What does the Catholic Church teach about the salvation of non-Christians?

I noticed that some people are spinning the pope’s remarks from yesterday as saying that anyone who “does good” is redeemed. But is this accurate? And is it consistent with other Catholic teaching on this?

In the remarks, as excerpted here, Francis makes two major points, best as I can tell. First, everyone–no matter their religious belief or lack thereof–is under the obligation to do good, and this shared obligation can be the basis of dialogue and peace. Second, everyone is redeemed “with the Blood of Christ,” even non-Christians, including those who don’t believe in God at all.

Leaving aside the question I raised yesterday of whether this implies a kind of universalism, what the pope doesn’t seem to be saying here is that non-Christians are redeemed by good works. They are redeemed by Christ, but they are also obligated and empowered to do good.

I thought I had a pretty good grip on Catholic theology on this matter, but when I went back and looked at some of the relevant passages in the catechism, the church’s teaching does seem to be somewhat ambiguous on this point. Here’s the text dealing with the oft-repeated claim of “no salvation outside the church”:

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.” (footnotes omitted)

The ambiguity, as I see it, comes from maintaining both that (1) “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” and (2) people “who . . . seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience . . .  may achieve eternal salvation.” The second statement could be read as saying that people are–or at least can be–saved by their good works–albeit grace-empowered ones.

Maybe the right way to interpret this passage is to say that the work of Christ is what makes salvation possible, but that it can be appropriated by non-Christians through the seeking of God and attempting to do good, with the help of God’s grace?

I’m sure there are readers better informed about Catholic theology than I am who could shed more light on this.

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5 thoughts on “What does the Catholic Church teach about the salvation of non-Christians?

  1. The catechism can differ a lot from what some Catholic theologians might say on subjects, or even what someone like the pope might say. There’s a wikipedia page on this and it has some bits from V2 … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extra_Ecclesiam_nulla_salus

    Avery Dulles SJ concluded

    “Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice.”

  2. I think there’s actually a distinction between “redemption” and “salvation.”

    As far as I can tell, “redemption,” applies, by definition, to every member of the human race. See 601: “The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin.”

    So actually the Pope may not have said anything too earth-shattering at all, even though it did seem that way…..

    😉

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