From time to time, I often hear people refer to the 2nd Vatican Council of the 1960s to point to the first time where the Catholic Church made its break from the tradition extra ecclesiam nulla salus, having no prior precedent whatsoever in the history or magisterium of the Church. However, this would be false. Below, I’ve listed some historical precedent which goes as far back as nearly 100 years before the 2nd Vatican Council. Before that, I have some preliminary remarks.
Also, there are those who will cite Pope Boniface VII’s Unam Sanctam or Pope Eugene IV’s Cantate Domino (yes, still on the Vatican’s website) as proof that the Catholic Church, at least at Vatican II (see, however, below), has contradicted her teaching. To confront such a claim, it would take a whole entire article.
However, one need not travail as far as Vatican II, nor the below precedents, to find such a “contradiction”. Rather, one need only look so far as the historical tradition of the Catholic Church from the Patristic era on the baptism of “blood” to find a contradiction to the strict reading of Boniface or Eugene. After all, Unam states:
“We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins, as the Spouse in the Canticles proclaims: ‘One is my dove, my perfect one. She is the only one, the chosen of her who bore her,‘ and she represents one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God . In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed.”
And Cantate states:
“It firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ , unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.”
Since Catechumens , nor those who are still desirous of baptism but die a martyrs death, are not members of the Church, in one real sense, then the two decrees above would be simultaneously a certain condemnation of literally everyone existing outside the visible confines of the Church, as well as all Catechumens and those who die as martyrs for the Lord. Pope Pius XII states who are members of the Church in Mystici Corporis:
” Through the waters of Baptism those who are born into this world dead in sin are not only born again and made members of the Church, but being stamped with a spiritual seal they become able and fit to receive the other Sacraments” (19)
But we know that the conclusion which sees Catechumens and martyrs as necessarily damned is absurd. Add to this, both Unam and Cantate would also contradict the baptism of desire teaching of the Council of Trent (Session 7 canon VI & Session 6 Ch. IV) held between 1545-63, just roughly 100 years after Cantate. It is therefore all the more reasonable to interpret these two documents above with the below nuances, and to understand that both Boniface and Eugene are not speaking absolutely.
One last thing. While someone might insist that Catechumens are “joined” (CCC 1249) to the Mystical Body, this is not in the same exact way as the baptized. For just a few paragraphs below this (CCC 1259), we read this:
1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.
Now, to the “precedents” mentioned in the title.
This directly below is a section from the first draft on the constitution of the Church and was originally planned to enter into the stage of voting, but time disallowed. However, the draft represents the thinking of the day , particularly in the theologians and bishops. This is a portion of that draft which speaks on the subject of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus:
“Therefore, let all understand how necessary a society the Church of Christ is for obtaining salvation. Indeed, it is just as necessary as participation in, and conjunction with, Christ the head and his mystical body is necessary. Christ himself nourishes and fosters as His Church no communion other than his body. He loved it and delivered himself up for it that he might sanctify it, cleansing it in the washing of water by means of the word of life, so that he might present to himself the Church in all its glory, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it might be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:25-28). Therefore, we teach that the Church is not a free society, as if it were a matter indifferent to salvation whether it were known or ignored, entered or abandoned; but the Church is absolutely necessary and, indeed, not just with a necessity coming from the precept of the Lord by which the Savior commanded all nations to enter it; but it is also necessary as a means because, in the order of salvation established by Providence, the communication of the Holy Spirit and the participation of truth and life is not had except in the Church and through the Church of which Christ is the Head.
