Anonymous Christianity Today According to the Catholic Church


The doctrine that "Outside the Church there is no salvation" (Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus), first expressed by the third century martyr/bishop, Cyprian, and to this day by the Roman Catholic Magisterium, is a matter of much confusion. At face value (when expressed by Rome) it points to the Catholic Church institution as the single location where humanity encounters divine grace. But it’s not exactly that simple. In what follows, we will consider how the exclusivity of Cyprian’s dictum relates to the inclusive emphasis of today’s Catholic Church.

The papal document Mystici Corporis Christi, promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1943, is a helpful place to start:

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 (para. 22).

Before readers of Catholicism mistakenly discard Pius’s definition of the Church as a vestige of pre-Vatican II hegemony, attention must be given to more contemporary statements on the subject. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), writing on behalf of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, offered such an example nearly twelve years ago in the document Dominus Iesus (Aug. of 2000):

The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity — rooted in the apostolic succession— between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church…. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him”…. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church” (para. 16)

What does this mean for Protestants? It is true that Vatican II elevated ecumenical conceptions of the church above its institutional and juridical structure (e.g., note how Lumen gentium devotes two chapters to ecclesial themes such as “mystery,” “sacrament,” “Body of Christ,” and “People of God,” before discussing the hierarchical levels of government) and that Catholics are therefore able to view Protestants as “brethren” instead of “heretics” (as we were previously). Yet, this brotherhood is still modified with the adjective “separated” and we are a group to whom the designation “Church” does not properly apply. Again from Dominus Iesus:

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery,61 are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church (para. 17).

In light of the above, it is easy to hear the Catholic Church saying that unless one faithfully participates in a local Catholic parish, he is necessarily outside the ark of salvation. Indeed, this was the famous mistake of Father Leonard Feeney of Boston in the mid twentieth century. After asserting a rigorous view of Cyprian’s principle to the extent that he limited the possibility of salvation to baptized Catholics, the Holy Office sent an official declaration to Feeney on August 8, 1949 explaining that he had pressed the doctrine too far:

However, this desire [for salvation] need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God. (Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston)

Among other lessons, this statement underscores that Catholic teaching on the scope of salvation didn’t actually change at Vatican II. The notion of “implicit desire”—that some people are responding to divine grace and seeking God without explicit knowledge of the Catholic sacraments—was already present. This theoretical category is critical for understanding how Catholics extend the possibility of salvation to those who are outside the walls of their Church.

The necessary foundation of implicit desire is “invincible ignorance”—the state in which one is without access to Christian revelation. This is, for example, the pigmy, aborigine, or post Christian European who has never heard the gospel. Since such people have not received an opportunity to understand and respond to the explicit teaching of Christ, they are “inculpable.” Assuming this ignorance is genuinely outside of their control (that it is not due to prejudice or neglect) and that there is perfect contrition and a desire to do God’s will, then, moved by divine grace, these persons may pursue and lay hold of salvation through their conscience. In the words of Vatican II:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. (Lumen Gentium, para. 16)

Perhaps the biggest popularizer of this concept is the twentieth century theologian, Karl Rahner, in his doctrine of “anonymous Christianity.” While this particular term doesn’t appear in the Catholic Catechism, one nevertheless finds his basic concept:

Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity. (CCC 1260)

Rahner’s theory seeks to reconcile God’s universal will, as expressed in passages such as 1 Tim 2:4 (that “God desires all people to be saved”) with the necessity of faith in Christ (Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus). In Rahner’s view, this implies that all people have some opportunity to believe, precisely because God is at work in all people. Where is the locus of this work? It is through general revelation, which includes other religions and one’s moral sensibilities. It may even apply to the atheist insofar as such a person is motivated by grace with sincere contrition. How the atheist is said to believe in God introduces the category of anonymity. Thus, because it is God who manifests himself through one’s conscience, a person can genuinely believe, even though he or she perceives the object of belief to be something other than God. Accordingly, one’s encounter with transcendent reality (anonymous as it may be) is regarded as a divine experience:

