Has the Church Changed Its Teaching on No Salvation Outside the Church?

Brother André Marie introduced me to the Called to Communion: Reformation Meets Rome website this morning. The writers for the site are all young scholars who have converted to the Catholic Faith during the past decade. One of them, Tom Brown, penned a commentary on an intriguing article by a Protestant professor, Dr. David VanDrunen, that appeared in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s periodical, New Horizons. VanDrunen’s contention is that the Catholic Church has “changed” its soteriological teaching from an exclusive one to one that is inclusive. The article is not too long, but it is, by way of contrast clarifying truth, a excellent teaching model for honing our theological understanding of the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church.” My commentary of Tom Brown’s commentary will be more easily digested if you read the article here first.



Stating the Issue


The exclusive doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church” has been reduced to a liberal inclusiveness that offers the hope of salvation to anyone, of any religion or no religion, who, as Dr. David VanDrunen puts it, “sincerely follows the truth and goodness that they know in their own experience.” Tom Brown will try to prove in his article that the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church” has not been changed by the Church, but it has been “developed.” Developed? Well, it can hardly be denied that the inclusivist soteriological speculations of one of our holy father’s teachers, Karl Rahner, S.J., were manifest in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). Rahner will always be known for so thoroughly demolishing the Church’s salvation doctrine, with his heresy of “the Anonymous Christian,” that in the end, even someone who denies Christ can be saved “in Christ” because “existentially [he] is committed to those values which for the Christian are concretized in God.”

VanDrunen’s evaluation — his personal observation, that is — is similar to the warnings that Saint Benedict Center had been making since the 1940s. From one loophole, many will be spawned — salvation can be achieved from explicit baptism of desire to implicit baptism of desire, from implicit baptism of desire to explicit rejection of Christ and baptism, from rejection of Christ to the implicit “anonymous Christian” who espouses explicit atheism. There you have it: inclusivity to the total exclusion of exclusivity.


The Devolution of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus


In an article I wrote for our website on Baptism of Desire in the thought of Saint Augustine. I summed up the transformation of the salvation doctrine by noting that even “traditionalists,” such as Archbishop Lefebrve, saw no contradiction in changing the meaning of the salvation doctrine to “no salvation without the Church.” Once you tear down a hedge, you open the vineyard to the enemy, and it will end up a wasteland. No salvation outside the Church was such a hedge, both protecting the Church from heresy and giving it a voice with divine authority. These re-formulations of the dogma, I wrote, have been even further eviscerated by more liberal elements to a redaction devoid of any challenge: “No one can be saved outside the Catholic Church who knows that the Catholic Church is the true Church but refuses to enter it.” Many priests and theologians draw this inference, rightly or wrongly, from a passage in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (#16).

Accordingly, the class of people who cannot be saved, if they die in the bad state that they are in, has been reduced to the rare and hardly identifiable set of obstinants who know the Catholic Church is the true Church, but refuse to enter it. The belief in the possibility of salvation for those who die with only an implicit desire for baptism and for those who die invincibly ignorant of the truths necessary to be believed for salvation, is now capable of accommodating all who are sincere in their erroneous beliefs and try to live whatever a good life means for them.

Not being a Catholic, Dr. David VanDrunen’s arguments are understandable, even if they are meant to be rhetorical. Nevertheless, the point of his thesis is wrong. The Church cannot “change” her teaching on faith or morals; although teachers, including an ecumenical council defining itself as merely pastoral, can fail to uphold the immutable teaching of the supreme magisterium. Tom Brown’s rebuttal, on the other hand, does not properly distinguish the hierarchy of magisterial authority, hence the kind of submission of will owed, or not owed, by the faithful. His analysis is typical of what one might read in the writings of Father William Most (and a host of other conservative Catholic theologians) on the subject of salvation outside the Church — only in this case sentimental theology’s “development” of the doctrine has not clarifed it; it has undermined it. To all appearances, as VanDrunen asserts, it seems that the Church has changed its teaching.

The Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, was more blunt. He quisled the following blistering news bite for the press sometime during the Father Feeney controversy, “No salvation outside the Church? Nonsense!” This was what the liberals wanted all along, to get the ordinary magisterium on a non-infallible level, to say that “there is salvation outside the Church.” This, of course, was never said by any of the more modern popes alleged to have “developed” or “changed” the salvation doctine; nor was it affirmed at Vatican II. Pope John Paul II, in fact, in an address he gave on October 4, 1981, to the Franciscans gathered in Rome to celebrate Saint Francis’ feast day, and also to commemorate the eight hundred anniversary of his birth in the year 1281, said:

“Like Brother Francis we have to be conscious of and absorb this fundamental and revealed truth, contained in the phrase consecrated by tradition: ‘There is no salvation outside the Church.’” (L’Osservatore Romano, 12 October, 1981, p. 6).

But, the persecution of a priest who sounded the alarm on the doctrine’s denial in the U.S., and the ambiguous teaching that all but dissolved the doctrine after 1950, have done to “the all-important dogma” (to quote what Biblical exegete, Cornelius a Lapide, thought of the salvation doctrine) what no heretic outside the Church could do. They rendered it “meaningless” (so said Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis) it by riddling it with loopholes. The cynical bishop of Worcester, Massachusetts, Bernard Flanagan, once told two of Father Feeney’s devoted brothers: “Bury it, it’s a dead horse.” It was buried in Worcester twenty-four years earlier when the headlines for the Worcester Telegram, for Friday morning, September 2, 1949, ran:


Holds No Salvation
Outside Church
Doctrine to be false


When this headline was sent to Rome with a request for a refutation, nothing happened, not even a letter went out to the Bishops of Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, so as to warn the faithful about the erroneous headline. (Worcester was not yet a diocese.) A dogma diluted with arbitrary qualifications is a dogma denied.


Impression Drives the Masses Who Prefer Sentiment to Truth


No, the Church, in its supreme teaching authority, has not changed, indeed cannot change, an ex cathedra doctrine. But the impression given to the world was that, in its ordinary magisterium, it had. The author of this commentary, Tom Brown, does not seem to see that this impression is justified.   Yet, one can hardly blame VanDrunen for thinking that these two beliefs (exclusive/inclusive) are not compatible with each other.  Do I hear Father Feeney saying, “I told you so?”

Brown takes issue: “Apparently he [VanDrunen] agrees with the controversial Fr. Schillebeeckx whom he quotes as describing these two teachings as ‘diametrically opposed.'”

Hans Kung (and I am sure many others) claimed the same as Schillebeeckx. They did so in their attack on the defined dogma of papal infallibility. They are wrong in their premise, as is Dr. VanDrunen. The pope can err in his ordinary teaching, and popes have so erred in the history of the Church. Schillebeeckx and Kung knew this very well; they were heretics (Kung is still living), but they weren’t stupid. They knew the qualifications for an infallible ex cathedra pronouncement, as they existed from apostolic times, becoming more clarified over the centuries in the Church’s battles against false doctrine. The definition of papal infallibility promulgated at Vatican I in 1870 added nothing new to the traditional belief except the status of doctrina de fide definita (doctrine defined of the faith)


Tom Brown Sums Up the Problem


“But the teachings are compatible with each other.” Brown argues  “What VanDrunen dismisses is the possibility that the invincibly ignorant can in some circumstances, and only by God’s grace, be extraordinarily incorporated into the Catholic Church.” And VanDrunen is right. Blessed Pius IX did not teach this, even though countless theologians like to see it in his encyclical  Quanto Conficiamur.

Allow me to make a few more points by way of bullets: The first of these has already been made by a commenter.