Furthermore, it is a dogma of faith that no one can be saved outside the Church. Nevertheless, those who are invincibly ignorant of Christ and his Church are not to be judged worth of eternal punishment because of this ignorance. For they are innocent in the eyes of the Lord of any fault in this matter. God wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth; and if one does what he can, God does not withhold the grace for him to obtain justification and eternal life. But no one obtains eternal life if he dies separated from the unity of faith or from communion with the Church through his own fault. If anyone is not in this ark while the flood rages, he will perish. Therefore, we reject and detest that irreverent and irrational doctrine of religious indifferentism by which the children of this world, failing to distinguish between truth and error, say that the gate of eternal life is open to anyone, no matter what his religion. Or else they say that, with regard to religious truth, only opinion in varying degrees of probability is possible and certainty cannot be had.” (The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation, p. 91)
That this draft reflects also the thinking of the Church at the time is confirmed by the Encyclical of Pope Pius IX entitled Quanto conficiamur moerore just several years earlier in 1863 wherein he wrote:
“And at this point, Our Beloved Children and Venerable Brothers, we must still remember and blame the very grave error in which some Catholics have fallen miserably. In fact, they believe that by living in error, far from the true faith and Catholic unity, they can reach eternal life. This is radically contrary to Catholic doctrine. It is known to us and to you that those who are in an invincible ignorance about our most holy religion, but who carefully observe the natural law and its precepts, written by God in the hearts of all; who are willing to obey God and who lead an honest and upright life, can, with the help of light and divine grace, achieve eternal life. God indeed sees perfectly, scrutinizes, knows spirits, souls, thoughts, everyone’s habits and in his supreme goodness, in his infinite clemency does not allow someone to suffer eternal punishments without being guilty of some voluntary sin. Likewise, the Catholic dogma according to which no one can save himself from the Catholic Church and those who rebel against the authority and decisions of the Church, those who are obstinately separated from the unity of the Church itself and from the Roman Pontiff, Successor of Peter, are well known.”
121 Q. Are all bound to belong to the Church?
A. All are bound to belong to the Church, and he who knows the Church to be the true Church and remains out of it, cannot be saved
Any one who knows the Catholic religion to be the true religion and will not embrace it cannot enter into heaven. If one not a Catholic doubts whether the Church to which he belongs is the true Church, he must settle his doubt, seek the true Church, and enter it; for if he continues to live in doubt, he becomes like the one who knows the true Church and is deterred by worldly considerations from entering it. In like manner on who, doubting, fears to examine the religion he professes lest he should discoverer its falsity and be convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, cannot be saved. Suppose however that there is a non-Catholic who firmly believes that the Church to which he belongs is the true Church , and who has never — even in the past — had the slightest doubt of that fact, — what will become of him? If he was validly baptized and never committed a mortal sin, he will be saved; because, believing himself a member of the true Church, he was doing all he could to serve God according to his knowledge and the dictates of his conscience. But if ever he committed a mortal sin, his salvation would be very much more difficult. A mortal sin once committed remains on the soul till it is forgiven. Now, how could his mortal sin be forgiven? Not in the sacrament of penance, for the Protestant does not go to confession; and if he does, his minister — not being a true priest — has no power to forgive sins. Does he know that without confession it requires an act of truly perfect contrition to blot out sin and can he easily make such an act? What we call contrition is generally only imperfect contrition — that is, sorrow for our sins because we fear their punishment in hell or dread the loss of heaven. If a Catholic, with all the graces he has received in the sacraments, finds it difficult to make an act of perfect contrition — that is, sorrow for sin out of pure love for God, who is so good in Himself, how much more difficulty will the Protestant, who does not receive such graces, experience in making it? It is to be fear either he would not know of this necessary means of regaining God’s friendship , or he would be unable to elicit the necessary act of perfect contrition, and thus the mortal sin would remain upon his soul and he would die an enemy of God. If, then, we found a Protestant who never committed a mortal sin after baptism, and who never had the slightest doubt about the truth of his religion, that person would be saved; because, being baptized, he is a member of the Church, and being free from mortal sin he is a friend of God and could not in justice be condemned to hell. Such a person belongs to what we call the souls of the Church. He would belong to the body of the Church — that is, he would attend Mass and receive the sacraments — if he knew the Catholic Church to be the only true Church….I said I gave you an example that can scarcely be found, namely, of a person not a Catholic, who really never doubted the truth of his religion, and who, moreover, never committed during his whole life a single mortal sin. There are so few such persons that we can practically say for all those who are not members of the body of the Catholic Church, believing its doctrines, receiving its sacraments, and being governed by its visible head , our Holy Father, the Pope, salvation is an extremely difficult matter.”