The “anonymous Christian” in our sense of the term is the pagan after the beginning of the Christian mission, who lives in a state of Christ’s grace through faith, hope, and love, yet who has no explicit knowledge of the fact that his life is orientated in grace-given salvation to Jesus Christ… There must be a Christian theory to account for the fact that every individual who does not in any absolute or ultimate sense act against his own conscience can say and does say in faith, hope and love, Abba within his own spirit and is on these grounds in all truth a brother to Christians in God’s sight. (Theological Investigations, Vol. 14, Chp. 17.)

The theory of anonymous Christianity has fit like hand-in-glove in today’s relativistic culture where the subjective reputation of truth is the plat du jour. In this epistemological universe, doctrine is regarded as the product of one’s own creation. Perhaps it is for this reason that sociologists of religion at Catholic University recently reported that 88% of American Catholics say “how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic.” In addition to demonstrating the practical significance of theology, it offers new meaning to Cyprian’s nulla salus.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Chris,

    I agree with everything you wrote until you got to your last three paragraphs. You seem to be equating the meaning of Lumen Gentium 16 with Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.” But they are not the same. Lumen Gentium is affirming that God offers actual grace to all men, and that this actual grace is sufficient for them to be saved *if* they cooperate. No man can stand before God on Judgment Day and say “You didn’t give me enough grace to be saved.” It is therefore possible for every man, that he be saved.

    But Rahner’s concept of the “anonymous Christian” is a much ‘stronger’ claim. Rahner’s notion involves what he calls a “fundamental option” in which there is a pre-conceptual, subconscious orientation to God, regardless of the content of the person’s conscious religious beliefs or tradition. He might even be an atheist. Rahner’s position therefore allows there to be faith (and hope and charity) within a person who has attained the age of reason, without conscious belief in God. But the Catholic Church, by contrast, has never taught that for the person who has attained the age of reason, it is possible to have the gift of [supernatural] faith without having conscious belief in God. The Catholic Church has never taught that atheists (as atheists) can be saved. “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God *must believe that He is* and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. The language of Lumen Gentium (LG) says that God helps toward salvation “those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God” (below). I am suggesting that Rahner’s theory is, at this point, the same ‘basic concept,’ insofar as knowledge of God is regarded as implicit.

    Frankly, notwithstanding Rahner’s emphasis on fundamental option and on transcendental philosophy, I find LG 2.16 equally problematic, for the way it attributes to Muslims, who profess to hold the faith of Abraham, adoration with us of “the one and merciful God.” This strikes me as a serious redemptive historical misstep. I don’t pretend to be a sociologist, but I can’t help but think that this compounds the problem of doctrinal relativism as expressed in the Catholics in America study.

    “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (LG, 2.16).

    Thanks, Bryan.

  3. Chris,

    Here’s the statement from “Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God,and with His grace strive to live a good life.” That’s not saying that people without an explicit knowledge of God are in a state of grace. The grace being spoken of there is actual grace, not sanctifying grace.

    Rahner’s position, is that persons who have reached the age of reason can have sanctifying grace (and faith, hope, and charity) without explicit knowledge of God.

    If you say that Muslisms who claim to worship the Creator of heaven and earth, are worshiping a different ‘god’ than Christians worship, then you approach the error of Marcionism. Marcion claimed that the Creator was a different God from the Father of Jesus in the New Testament. That is why Marcion believed Jews worshiped a different God than do Christians. But Marcionism is a heresy. Jews worship the same God that Christians worship. But, then it is ad hoc to say that another sect, claiming to worship the Creator of the heavens and earth, is worshiping another god than the God Christians worship. If St. Paul was justified in saying to the Athenians regarding their altar to an unknown god: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it … (Acts 17:23-24), then how much more should we be cautious in telling people who specifically claim to believe and worship the God who made the world and everything in it, that they worship a being other than the God Christians worship? Either we fall into Marcionism and deny that Jews worship the same God we worship, or we are ad hoc.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. Thanks, Bryan.

