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January 2005

Who Then Can Be Saved?


The Apostles asked the above question of Our Lord (Matt. 19.25; Mk. 10.26; Lk. 18.26) when it seemed to them that the standard of living he preached was unattainably high.

Jesus replied, “With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible.”

That answer has relevance when we now ask the same question from a different standpoint, namely, who, of the many religions, can hope to be saved?

We learn from the Gospels that the second Person of the Blessed Trinity became man to save mankind from the condition of original sin; that is, to open to man the life of grace in this world, and salvation in heaven after death. He was to achieve this by two means:

The redemptive sacrifice on Calvary;

The foundation of a Church to continue his teaching, and apply the redemption to mankind.

He wished all mankind to be members of the Church he was founding: “Other sheep I have that are not of this fold; them also I must bring ...going there, teach ye all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit... there shall be one fold and one shepherd”

The traditional teaching of the Church that “outside the Church there is no salvation” has been upheld by Councils of the Church and a litany of Popes, Saints, Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The ‘Church’ meaning the Church founded by Christ, and that means the Catholic Church. A superficial translation renders the slogan as, ‘only Catholics can be saved.’

So that answers our question - or does it??

It is unfortunately true and well known that the accurate and complete statement of ideas and intentions is notoriously difficult due to human limitations and the limitations of language - and Church documents are no exception. As brief witness:

  • In refuting Luther, the Council of Trent failed to distinguish between celibacy and celibacy for God; and failed to actually state the superiority of celibacy for God over the married state, taking the superiority for granted.
  • The General Instruction on the Roman Missal issued with the new Mass in 1969 included a definition of the Mass that made no mention of transubstantiation, Real Presence or sacrifice. It would have won the approval of any Protestant, and had to be withdrawn and recast.
  • When Pope John Paul II forbad discussion of female ordination, the intention was clearly promotion. The prohibition as issued would forbid even the promulgation of the Pope’s edict.
  • Remember also the words of Patriarch Albino Luciani (shortly before becoming Pope John Paul I): “It is true that the Pope, bishops and priests do not cease to be poor men subject to errors, and often we make errors.”

Baptism of Blood and Desire

Returning to our topic, the Popes, Saints and Doctors who proclaimed outside the Church there is no salvation, failed to define the meaning of outside the Church. “Those not baptised” will not do, because the Church claimed salvation for the unbaptised who died for the faith, and the unbaptised who died with a desire for baptism.

Taking the slogan literally as it stands would deny salvation to all the good and holy people of biblical times who could not belong to a Catholic Church that did not then exist. Even since Christ founded his Church there are the deprived who have never had Catholicism preached to them, and those who have had only anti-Catholicism put to them.

It is absurd to speak of a just and merciful God, and in the same breath have him consigning to hell souls who have never had the opportunity to be where God wants them to be, namely in the Church he founded, the Catholic Church.

Who then merits hell - for not belonging to the Church Christ founded?

We are still looking at the same question, but now from the other end. The old Green, or so-called Penny Catechism, and its accompanying notes, answered the question decades ago: “Anybody outside the Church THROUGH HIS OWN FAULT cannot be saved.” The emphasised words make, literally, a hell of a difference.

Who then would be outside the Church through his own fault? Answer: Anybody who:

Believes the Catholic Church to be that founded by Christ;

Believes the Catholic faith to be that revealed by God;

Knows he is obliged to be a member of Christ’s Church;

but, for some worldly advantage or whatever, refuses to enter the Church. Such person has refused Christ’s offer of salvation, and would not be saved. Christ: “He who denies me before men, I will deny him before my Father in heaven.”

What of those not members of the Church, but who have not knowingly refused Christ’s offer of membership in His Church and salvation? Since membership of Christ’s Church was part of redemption, this question can be put, What of those who have not knowingly refused Christ’s redemption?

Those of goodwill towards God and seeking to do God’s will, would be members of God’s Church if they were aware of God’s will as regards His Church - in other words, those seeking to do God’s will to the best of their knowledge and ability - would be saved. Those not so disposed would have no prospect of salvation.