(An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine: For the Use of Sunday-School TEachers and Advanced Classes by Rev. Thomas L. Kinkead, pp. 131-33)
This also continued in the next century under Pope Pius XII, who wrote the following in his Mystici Corporis:
“As you know, Venerable Brethren, from the very beginning of Our Pontificate, We have committed to the protection and guidance of heaven those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church, solemnly declaring that after the example of the Good Shepherd We desire nothing more ardently than that they may have life and have it more abundantly. Imploring the prayers of the whole Church We wish to repeat this solemn declaration in this Encyclical Letter in which We have proclaimed the praises of the “great and glorious Body of Christ” and from a heart overflowing with love We ask each and every one of them to correspond to the interior movements of grace, and to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with Us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the Society of glorious love”.
If the reader were to doubt this, seeing as the above is not clear, then the following proceeding was produced under Pius XII with four reverend Cardinals on the subject in 1949:
We are obliged by the divine and Catholic faith to believe all those things contained in the Word of God, Scripture or Tradition, and proposed by the Church for our faith as divinely revealed, not only by solemn definition but also by her ordinary and universal magisterium (Denziger n. 1792).
Now, amongst those things which the Church has always preached and will never cease to teach, there is also this infallible declaration which says that there is no salvation outside the Church.
This dogma, however, has to be understood in the sense attributed to it by the Church herself. The Saviour, in fact, entrusted explanation of those things contained in the deposit of faith, not to private judgement, but to the teaching of the ecclesiastical authority.
Now, in the first place, the Church teaches that in this matter there exists a very strict mandate from Jesus Christ, for He explicitly commanded his apostles to teach all nations to observe all things which He Himself had ordered (Matth XXVIII.19-20).
The least of these commandments is not that which orders us to be incorporated through baptism into Christ’s Mystical Body, which is the Church, and to remain united with Him and with His Vicar, through whom, He Himself governs his Church in visible manner here below,
That is why no one will be saved if, knowing that the Church is of divine institution by Christ, he nevertheless refuses to submit to her or separates himself from the obedience of the Roman Pontiff, Christ’s Vicar on earth.
Not only did our Saviour order all peoples to enter the Church, but He also decreed that it is the means of salvation without which no one can enter the eternal kingdom of glory.
In his infinite mercy, God willed that, since it was a matter of the means of salvation ordained for man’s ultimate end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, its salutary effects could also be obtained in certain circumstances when these means are only objects of “desire” or of “hope”. This point was clearly established at the Council of Trent, with regard to both the sacrament of baptism and of penance (Denziger, n. 797 and 807).
The same must be said of the Church, as a general means of salvation. That is why for a person to obtain his salvation, it is not always required that he be de facto incorporated into the Church as a member, but he must at least be united to the Church through desire or hope.
However, it is not always necessary that this hope be explicit as in the case of catechumens. When one is in a state of invincible ignorance, God accepts an implicit desire, thus called because it is implicit in the soul’s good disposition, whereby it desires to conform its will to the will of God. (Letter from the Holy Office Concerning Fr. Leonard Feeney)
Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914)
In the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, we read:
Q: But if a man through no fault of his own is outside the Church, can he be saved? (A.9 Q.29)
A: If he is outside the Church through no fault of his, that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God’s will as best he can such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation.
Q: In what does the Soul of the Church consist?(A.9 Q.22)
A: The Soul of the Church consists in her internal and spiritual endowments, that is, faith, hope, charity, the gifts of grace and of the Holy Ghost, together with all the heavenly treasures which are hers through the merits of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, and of the Saints.
Pope St. Paul VI
“This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved….Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience…But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.” (Lumen Gentium, 14 & 16)