protestants exhibit in their lives no virtues of a supernatural order, or that strength. If, in infancy, they have been elevated above the natural order, they have fallen back to its level, and not seldom below it. If they can be saved in their heresy, or apostasy, the divine plan, as we have learned it, is false and delusive.