Many people do not understand properly the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the salvation of Non-Catholics. My intention is to outline the Catholic teaching. If there is anything wrong in my exposition, then someone should - rather must - correct me.
Building upon my Biblical exposition on the necessity of being a formal member of the Church (to be found here: http://papsttreu.blogspot.com/2009/12/jesus-yes-church-no.html ), I now intend to show the traditional belief of the Church regarding the matter of salvation outside the Church:
Part I: ordinary means of salvation:
St. Irenaeus (a.D. 130 - 202):
"The Church is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them . . . . We hear it declared of the unbelieving and the blinded of this world that they shall not inherit the world of life which is to come . . . . Resist them in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons."
Origen (a.D. 185 - 254):
"If someone from this people wants to be saved, let him come into this house so that he may be able to attain his salvation. . . . Let no one, then, be persuaded otherwise, nor let anyone deceive himself: Outside of this house, that is, outside of the Church, no one is saved; for, if anyone should go out of it, he is guilty of his own death" (Homilies on Joshua 3:5 [A.D. 250]).
St. Cyprian of Carthage:
"Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress [a schismatic church] is separated from the promises of the Church, nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is an alien, a worldling, and an enemy. He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother" (The Unity of the Catholic Church 6, 1st ed. [A.D. 251]).
"Let them not think that the way of life or salvation exists for them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since the Lord says in the book of Deuteronomy: ‘And any man who has the insolence to refuse to listen to the priest or judge, whoever he may be in those days, that man shall die’ [Deut. 17:12]. And then, indeed, they were killed with the sword . . . but now the proud and insolent are killed with the sword of the Spirit, when they are cast out from the Church. For they cannot live outside, since there is only one house of God, and there can be no salvation for anyone except in the Church" (Letters 61:4 [A.D. 253]).
"When we say, ‘Do you believe in eternal life and the remission of sins through the holy Church?’ we mean that remission of sins is not granted except in the Church" (ibid., 69:2 [A.D. 253]).
"It is, therefore, the Catholic Church alone which retains true worship. This is the fountain of truth; this, the domicile of faith; this, the temple of God. Whoever does not enter there or whoever does not go out from there, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. . . . Because, however, all the various groups of heretics are confident that they are the Christians and think that theirs is the Catholic Church, let it be known that this is the true Church, in which there is confession and penance and which takes a health-promoting care of the sins and wounds to which the weak flesh is subject" (Divine Institutes 4:30:11–13 [A.D. 307]).
St. Jerome (a.D. 347 - 420):
"Heretics bring sentence upon themselves since they by their own choice withdraw from the Church, a withdrawal which, since they are aware of it, constitutes damnation. Between heresy and schism there is this difference: that heresy involves perverse doctrine, while schism separates one from the Church on account of disagreement with the bishop. Nevertheless, there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church" (Commentary on Titus 3:10–11 [A.D. 386]).
St. Augustine (a.D. 354 - 430):
"No man can find salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the Name of the Father and the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church."
St. Fulgentius (a.D. 468 - 533):
"Most firmly hold and never doubt that not only pagans, but also Jews, all heretics, and all schismatics who finish this life outside of the Catholic Church, will go into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."
Pope St. Gregory the Great (reigned a.D. 590 - 604):
"The holy universal Church teaches that it is not possible to worship God truly except in Her and asserts that all who are outside of Her will not be saved."
St. Francis of Assisi (a.D. 1182 - 1226):
"All who have not believed that Jesus Christ was really the Son of God are doomed. Also, all who see the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and do not believe it is really the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord . . . these also are doomed!"
St. Thomas Aquinas (a.D. 1226 - 1274):
"There is no entering into salvation outside the Catholic Church, just as in the time of the Flood there was not salvation outside the Ark, which denotes the Church."
St. Robert Bellarmine (a.D. 1542 - 1621):
"Outside the Church there is no salvation...therefore in the symbol (Apostles Creed) we join together the Church with the remission of sins: 'I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins"...For this reason the Church is compared to the Ark of Noah, because just as during the deluge, everyone perished who was not in the ark, so now those perish who are not in the Church."
St. Louis Marie de Montfort (a.D. 1673 - 1716):
"There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Anyone who resists this truth perishes."
St. Alphonsus Maria de Legouri (a.D. 1696 - 1787):
"All the misfortunes of unbelievers spring from too great an attachment to the things of life. This sickness of heart weakens and darkens the understanding, and leads to eternal ruin. If they would try to heal their hearts by purging them of their vices, they would soon receive light, which would show them the necessity of joining the Catholic Church, where alone is salvation. We should constantly thank the Lord for having granted us the gift of the true Faith, by associating us with the children of the Holy Catholic Church ... How many are the infidels, heretics, and schismatics who do not enjoy the happiness of the true Faith! Earth is full of them and they are all lost!"