    The part you left out was the beginning of LG 2.16: “Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans.” The problem here and theological misstep is the connection between Muslim hope and God’s redemptive promise to Abraham.

    As for your first point, Gaudium et Spes says, “All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” It sounds to me like there is more going on here (i.e. associated with this paschal mystery) than simply actual grace.


  5. Chris,

    LG’s point about Muslims is not about what they lack (i.e. the fullness of truth regarding God and Christ), but about the truths they do have, namely, that God is one, and that God created the heavens and the earth. That position has more truth than does polytheism, pantheism, or atheism. I don’t see why you think what LG says about Muslims is a “problem” and a “misstep.”

    And the quotation from GS is fully compatible with what I said above. Actual grace was merited for us by the Paschal mystery, and prepares man to receive sanctifying grace. So the references to the Paschal mystery (in the statement you quoted from GS) do not mean either that God gives every man sanctifying grace, or that those who have reached the age of reason and who do not have explicit belief in God nevertheless have sanctifying grace, faith, hope, and charity. God gives every man who has reached the age of reason actual grace, and this grace is to prepare man to receive sanctifying grace. But if a man does not cooperate with actual grace, he will not receive sanctifying grace. In order for the person who has attained the age of reason to receive sanctifying grace, he needs to believe at least that God exists, and is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  6. I acknowledge that Muslim people are recipients of general revelation in the way Paul describes in Romans 1, but I don’t see scriptural warrant for applying the Jewish plan of salvation to “Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” This is probably a point where we will disagree.

    Thanks, Bryan.

  7. Chris,

    Jewish plan of salvation? There are not two ways to heaven. There is no other name given under heaven, by which we must be saved. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but through Him. (John 14:6)

    To claim that Jews are saved apart from Christ, is heresy, because it makes Christ’s death unnecessary, and it denies that Christ is the only way to the Father. It tramples on the most precious blood He poured out for the salvation of all men. This notion comes from J.N. Darby. (I used to attend a church that Darby had pastored.) In fact, all Jews who were saved before Christ came, were saved through Christ, by way of a faith that looked forward, and a retroactive application of Christ’s work on the cross. Darby’s notion is only a 150 years old; if that doesn’t count as a theological novum, what does?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  8. Finally, we agree on something! Don’t worry, you’re not dialoging with a Darbyite. I was simply borrowing language from the opening of LG (the “plan of salvation” modifying the previous paragraph on God’s promise to the Jews).

    Happy Thanksgiving to the Cross family!

  9. Chris,

    Relief! Ok, so if you’re using “plan of salvation” in the sense in which it is used in LG 16, then it is referring to God’s providential plan to bring salvation to the whole world. In particular, it is referring to the preparations that God has given to various people groups, to prepare them to receive the gospel of Christ. Just as God prepared the Greeks by giving them Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (think of St. Justin’s discussion of this, and St. Augustine’s as well), so He also prepared other peoples as well, by lead them to some truth about Himself. Of course with the Jews this was the fullest (prior to Christ). So they were the most prepared to receive the gospel, even though there was a hardening (Rom. 9-11). But God’s plan of salvation (in this providential sense of preparing the peoples of the world to receive the gospel) also prepares Muslims to receive the gospel of Jesus, because they already believe in one God, who created the heavens and the earth. (Contrast that, say, to the condition of the people in the film Apocalypto, for whom the gospel would be further removed from what they already believed.) So, there is no need to find any biblical support for what LG 16 is saying (especially since Islam didn’t exist when the NT was written), because it is a truth directly observable, namely, that there are some theological truths in Islam (i.e. God is one, and created all things) that make, all other things being equal, make Muslims more prepared to receive the gospel of Christ than are polytheists, pantheists, and atheists.

    Hopefully, we can at least agree on that. Thanks for discussing this with me Chris.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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