THINGS CATHOLICS ARE ASKED ABOUT
SALVATION OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
Our divine Lord, in sending forth His Apostles to establish His religion among mankind, said to them: “All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth. Going, therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. XXVIII. 18-20). “Preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark XVI. 15, 16).
This was Christ’s commission to His Church. He said, moreover: “He who hears you hears Me.” He thus constituted the Church His voice on earth, proclaiming the truth, pointing out the way to salvation, and leading mankind to eternal life. God is not only just He is also merciful. Indeed, His mercy is over all His works. God requires the impossible of no one. It is impossible, humanly speaking, for those to be baptized who have never been within the reach or ministry of His Church. There are portions of the earth which have not been penetrated by the missionaries of the Gospel. Since the days of Christ there have been millions in pagan lands who have never heard of Christ. It is impossible to believe, if one has never heard what is to be believed.
That this was the mind of Christ is evident from the allocution of His representative on earth, the Vicar of Christ. The saintly Pontiff, Pius IX, in an official statement made to the whole world, August 10, 1863 declared as follows: “You know, my most dear children and venerable brothers, that those who, being individually ignorant of our holy religion, observe the natural law and precepts that God has engraven on the heart of every man, and who are disposed to obey God and live virtuously and righteously, can, by the aid of divine light and grace, obtain eternal life; since God, who searches the heart, who sees clearly and knows the sentiments, the thoughts, and the dispositions of all, cannot, in His supreme mercy and goodness, by any means permit that even one soul should be eternally punished that has not separated itself from Him by voluntary mortal sin.”
This papal pronouncement, which is the voice of Christ, clearly proclaims that no one incurs eternal damnation who has not separated himself from God by deliberate mortal sin.
Before a person can be guilty of unbelief he must have the opportunity of believing. Even in our own country there are persons in unfrequented places who have never heard the truths of revelation. Moreover, in our big cities there are many, very many, who have never heard the name of Christ except in profanity. And even among Christians there are many who have received the doctrine of Christ through false channels, and who have never heard His teaching from the true Church.
Doubtless many of those people are in good faith, and trying to live right. They are really Catholics in spirit because they have the desire to believe the truth and to live by it. Such as these belong to the soul of the Church, although they are not bodily united to it. God sees the heart and the intention. He knows those who are doing their best to know the truth and to live by it. In His own way He will conduct them to a blessed destiny. They, therefore, who are in perfectly good faith and who lead good lives are in God’s hands, and need give us no concern.
But, if this is so, why make such ado about the Catholic Church being the only true Church, and about the necessity of belonging to it? Because it is the Church established by Jesus Christ to give the light to guide man aright and the means to help him attain eternal life, and because they who of their own fault fail to belong to her cannot be saved.
It must be distinctly noted that it is said that “they who of their own fault fail to belong to her cannot be saved.” God is the sole judge of this matter. It may happen that persons born and educated in non-Catholic sects are in good faith in their belief. These, if they lead sinless lives, and have the will to belong to the true Church of Christ, are within the pale of the Church belonging to her in spirit, if not outwardly. God is the sole judge as to whether or not they are in good faith. The influence of environment and education may so affect people that they live on in ignorance that they are in error. This is termed invincible ignorance by theologians, and it saves from culpable error those who are in its grip.
But it is hard to see how some people among the non-Catholic sects can plead invincible ignorance. They are educated and well informed on everything but the true Church of Christ. They doubt or discard their own religious doctrine, and fail to give the Catholic Church serious thought. Yet they see thousands from their ranks joining the Catholic Church every year. And those who leave their former sects are usually the most learned and the most virtuous. If they witnessed anything like that in any other affair of life it would move them to investigate their own position. But they merely shrug their shoulders or think of other things, as if religion were a minor matter, rather than man’s supreme concern. Many of them admire the teaching and practices of the Catholic Church, but hesitate to inquire seriously into her claim, for fear of being convinced of the truth and obliged to live accordingly. Others find the non-Catholic sects so easy and congenial that they refuse to be concerned with the inconsistencies of their denomination, preferring to go on in the pleasant way their Church sanctions.
