– Corrado Gnerre

I am a very old woman (I am over eighty years old). When I studied the catechism, I remember that it was said that outside the Church there is no possibility of salvation. Now it seems that no one is claiming such a thing anymore. Has the Doctrine changed? But if it has really changed, who tells us that what is being said today is truer than what was being said in my day? Help me understand.

Dear …, don’t worry, Catholic doctrine has not changed at all. Rather, a relativist mentality (“all religions are good”) has spread for some time, even within Catholic circles.

The extra Ecclesiam nulla salus is an indisputable truth of faith, it is because it has been continually repeated by the Fathers and the Magisterium. Many examples can be given. I quote Pius XII who says: “Now among the things that the Church has always preached and that will never cease to teach, there is also this infallible declaration that says that there is no salvation outside the Church” (Letter to the Sant’Uffizio, 08.11.1949). These words are important because a pope clearly says that the truth of the extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation) will not only be always taught, but it is also an infallible declaration.

Blessed John XXIII, the Pope of the Council, says: “… men can certainly achieve salvation, only when they are joined to him (Roman Pontiff) since the Roman Pontiff is the Vicar of Christ and represents his person” (Homily on the day of his coronation, 4.11.1958). And the same Vatican Council II states: “The holy Council …, based on sacred Scripture and Tradition, teaches that this pilgrim Church is necessary for salvation” (Lumen gentium, 14).

Then, dear reader – let’s face it – it’s a logic problem. If the Church was not necessary for salvation, what would be the reason why Jesus commanded that the Gospel be proclaimed to the ends of the Earth? (Matthew 16, 15-16).

However, a question remains: but he who is found without personal fault outside the Church, can he be condemned for this? The Catholic Church always (it is not a novelty of recent times) has affirmed that whoever is outside the Church without fault cannot, therefore, be condemned. Two possible “ignorances” are hypothesized: the so-called learned ignorance and the so-called invincible ignorance.

By learned ignorance (significant contradiction: “learned” / “ignorance”) is meant a situation in which the Christian proclamation has never been received, so that you are in a state of innocent ignorance, but at the same time you want earnestly (that’s why we speak of “learned” ignorance) to adhere to the Truth that unfortunately is not known.

By invincible ignorance we mean, instead, that situation in which the Christian announcement was received, but the state of ignorance is such (invincible precisely) that it cannot be overcome.

In the encyclical Singolari quidam of 17.3.1856, Blessed Pope Pius IX, a Pope who is certainly not of the post-conciliar period affirmed: “… in the Catholic Church, for the fact that it preserves true worship, there is the inviolable sanctuary of faith itself, and the temple of God, out of which, barring the excuse of an invincible ignorance, neither life nor salvation can be hoped for.”

A question now arises: if you can save yourself because without fault you are outside the Catholic Church, then “outside the Church, there is no salvation” … And instead, there is no contradiction. A necessary condition to be part of the Church is to receive baptism. But there is not only water-baptism (what is ordinarily administered), there is also blood-baptism and desire-baptism. The baptism-of-blood concerns the martyrdom suffered without the Baptism being received yet. Baptism-of-desire, on the other hand, is when an adult waiting to be baptized should die suddenly. Let’s consider this last type of baptism.

He or she who is in the situation of learned ignorance or invincible ignorance has a desire to adhere to the true God; it is an implicit and not explicit desire, but it is equally a desire. Therefore, it is not formally in the Church, but it is substantially so. And it is essentially, thanks to a sort of baptism-of-desire. In this way, the right principle that those in good faith who are not Catholics can be saved, as well as the principle of the extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.

Regarding the implicit desire, Pope Saint Pius X, in his famous Catechism, says: “Whoever, finding himself without his guilt, that is in good faith, outside the Church, had received Baptism, or had at least the implicit desire for it; he also sincerely sought the truth and did the will of God as best he can; although separated from the body of the Church, would be united to her soul and therefore in the way of salvation.”

Yet another question remains: what is the criterion that the Lord uses to understand if a soul really wants to adhere to him? It must be said that there is a lot of confusion here. Often it is said: if someone without fault is not a Catholic, it is good that they practice their religion “well.” This is wrong. If the implicit desire to adhere to the true God must be expressed with the effort to practice one’s (false) religion well, then this would mean that every religion is in itself “a way of salvation”; and if so, the saving exclusivism of the Redemption of Christ would disappear. Rather, the criterion is another: the effort concerns not the practice of one’s religion, but adherence to the natural law. Certainly, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists can also be saved … if they are not guilty of not being Christian, but despite being Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist … or whatever.

(From La buona battaglia. Apologetica cattolica in domande e risposte, 2019©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)