Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Outside of the Church There is No Salvation

As much as I try to avoid it, I have this knack for getting myself involved in Protestant – Catholic debates. I don’t enjoy the debating...the constant sparring...the hours of time that it saps as I try to give a defence for my Catholic faith – especially when it is with people whom I love, and consider as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Yet, even as I try to steer clear of the debates, I am always reminded that if I remain silent when I should say something, I will have to give an account for it when I stand before the Lord at the Final Judgement. And so, I take up the mantle, often reluctantly, but pray that in some small way, God is using me to plant seeds in the hearts of those that I enter into discussions with.

An interesting thing that I have noticed a few times in these debates is that just when you seem to be making some progress, the Protestant debater will seek to divert the subject by randomly introducing an argument based on the Catholic Church’s position of “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” – outside of the Church there is no salvation.

The basis of the argument
Their argument usually follows this sort of logic:

  • A – Catholics say that outside of the Church there is no salvation
  • B – Catholics say that the Catholic Church is the only true Church established by Christ
  • C – Catholics also say that non-Catholic Christians are still Christian and can be saved
Therefore, they argue, that if A and B are right, then C must be false...or else, if A and C are right, then B must be false.

The solution to the argument
Whilst these arguments sound plausible on the surface level, all they really do is betray that the Protestant arguing these things does not understand what the Catholic Church actually teaches regarding these things.

So, what DOES the Catholic Church mean when she says that “outside of the Church there is no salvation”?
Before looking at the Church’s teaching specifically, it would be worthwhile to be reminded of the reason that the Church has established this teaching.

Why does the Church teach “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus”?
The basis for the Church’s teaching is that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and that no man comes to the Father but by Him (Jn 14:6). In other words, the foundation of the Church’s teaching is that outside of Christ there is no salvation. But the Church doesn’t stop there, because Christ didn’t stop there.

Jesus emphatically taught that He would establish and build His Church – not just for convenience’ sake; but also for the sake that His Body would continue His work of salvation in the world after His Ascension into Heaven. St. Paul developed this doctrine by proclaiming that the Church is nothing less than the Body of Christ, and Jesus Christ is her Head. In this way, St. Paul reminds us that Christ and His Church are inseparably ONE. You cannot be IN Christ if you are not IN His Body, the Church.
And this is one reason why the New Testament constantly reminds us that baptism is necessary for salvation – because baptism is the “door” by which we enter the Church – it is through baptism that we are born again into the family of God (which is another image that St. Paul uses for the Church in 1 Tim 3:15).

So, the reason that the Church teaches “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” is because she is inseparably united to Christ, and outside of Christ there is no salvation.

What does the Church mean when she teaches “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus”?
Now that we’ve established WHY the Church teaches this truth, it still doesn’t shed any light on the apparent contradiction whereby Catholics can consider non-Catholic Christians to be brothers in Christ.

Let’s start by saying what the Church does NOT mean – “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” does NOT mean that only those people who are visibly members of the Catholic Church will be saved. And this is where most Protestants get unstuck. Yes – it is true that the Catholic Church is the one true Church established by Christ. But that doesn’t mean that only Catholics will be saved.
The first thing to understand is that it is through the Sacrament of Baptism that we are united to Christ (Rom 6:3-4). Because baptism can be performed by anyone, the Catholic Church accepts that many Protestants have been validly baptised. And because the Catholic Church IS the Body of Christ, all those who have been baptised into Christ are part of the Catholic Church - even though they may not accept or acknowledge this. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

“All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” – CCC # 818b

All those who have been baptised into Christ are, by virtue of their baptism, united to the Catholic Church. However, because they are not in FULL communion with the Church, that union is imperfect. The Council Fathers at Vatican II affirmed this when they said:

“The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honoured with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter.” – Lumen Gentium # 15

“Men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect. The differences that exist in varying degrees between them and the Catholic Church - whether in doctrine and sometimes in discipline, or concerning the structure of the Church - do indeed create many obstacles, sometimes serious ones, to full ecclesiastical communion.” – Unitatis Redintegratio # 3

