Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus?

I was asked if the Rome teaches that salvation is possible outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Apparently, my correspondent had run into a problem that confronts all, Christian and Catholic alike, who try to discover a definitive statement concerning the significance of one's relationship with the Roman Catholic Church in the matter of salvation. Like just about every other dogma or doctrine of the RCC that I am aware of, the interpretation appears to be situational. It seems that any teaching can be made to meet any need of the Catholic theologian/apologist at any given moment.

The RCC position that salvation is impossible outside the Roman Catholic Church was defined by Boniface VIII. In his Bull Unam Sanctam (1302), in which he made it quite clear that submission to the Pope was necessary for salvation:

"With Faith urging us we are forced to believe and to hold the one, holy, Catholic Church and that, apostolic, and we firmly bellieve and simply confess this (Church) outside which there is no salvation nor remission of sinů

Furthermore, we declare, say, define, and proclaim to every human creature that they by necessity for salvation are entirely subject to the Roman Pontiff. -- Denzinger 468-69

That last statement from Boniface VIII cannot be taken as anything but a dogmatic definition that meets every criterion for infallibility according to the Dogmatic Constitution I on the Church of Christ (Vatican I, Denzinger 1839). He was far from being the only 'infallible' source for dogma declaring that wearing Roman chains was necessary for salvation.

Membership of the Church is necessary for all men for salvation.

Ludwig Ott adds that Roman Catholics are to assent to this dogma de fide. (by faith). Dr. Ott documents this dogma as follows:

"In the Caput Firmiter, the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared: "The universal Church of the faithful is one outside of which none is saved." (extra quam nullus monino salvatur). (D. 430). This was the teaching also of the Union Council of Florence (D 714), and of Popes Innocent III (D 423) and Boniface VIII in the Bull "Unam Sanctam" (D 468), Clement VI (D 570 b), Benedict XIV (D 1473), Pius IX (D 1647, 1677), Leo XIII (D1955), Pius XII in the Encyclical "Mystici Corporis" (D 2286, 2288). As against modern religious indifference, Pius IX declared: "By Faith it is to be firmly held that outside the Apostolic Roman Church none can achieve salvation. This is the only ark of salvation. He who does not enter into it, will perish in the flood. Nevertheless equally certainly it is to be held that those who suffer from invincible ignorance of the true religion are not for this reason guilty in the eyes of the Lord" (D 1647). This last proposition holds out the possibility that people who in point of fact (actu) do not belong to the Church can achieve salvation. Cf. D 1677; 796 (votum baptisimi). -- Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan Books (1974), pp. 312-13

My Catholic dictionary defines dogma as:

A teaching of the Church, held as revealed by God and therefore binding on the faithful, that is revealed implicitly or explicitly either by solemn definition or by the Church's ordinary Magisterium. -- Peter M.J.Stravinskas, Catholic Dictionary, Our Sunday Visitor (1993), p. 181

Some sources of the dogmatic definition we are looking at include Bonivace VIII's Unam Sanctam and the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith -- Denzinger 1792.

Using Catholic sources, I have shown that several popes and at least three Church Councils have affirmed Boniface VIII's declaration that outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. I have shown that Boniface's pronouncement meets the criteria of Vatican I for infallibility. And, I have shown that it is a dogma of the RCC to which the Catholic faithful are to assent de fide. And just what does all that mean?

So a dogma is a truth revealed by God (divine faith), and proposed as such by the Magisterium of the Church as necessary for belief (Catholic faith). It is binding on all the faithful. Hence, our affirmation of and belief in dogmas of the Faith as necessary for salvation. To deny one dogma of the Church is to deny the authority of God who revealed it. Our Lord Jesus declared to His chosen representatives: "He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me." (Lk.10:10). To deny the very authority of God is to deny God Himself; and no one can be saved, that is, no one can enter Heavem, who denies God. This is why our affirmation of and belief in any and every dogma is necessary for salvation. -- Adam S. Miller, The Final Word, Tower of David Publ. (1997), p. 1

Now we know what Catholic dogmas are, who are to believe them and that believing "any and every dogma is necessary for salvation." The corollary to belief in that every single Catholic dogma being necessary for salvation is that failing to believe even one Catholic dogma disqualifies one for salvation.

This is where things get a bit tricky. All Roman Catholic faithful are required to accept by faith every single dogma that has been solemnly pronounced since the Bishop of Rome arrogated to himself power over all the Christian church. That's a heavy responsibility and, if one subscribes to Romish soteriology, one with eternal consequences.

