Can non-Catholics be saved, or will they ‘go into the eternal fire’?

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Dear Father, I have a knowledgeable friend who quotes popes and saints to try to convince me that there are no Muslims, Jews or even Protestants in heaven, because the Church teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation. Is he right?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The statement that outside the Church there is no salvation goes back to the early Church and it has been taught and clarified down the ages. But it must be properly understood, lest it lead to the radical conclusion of your friend that there are only Catholics in heaven.

Among the early Fathers who taught that outside the Church there is no salvation, St Fulgentius of Ruspe, around the year 500, is one of the strongest: “Not only all pagans, but also all Jews and all heretics and schismatics, who finish their lives outside the Catholic Church, will go into eternal fire…” (On Faith, to Peter 38.81).

As for popes, Pope Eugene IV in the Bull Cantate Domino (1441), using the same terms as St Fulgentius, taught in an infallible definition: “The Most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but 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.”

Anyone reading these texts might well be inclined to believe that there are no Muslims, Jews or Protestants in heaven, only Catholics. But this would mean that the immense majority of all mankind would go to hell. Did Jesus become man and die on the cross for only a few, or does he truly want all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth? (cf. 1 Tim 2:4) It is clearly the latter.

But then how are we to understand the clear teachings of the Church just cited? We must understand them in light of the tradition that one can belong to the Church not only through Baptism with water but also through Baptism of desire. This desire can be either explicit, in the case of catechumens who are preparing to enter the Church, or implicit, in the case of people of good will who strive to lead a good life and who follow the will of God as they understand it.

Already in the second century St Justin spoke of the latter: “Those who acted in accordance with what is universally, naturally and eternally good were pleasing to God and will be saved by Christ … just like the righteous who preceded them” (Dialogue with Tryphon, 45).

This teaching was stated officially by the Holy See in answer to the errors of Fr Leonard Feeney, S.J., who had been professor of theology at Boston College and chaplain of the St Benedict Center at Harvard from 1945 on. Fr Feeney taught literally that outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation and only Catholics can go to heaven.

To clarify the Church’s teaching, the Holy Office, with the approval of Pope Pius XII, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Richard Cushing, on 8 August 1949. It stated, among other things, that in order for someone to be saved, “it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God”.

This teaching was solemnly declared in the Second Vatican Council in the following terms: “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” (LG 16).

So when we get to heaven – and let us pray that we will – we will find there not only our fellow Catholics but also people of all beliefs who lived and died well, helped by grace, who sought to fulfil the will of God as they knew it. Thank God for that.