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.