Let us continue with the solemn definitions - i.e. dogmatic - of the Catholic Church:
Pope Innocent III in the Fourth Lateran Council (a.D. 1215):
"There is one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved."
Pope Boniface VIII in Unam Sanctam (a.D. 1302):
"We declare, say , define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."
Pope Eugene IV in the Bull Cantate Domino (a.D. 1441):
"The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, also Jews, heretics, and schismatics can ever be partakers of eternal life, but that they are to go into the eternal fire 'which was prepared for the devil and his angels' (Mt. 25:41) unless before death they are joined with Her... No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ can be saved unless they abide within the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church."
All the previous citations demonstrate the Church's teaching on the ordinary means of salvation: that it is absolutely necessary to enter into the Catholic Church in order to be saved. Thus it is taught by the Second Vatican Council that “whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter her or to remain in her could not be saved” (Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 14).
The Church is thus to be understood as the "universal sacrament of salvation" (CCC 774 - 776).
"The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men." (CCC 780)
Part II: extraordinary means of salvation:
Does all this therefore mean that anyone who happens to not be a Catholic is therefore certainly doomed?
The Christian dogma of "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" in its traditional sense contains a provision: that those who are invincibly ignorant may be saved despite their not being formal members of the Catholic Church here on earth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
"To reunite all his children, scattered and led astray by sin, the Father willed to call the whole of humanity together into his Son's Church. the Church is the place where humanity must rediscover its unity and salvation. the Church is "the world reconciled." She is that bark which "in the full sail of the Lord's cross, by the breath of the Holy Spirit, navigates safely in this world." According to another image dear to the Church Fathers, she is prefigured by Noah's ark, which alone saves from the flood.334
"Outside the Church there is no salvation" (CCC 845)
And in CCC 846:"How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 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.336"
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.337
It is taught by the Second Vatican Council that “those also can attain to everlasting 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” (Lumen Gentium, 16).
In the past there arose a controversy with the rigorist Father Feeney who taught that absolutely noone - regardless of his knowledge or ignorance of the Gospel and of the Church - may be saved unless he becomes a formal member of the Catholic Church.
The controversy was ended by a clarification from the Holy See:
“In the aftermath of the controversy, the Archbishop of Boston, Richard Cushing, received a letter of clarification from the Holy Office. This letter, dated August 8, 1949, is important for its explanation of the necessity of the Church: she is necessary for salvation by divine command, not by intrinsic necessity. The Church, as Christ’s mystical body, is the sole ark of salvation, but direct, formal membership in her through the sacraments is only the ordinary means of salvation. In other words, knowledge of the Church and of her Founder is required of anyone for whom is to be considered necessary for salvation.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, p.862, Reverend Peter Stravinskas, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., Huntington, Indiana, 1991)
Thus, without knowledge neither of the Gospel of Christ and of the Catholic Church, one cannot be judged to be doomed.
Examples of this teaching:
Pope Pius IX in Singulari Quidem (a.D. 1856):
"This hope of salvation is placed in the Catholic Church which, in preserving the true worship, is the solid home of this faith and the temple of God. Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control."
Thus the correct understand of the dogma "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" is explained by the following words:
Pope Pius IX in Quanto Conficiamus Moerore (a.D. 1863):
"Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching."
"There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments."
There are those who would distort the official teaching of the Church so as to claim that all Non-Catholic Christians will be saved. This is an error since we know that these separated Christians are:
a) not ignorant of the Gospel of Christ
b) not all invincibly ignorant of the Catholic Church
In a sense, one could say that this provision is more likely to apply to Non-Christians than to other Christians - who through their knowledge of the Gospel will be judged by stricter standards (ref.: Luke 12:48; James 1:22-27; 1 John 2:4).
A Non-Catholic Christian who therefore knows of the Gospel and of the necessity of the Catholic Church, but obstinately refuses to enter into her, will not be saved.
Some people have problems with such statements so as to claim that I - by making such statements - were "behaving in a heretical manner" or "being a dick". Furthermore, certain people would claim that I am not allowed to make such statements as I am "not God". Some would even go as far as to say that they would "never join the Catholic Church" because of my behaviour.