The Green Catechism Notes used to differentiate between the body and the soul of the Church: Those who were accorded baptism of blood, or baptism of desire did not belong to the body of the Church (that is, they were not officially members) but they belonged to the soul of the Church (that is, they were in God’s favour.)

  • A Catholic in the state of grace (free of serious actual or personal sin) belonged to both body and soul of the Church and would be saved if dying in that state.
  • A Catholic in the state of serious sin belonged to the body of the Church, but not to the soul, and would not be saved if dying in that state.
  • A person not a Catholic, but of goodwill towards God (as above) and free from serious personal sin, belonged to the soul of the Church (that is, he would be in God’s favour, or one of Christ’s ‘other sheep’) but not to the body (that is, not officially a member of the Church) and would be saved if dying in that state.

God’s Laws Bind Men, Not God

The norm for applying Christ’s redemption to souls is sacramental baptism, and a Catholic is bound to go to any lengths to apply it, for example, the missions and baptism in emergency. In doing so we are obliged to observe all prescribed requirements. God is under no such obligation; the Spirit breatheth where he will. If he chooses to infuse sanctifying grace in ways other than as prescribed for us, that is his right. After all, isn’t it God we are speaking of?

In sacramental baptism the water does nothing, just as the water at Lourdes does nothing. (Those who think the water produces the result are into magic.) The water is a ‘mere’ symbol of what God is doing. It is involved not to effect the intended purpose, but to cater for our limited and blighted human nature that in this life stands in need of the material, visible, tangible, to signify the intangible, spiritual, supernatural. Writer Thomas Carlyle reminds us that ‘man is everywhere surrounded by symbols’. Unfortunately he omitted the most significant aspect of symbols, namely that, in his earthly sojourn, man needs them, whether it be a motto, a crest, a flag, a photo, a ring, a kiss, a handshake, a statue, a monument, a citation, and above all, for a Catholic, a crucifix.

When God imparts sanctifying grace without sacramental baptism, (as, for example, in baptisms of blood and desire, and the other cases mentioned above) he is doing what he does in any baptism, merely dispensing with the symbolic water.

Should any Catholics be surprised, indignant or otherwise miffed that non-members of the Church should be given the same status as themselves they need to:

  1. Check whether they are seeking God’s will or their own.
  2. Read again the Gospel parable of the labourers in the vineyard [Matt. 20.1-15].
  3. Thank God for their own status, and welcome aboard the beneficiaries of God’s justice and generosity.

Salvation no ‘pushover’

A remarkable number of Saints, Doctors of the Church and theologians have spoken of the relative fewness of those who are saved. Some have claimed to speak from visions they have been granted. Such views, though not obligatory on Catholics, are nevertheless worthy of respect. Especially should we be sitting up and taking notice when Our Lord speaks similarly, albeit in general terms. [Matt. 7:14]

What should be our response?

We must at least take Our Lord’s words seriously as a general warning that salvation is not a ‘pushover’ to be taken for granted, but rather, in St. Paul’s words, something to be “worked at in fear and trembling” [Phil 2:12]. For good measure St. Paul elsewhere adds another warning: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked” [Gal. 6.7].

A fair translation of St. Paul would be, “Don’t fool yourself you can be casual about God and get away with it.”

One notes especially that in practice, the Church is now taking salvation for granted in requiem Masses that celebrate the life of the deceased, where formerly they were offered for the repose of the soul of the deceased. Such Masses are a covert denial of the doctrine of Purgatory. In them there is evident the assumption that the deceased is already enjoying the beatific vision. How casual can you get when one celebrant visualised the deceased as enjoying a bottle of wine with God. Another hoped there are horses in heaven; otherwise the deceased woman jockey would be bored.

Requiem Masses used to be for the advancement of those we loved towards the vision of God; not for the trivialisation of religion as entertainment for those present.