Creed of the People of God, Part 7 Print
Knowing Your Faith
Knowing Your Faith column

Dr. John P. Joy

Picking up where we left off last time, the next lines of Pope Paul VI's Creed of the People of God profess our faith in the necessity of the Church:

"We believe that the Church is necessary for salvation, because Christ, who is the sole mediator and way of salvation, renders Himself present for us in His body which is the Church. But the divine design of salvation embraces all men; and those who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God sincerely, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the promptings of their conscience, they, in a number known only to God, can obtain salvation."

This touches on one of the most misunderstood dogmas of the Church, namely, that there is "no salvation outside the Church." How is this to be understood? The Catechism cites Vatican II, which says: "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" (CCC 846).

Three distinct but related things are mentioned here as necessary for salvation: faith, Baptism, and the Church. Let's examine them one at a time.

The necessity of Baptism

The Church has always believed and taught, based on the words of Christ to Nicodemus (Jn 3:5), that Baptism is necessary for salvation, while at the same time recognizing that Baptism can be received in three ways: through the sacrament of Baptism (Baptism of water), martyrdom (Baptism of blood), or the desire for Baptism (Baptism of desire), which can be either explicit, as in the case of a catechumen intending to receive Baptism, or implicit, as in the case of a non-baptized person who believes in Jesus Christ and desires to obey his commands, but who through no fault of his own is ignorant of the command to be baptized.

This is why the Catechism says, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments" (CCC 1257).

The necessity of the Church

The case is similar when it comes to the Church. In order to be saved, it is necessary to be a member of the Catholic Church, either in fact or at least in desire, and this desire again can be either explicit or implicit.

It is explicit in catechumens and candidates who intend to enter the Church but have not yet done so; and it may be implicit in non-Catholic Christians (e.g., Protestants or Orthodox) who believe in Jesus Christ and desire to obey his commands, but who through no fault of their own are ignorant of his command to enter the Catholic Church.

The necessity of faith  in Jesus Christ

The case is different, however, when it comes to the question of faith in Jesus Christ, which is the most fundamental of these three requirements. Here the necessity is absolute. As the Catechism teaches, "Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation" (CCC 161).

The teaching of the Athanasian Creed -- one of the four public creeds of the Catholic Church -- makes this even clearer: "It is also necessary for salvation to believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Unless a person believes it faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved."

Does not mean that non-Christians cannot be saved? Not necessarily. For as the Second Vatican Council teaches: "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" (CCC 847).

But how is it possible for a non-Christian to achieve salvation, if faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation? Vatican II gives the answer in its decree on missionary activity: "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, they still have the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men" (CCC 848).

In other words, salvation is possible for non-Christians, not apart from faith in Christ, but precisely because, while they live, it remains possible for them to find faith in Christ. And even though God could reveal the mysteries of Christ to a non-Christian by miraculous means known only to himself (St. Thomas speculates that God could send an angel), it would be a dangerous presumption to rely on this possibility, and therefore we have a very serious obligation to preach the Gospel to those who have never heard it.

Dr. John P. Joy, STD, is marriage and family coordinator for the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, Diocese of Madison.