Now here is what I have to say:
1) I am fully aware of the fact that I am not God. And that Judgement is God's prerogative. While indeed I may not claim to know who specifically will be in hell - since I know not the hearts of men - we can see in Christian Tradition that it is not wrong to outline the ordinary means of salvation and that according to the dogmas of the Church, the sins of certain people may be judged as being worthy of damnation.
If one does not think this is true, then I would invite people to read e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:
"Know you not that the unjust shall not possess the kingdom of God? Do not err: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God. "
Certain sins exclude the possibility of salvation. While I cannot say that a person who has committed adultery in his life will definitely perish - since I know not if he will repent or not - I can say that those who persist in this sin and refuse to repent and be forgiven by means of the sacrament of reconciliation will perish.
Similary one can say that unless someone repents, he will perish (ref.: Luke 13:3 & 5).
2) The provision to "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" is not to be understood in terms of every Non-Christian being invincibly ignorant of the Gospel or the Church of Christ. We live in a time wherein information is very easy to gather. And I find it plausible to assume that there may only be very few people who have never heard of the Gospel of Christ or of His Church. Thus, those who say that they "just do not care" about the claims of the Gospel and of the Church are already disqualified from being invincibly ignorant.
Christ Himself did not teach that those who closed themselves to the Gospel would be saved.
"And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet. Amen I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city." (Matthew 10:14-15)
3) Another very harmful attitude is that of rejecting the message because of the way the message is conveyed or because of disdain towards the messenger. Such attitude is harmful because:
° the truth of a message does not depend upon its way of communication.
° the truth of a message does not depend upon our liking or disliking of the messenger
° with regards to Christian doctrine: rejecting a doctrine because of disliking the way it is conveyed or because of disliking the messenger does not excuse one's rejection of truth
Thus, those who tell me they would "never become a Catholic" because of my behaviour, are doing more harm to themselves than to anyone else.
I do admit that I do not always behave the way I should. There is no excuse. I apologize to everyone who has been offended by my "cold" way of communicating doctrine to people. However, I do not apologize for the orthodox Christian doctrine that I convey. I find it more important to adhere to orthodox doctrine than to "please" everyone I speak to. And since we are commanded to love God above all, problems will arise, and I do not value such "peace" over Divine Truth, that is Jesus Christ.
If you find such attitude to also be appalling, I address you to Matthew 10:34-37.
Furthermore, to reject the Church because one rejects the behaviour of certain people who are formally within the Church or due to disdain towards certain individuals within the Church means that one judges the Church by one's perception of the morality of those within the Church.
This is wrong because this links to the heresy of Montanism and Donatism and because even from within the Church, there will be those who will not be perfect (ref.: Acts 20:29-39).
I will try my best to follow what Pope John Paul II taught:
"The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the Body of Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth? The Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae attributes to human dignity the quest for truth, "especially in what concerns God and his Church",33 and adherence to truth's demands. A "being together" which betrayed the truth would thus be opposed both to the nature of God who offers his communion and to the need for truth found in the depths of every human heart."
(Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint §18 "The fundamental importance of doctrine")
"Even so, doctrine needs to be presented in a way that makes it understandable to those for whom God himself intends it."
(Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint §19)
Last but not least: there are those who intend to "pick and choose" what they accept as being "essential to salvation" by their own standards. Thus, while some might vehemently oppose the Christian Dogma of "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus", the same could be in total agreement to the teaching that there is no salvation to be found than in Christ: thus indirectly condemning all those who are not Christians.
Furthermore, while someone may think that that "belonging to Church is not necessary for salvation", the same could believe that those who claim to be Christians but are Sodomites will not inherit the Kingdom of God (ref.: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10), i.e. that these will be doomed.
The pattern we can see here is that oftentimes, such people create a list of "essentials" which would make possible their own salvation and also that of the people they like. What we thus experience is the alteration not of the way one conveys Christian doctrine, but of Christian doctrine itself. Instead of being fashioned after orthodox doctrine, i.e. the Truth, one seeks to fashion doctrine according to one's own emotions or desires.
Such an attitude seems to me as a type of idolatry: placing one's desires or emotions above the truth revealed to us by God and safeguarded by His Church until the end of times. And with regards to such people, I claim that those guilty of altering the truth to fit their desires will not be saved unless they repent and turn from their wicked ways.
If you think that this is hard to believe in, then I remind you of those who placed their personal understanding above the words of the Christ:
"Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it?" (John 6:61)
"After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him." (John 6:67)
Thus we are taught:
"Take heed to thyself and to doctrine: be earnest in them. For in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee." (1 Timothy 4:16)
"Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears" (2 Timothy 4:2-3)