Even if one is successful in identifying every dogma of the RCC, it still would be difficult, if not impossible, to ever have assurance that one is fully in accord with all of them. After all, despite her touted motto of Semper Idem (Always the Same) there are precious few teachings of the RCC that are not vulnerable to 'development.' Not to worry for, as one Catholic theologian assures us, dogmas are immutable.

We have in each dogmatic definition, then, the formal interpretation of God's Word by the Magisterium of the Church. These definitions are the final word pronounced by the Magisterium of the Church. The Council Fathers at Vatican II, in dealing with papal teaching authority, affirmed what was defined at Vatican I, that dogmatic definitions are "irreformable by their very nature" (Lumen Gentium [Constitution on the Church], #25).

Dogmas, then, are not merely human interpretations of divine truths, nor are they statements concerning mere ideas or cocepts which human language only interprets. They are, rather, those very divine truths revealed by God reduced to clear, definite , and irreformable declarations. Thus, dogmas cannot change because revealed truth is immutable: "The truth of the Lord remains forever" (Ps.117:2 [116:2 Douay-Rheims]), and "Scripture cannot be broken" (Jn. 10:35)." (Adam S. Miller, op. cit., p. 3)

In section 25 of Lumen Gentium we read:

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. And this is the infallibility which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith,(166) by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.(42*) And therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable

By now, the Catholic apologist reading this study likely has begun searching for ways to show that what appear to be major changes in dogmas, in this case the one about membership in the Catholic Church being necessary for salvation, are not really changes at all. In fact, he likely will proclaim, what the uninformed non-Catholic refers to as change is nothing more than a refining of what the Church always has believed. As they read this and other 'explanations,' non-Catholics may well begin to chuckle. We've seen this dance before.

There was a teaching that traveled under the phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus - "outside the church, no salvation." From third-century theology of Saint Cyprian; through Unam Sanctam, the 1302 bull on papal supremacy by Pope Boniface VIII(1294-1303); through the profession of faith sworn by the Fathers of Vatican Council I (1869-1870); "This true Catholic Church, outside of which no one can be saved ..."; through the 1930's and into the 1940's, when Boston Jesuit Father Leonard Feeney moved beyond ecumenics and invoked the phrase in condemnation of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community at Harvard, the Jewish community at Brandeis and sundry folks in between, extra ecclesiam nulla salus was official teaching. It was doctrine. The Catholic Church was the necessary means of salvation, and to gain heaven one had to be connected with it in some way....But then along came Vatican Council II (1962-1965) and the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and suddenly the "divine plan of salvation" included others than just Catholics -- in fact, the unbaptized as well as the baptized. Mighty change that. -- John Deedy, Facts, Myths & Maybes, Thomas More (1993), pp. 11,12

For more than a millennium, the RCC held and enforced the dogma that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Then, in high ecumenical spirit, she does a one-eighty and now declares that not only is membership in the RCC not a requirement for salvation but that one need not even know of the Gospel or of Jesus Christ. That's a BIG change. In fact, it is nothing less than a reversal of something that we are told is immutable. Not to worry, Catholicism has an explanation:

Dogmas, as divine truths revealed by God, are eternal and unchangeable. This is why a dogma can never be "re-defined." Yet, in this work you will notice that most of these dogmas have been solemnly defined and/or pronounced more than once. These are not "re-definitions." Rather, they are further definitions and/or clarifications which buttress aspects of a dogma that have come under some form of denial or attack. The content of these denials/attacks was often not anticipated in the preceeding pronouncements. Hence, each further definition is a MORE PRECISE definition of the dogma. It is never the opposite. It is never an expansion or widening, and thus changing, of what the dogma holds. It is never an evolution as to the content and substance of a dogma. The reason this is so is, again, because dogmas are immutable. Truth cannot change. -- Adam S. Miller, Op. cit., p. 3 (Emphasis not in original)

So, a dogma can be made more precise but it cannot be changed or reversed. Sure seems to me that going from extra ecclesiam nulla salus to making provision for the unbaptized and those who do not believe in Jesus Christ nor have heard the Gospel is very definitely a reversal. And this should make clear the futility of looking to any manmade system of religiosity for authoritative doctrine. Men change. God does not change, and His Sacred Scriptures are ever reliable and authoritative.

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