Yet these same people, if they were in a worldly concern which was as shaky as their Church would hasten to safety. God is the judge whether or not they are in good faith.
When, however, all has been said in extenuation of those outside the Church, the great fact remains that man is a sinner, that he is constantly tempted, that he frequently falls, and that unless he has a helping hand to enable him to rise and support him on his way he will fall again. A Catholic may fall, and fall lamentably, but he has the Sacrament of Penance to put him on his feet again and start him aright. The Catholic has a thousand reminders that there is a God above to whom he must give an account of his life. He has the holy Mass and the sacraments to keep him constantly in touch with the supernatural world. If a Catholic goes wrong it is because he deliberately refuses guidance and help from above. If Catholics, with the truth to guide them, and the grace of the sacraments to aid them, nevertheless find it hard at times to tread the path of virtue, what must it be for those who have not these wonderful helps?
I have often heard a man say that he started wrong and kept on wrong. Others have said that they lost their virtue and that they might as well continue on the broad road of vice. We Catholics know that if we fall and truly repent, the absolution of the Sacrament of Penance starts us off again with a clean score and on the right road. No matter how low we may fall we have at hand the means of rising. Not only that, but the means are pursuing us, so that to remain in sin is a constant rejection of the means of reconciliation.
It is not until we see God face to face in heaven that we shall realize what a blessed thing the Catholic faith is to those who live by it. It is the sure path to everlasting life with God. Outside the Catholic Church there is doubt, unrest, and a lack of nearly all the practical means of grace which the sacraments afford. It is hard to understand how a man of good life and of good logic can fail to see the truth of the Catholic Church. It can only be because he does not reason in matters of faith with the same honesty that he does in those of daily life. It is easy for a man to deceive himself into the idea that he is trying to be logical. One who is enjoying life wants nothing to disturb his ease and license. Hence, he either refuses to look for the truth, or if it is presented to him turns aside from it.
Suppose such a man commits serious sin, what is to bring about his reform and repentance? For if he does not repent and reform he will not be saved. There is within him a hazy or general notion that he must avoid sin to be saved, but a general notion is not enough to halt a man who is on the path of passion. He needs something definite and effective to make him turn aside from the broad road of sinful indulgence. It is possible for a man in any sphere of life to avoid evil and do good. But considering human nature as it is, its lust, its greed, its arrogance and its weakness, how few do what is barely possible.
That is why we Catholics have all but the assurance of salvation, since our religion gives those of good will every aid to walk in the way that leads to God. Let us, therefore, leave those outside the Church to God, and concern ourselves with our own selves. It is Catholic doctrine that those who of their own fault close their eyes to the truth cannot be saved. Only God knows those who thus reject the Catholic truth. And only those who are culpable in rejecting the Church are really outside her pale. We, thank God, are not looking for the truth, we have it. Its light may cause us to walk a narrow path, but what avails a broad and easy road if it lead away from final happiness?
Christ died for His Church, the Apostles gave their lives for her, the martyrs in millions shed their blood for her, countless millions have made untold sacrifices for her. She is the bride of Christ. By her He rears children for the kingdom of heaven. We should be grateful that we are her children. Our best gratitude is to live worthily of her. That will make us children of God.
Note by GADEL: Fr. Martin Jerome Scott (1865-1964) was a Jesuit Priest and scholar of the pre-Vatican II Church. He has authored many books including Introduction to Catholicism, God and Myself, The Hand of God, You and yours; practical talks on home life, Have you a God? what is He like?, Marriage problems, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John Were they fooled? – Did they lie? and No Pope can be wrong in teaching doctrine among others that shows how consistent the pre-Vatican II Church is with that of Vatican II.