To restate it – all who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ...and because of Christ’s inseparable union with His Church, all who have been baptised into Christ have been baptised into the Catholic Church. In the case of our Protestant brethren, the union is not perfect – but it is still a union nonetheless.
This is why it is possible to affirm that outside of the Church there is no salvation – and at the same time to affirm that those who are not in perfect union with the Catholic Church can indeed be saved. The apparent contradiction is resolved when we see that even Protestants are included “within the Church” by virtue of their baptism.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work towards unity. The very fact that Christianity is divided is a scandal to the world, and a hindrance to the Gospel. Which is why Vatican II also issued the Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) as part of the understanding that all Christians, and ESPECIALLY Catholics, should be compelled by the love of Christ to do what we can to foster unity with our separated brethren and pray that all Christians may oneday be united together again in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

The argument from “Anathemas”
Another complaint that frequently emerges is the anathemas that the Catholic Church has pronounced over her 2,000 year history...particularly those that arose during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. For example, the Council of Trent said that:

“If any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” – Fourth Session

In other words, the Council of Trent condemned as anathema those who don’t accept the books that many Protestants today call the “Apocrypha”.

Most Protestants today don’t accept the Catholic Canon of the Old Testament – therefore, the argument goes, that they must be anathema. But they see this as a contradiction – how can they be considered as Christian and anathema at the same time?

How do the Anathemas fit into the Church’s teaching of Extra Ecclessiam Nulla Salus?
We have established what the Church means when she says that outside of the Church there is no salvation – and that Protestants are not “outside of the Church”. But how should we understand the anathemas in light of this? And do these two thoughts contradict one another?

The first thing to bear in mind is that the anathemas must be understood in the context of the time they were pronounced. Anathemas are usually issued by the Church to counter heresies that were being battled at that specific time in history. For example, the anathemas of the Council of Trent were pronounced to address the heresies that had emerged as a result of the Protestant Reformation.
The next thing to remember is that the Catholic Church does not claim to have binding authority over non-Catholics. So the anathemas of the Council of Trent were aimed at Catholics who had become Protestants and were subsequently teaching against the doctrines of the Church. They were Catholics who willingly rejected the Church’s teaching – and so the Church had the duty to declare the anathemas as part of her Divine duty of protecting and shepherding God’s Flock.

That’s an important point to grasp – when the anathemas were pronounced, they were pronounced over Catholics who willingly rejected the faith that they once held to be true. So, for Protestants today, living in the 21st century, the Church's position is that they cannot be blamed for the schism that arose in the 16th century. As such, the Church considers Protestants today as brothers in Christ – and not anathema.
Here’s what the Catechism has to say on the matter:

“In fact, in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin:
Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.” – CCC # 817

“However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers .... All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.” – CCC # 818
“Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements. Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to ‘Catholic unity’." – CCC # 819

Thus, whilst the anathemas could be considered as binding upon men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, who knew better when they willingly rejected their Catholic faith; they cannot be held as binding upon those, those who through no fault of their own, are found in congregations which follow Luther’s and Calvin’s teachings – because they cannot be held responsible for the sin of schism that men like Luther and Calvin were guilty of.

Do Protestants need to become Catholic?
When presented with the above explanation of the Catholic Church’s position, Protestants, without conceding the argument, may sometimes accept that it is at least a logical and reasonable response. But, the usual comeback is then “OK – so I actually don’t need to become Catholic in order to be saved”.

Strictly speaking, that is true – but it is also a cop-out because it indicates that the person making such a statement seems to be more concerned about comfort than he is about truth.
Not only that, but because he has been presented with the truth, he has also been presented with the opportunity to seek out that truth. And to ignore that opportunity would be unwise in light of the Lord’s words that “to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk 12:48).

This sort of thinking is also dangerous in that a person may end up becoming fully convinced of the truthfulness of the Catholic faith, and yet still choose to remain outside of full communion with the Catholic Church. A conscious rejection of truth is a conscious rejection of Christ, because Jesus Christ is Himself THE Truth. In this way, such a person, by their conscious decision to reject truth, ends up separating himself from Christ.

Why is this so important?
It is important for a number of reasons.

Firstly, because truth is absolute and truth really does matter. Jesus Christ is the Truth, and as lovers of Christ, Christians must continue to seek the truth in Christ until they have found it in all its fullness.
Related to this, the second reason is that misconceptions are a hindrance to the pursuit of truth. So, it is necessary that misconceptions be cleared up.

Thirdly, because the divisions that exist within Christianity are a scandal to the world and it is the duty of all Christians to strive in love for the unity that Christ Himself desired and prayed for. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism summed it up nicely:

“The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.” – Unitatis Redintegratio # 1