Pope Francis is under attack for saying that outside the Church there is no salvation: it’s a “poke in the eye” says one Presbyterian. Here is why he’s wrong

During a homily in May Pope Francis said: "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone." Photo: PA

Here we go again: a new Pope says something that all his predecessors have said because it is what the Church has always taught, and some Protestant accuses him of personally adopting (I quote a Prebyterian minister writing in the National Catholic Reporter (aka fishwrap) a “dicey position”, as though he had a choice in the matter. According to the Reverend Bill Tammeus, when Pope Francis recently quoted Pope Paul saying “It’s an absurd dichotomy to think one can live with Jesus, but without the Church, to follow Jesus outside the Church, to love Jesus and not the Church”, he is “intentionally (my emphasis) offering a poke in the eye to people outside [his] faith tradition”.

“Is Francis ”, asks this reverend person, “(through Paul) saying that I, as a Presbyterian, cannot follow Jesus outside of Catholicism? That’s what he appears to be claiming”. Well, IS it it? It might have occurred to this chap that Pope Paul of all people was hardly an enemy of ecumenism; this is the Pope, after all, who called Anglicanism “our sister Church”.

The doctrine is deceptively simple: that “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”: outside the Church there is no salvation. Does that mean in fact that unless you are in communio sacris with the Roman Catholic Church you will be damned, that Christ will not save you however, you live your life? Does that sound at all likely? So what does the doctrine mean?

This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about it:

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.”

According to this, we enter the Church by baptism. Salvation is what God gives to those 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”. The Orthodox Bishop and Oxford theologian, Kallistos Ware, puts it in this way:

“Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” …. Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!” (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a “visible” and an “invisible Church”, yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.”

While we are about it, are the Orthodox, is Bishop Kallistos, according to the Catholic Church “extra ecclesiam”? Hardly: the Catholic Church allows its clergy to administer the sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, if these spontaneously ask for the sacraments and are properly disposed. It also allows Catholics who cannot approach a Catholic minister to receive these three sacraments from clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it.

Even Pio Nono, who of course insisted [Allocution Singulari Quadem ] that “it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood” nevertheless goes on to say that “on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labour in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains ‘we shall see God as He is’ (1 John 3.2), we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4.5).

To say that unless you are in FULL COMMUNION with the Roman Catholic Church you cannot know Jesus is to place limits on Our Lord’s capacity to make himself known outside it, a manifest absurdity. This is NOT a form of universalism; nor is it to deny that only within the Roman Catholic Church is the fullness of faith to be found. Back to the CCC:

851 It is from God’s love for all men that the Church in every age receives both the obligation and the vigour of her missionary dynamism, ‘for the love of Christ urges us on.’ Indeed, God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’; that is, God wills the salvation of everyone through the knowledge of the truth. Salvation is found in the truth. Those who obey the prompting of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation. But the Church, to whom this truth has been entrusted, must go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them the truth.”

So, Reverend Tammeus, NO, Pope Francis is NOT offering you a “poke in the eye”, as I’m quite sure you are perfectly well aware. But he does undoubtedly think that you would be further along the road to salvation as a Catholic. Are you really absolutely certain he’s wrong?