* Regarding those inculpably ignorant of the gospel (only God knows if there are such non-handicapped adults): Vatican II teaching on the salvation doctrine in Lumen Gentium can with difficulty be interpreted in an orthodox sense if by the term “grace” one understands “sanctifying grace,” which cannot illumine a soul attached to false religion. With sanctifying grace are the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. In an unbaptized adult, Faith is the beginning  of justification. Scripture and tradition are clear (and St. Thomas teaches) that, after the Incarnation and Pentecost, for an act of Faith to be “pleasing to God” (Heb 11:6) it must be an explicit belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation. That is why it is necessary to send missionaries to preach. “Faith cometh by hearing.” (Romans 10:17)


* Regarding one commenter’s question about the salvation of pre-Columbian Indians: Long before Florence, in the 12th century, Dominican missionaries preached the Faith in China. Only God knows how many other peoples in far distant places heard the gospel in early post apostolic times and we are not in on the news.


*The act of Faith must be integral. A liberal Catholic or willful Protestant who rejects one Catholic dogma rejects the whole gift of divine faith, for such a one rejects the authority of the Church and its two indivisible fonts of scripture and tradition. I refer the reader to the Athanasian Creed, part of the Church’s liturgy, which declares this to be so.


*Father Feeney did not interpret the defined doctrines on salvation. He echoed them (and the Athanasian Creed) receiving them with docility in the clear sense that they were promulgated. Vatican I taught ex cathedra that papal definitions are “irreformable.” No one, not even the pope or an ecumenical council, can give a definition a “new form.”


* Therefore, definitions are not written to be “interpreted.” Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is the only dogma of faith that ever was subject to dissolving “interpretations.” Clarifications of Christological teachings were made as the Church matured in her fight against early heresies, but the literal sense of what was handed down was built on, not undermined, by future ecumenical councils.


*Concerning Blessed Pius IX’s encyclical Quanto Conficiamur, which Mr. Brown offers as a development of the salvation doctrine, and well it may be, it does not in any way dilute the literal sense of the definition of Florence. Pope Pius taught: “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.

“Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church.”

There is an issue with  the commonly accepted English translation of one crucial word. “Punishments,” in the next to last sentence, in this context is not the best translation of the Latin word, suppliciis. which the pope used. “Torments” would be the better, and more theologically correct, English translation. Poena is the more common Latin word for “punishment.” If there were such a person who died in original sin only without personal sin (unbaptized children and mentally handicapped for sure) the pope was simply teaching that they would not suffer torments in the next life.  He did not say that they would enter into the beatific vision. The loss of the beatific vision is a punishment due to original sin. This loss, moreover, is not a torment for the souls in limbo who enjoy perfect natural happiness.


* The question put forth by commenter Brian K (not me) concerning the salvation doctrine as it applied to those pagans who never received a missionary (pre-Columbian Indians) was treated very well in an article on that subject written by Brother Thomas Mary Sennot. It is worth a read.


* Concerning baptism of desire and baptism of blood, neither the Good Thief nor the Holy Innocents should be offered as examples. They died with the Old Law still in effect, the gates of heaven were not yet opened.


* The Council of Florence (1441-1442), in speaking of those who would shed their blood for the name of Christ, but after having left the bosom and unity of the Church, taught that these could not be saved if that sin of schism were not repented of. The Moslem Turks would soon overrun Constantinople (1453), and this warning from Pope Eugene IV was a call for those in the East who were opposing the Union with Rome, wonderfully achieved at Florence, to quickly return to unity.


* Except for Saint Augustine, there were no fathers of the Church, East or West, who wrote in favor of a baptism in desire for ardent catechumens who died before baptism. At least one eastern father, Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, specifically opposed it. In speculating on the possibility of salvation for such, Augustine offered no authority for his opinion, presenting his view strictly as a personal opinion. He later recanted this opinion in his anti-Pelagian writings. See my article on this subject here. Baptism of blood, on the other hand, was more generally accepted, but never defined as dogma.