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What “No Salvation Outside the Church” Means

One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic Church is this one:

“Outside the Church there is no salvation” (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus).

Those trying to grasp the meaning of this teaching often struggle with its formulations by various Church Fathers and Church Councils down through history. Of course, to understand an isolated formulation ofany Church teaching, one must study the historical context within which it was written: why it was written, what was going on in the Church at the time, who the intended audience was, and so on. One must discover how the magisterium (teaching office) of the Church understands its own teaching. If someone fails to do this and chooses, rather, to simply treat a particular formulation as a stand-alone teaching, he runs the risk of seriously misunderstanding it.

In recent times, the Church has recognized that its teaching about the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation has been widely misunderstood, so it has “re-formulated” this teaching in a positive way. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins to address this topic: “How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846).

In keeping with the Church’s current spirit of ecumenism, this positive reformulation comes across less harshly than previous negative formulations. Even so, it remains quite controversial. So, let’s see how this new formulation squares with Scripture.

Jesus, the Way

The first part of the reformulated teaching—”all salvation comes from Christ the Head”—is quite easy for all Christians, even non-Catholics, to understand and embrace. It echoes Jesus’ own words recorded by John: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). So, Christians unanimously agree on this first part. But is this all that needs to be said about how one may be saved? The Catholic Church has historically recognized the importance of explaining further the means through which salvation is offered through Christ.

When speaking of salvation, Jesus offered more details than just his words quoted above. For example, consider these three verses:

  • He who believes and is baptized will be saved. (Mk 16:16)
  • [U]nless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Lk 13:3)
  • [H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (Jn 6:54)

Notice that in these three verses Jesus associated salvation with baptism, confession, and the Eucharist, respectively. Catholics recognize that these sacraments are administered through the Church. In fact, in the case of the latter two, a validly ordained priest is necessary for their administration, so the sacrament of ordination must also be associated with salvation. A primary role of the Catholic Church in conjunction with salvation is becoming quite clear.

This brings us to the second part of the Catechism’s formulation of the doctrine being considered: “. . . through the Church which is his Body.”

With Him or Against Him

Since the sacraments are the ordinary means through which Christ offers the grace necessary for salvation, and the Catholic Church that Christ established is the ordinary minister of those sacraments, it is appropriate to state that salvation comes through the Church.

This is not unlike the situation that existed prior to the establishment of the Catholic Church. Even before it was fully revealed that he was the Messiah, Jesus himself taught that “salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4:22). He pointed the woman of Samaria to the body of believers existing at that time, through which salvation would be offered to all mankind: the Jews.

In a similar fashion, now that the Messiah has established his Church, Jesus might say, “salvation is from the Catholics”!

Recognizing this, we can see why the Church, especially during times of mass exodus (such as has happened in times when heresies have run rampant), has been even more forceful in the way it has taught this doctrine. Instead of simply pointing out how God offers salvation from Christ, through the Church, the Church has warned that there is no salvation apart from Christ, outside his Church.

Since Jesus established the Catholic Church as necessary for salvation, those who knowingly and willingly reject him or his Church cannot be saved. We see this in Jesus’ teaching: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30). Also: “[I]f he [a sinning brother] refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt 18:17). Paul warned similarly: “As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Ti 3:10-11).

Having said all this, we must recognize that this doctrine is not as far reaching as some imagine it to be. People will sometimes ask, “Does this means non-Catholics are going to hell?” Not necessarily.

Invincibly Ignorant

The Church recognizes that God does not condemn those who are innocently ignorant of the truth about his offer of salvation. Regarding the doctrine in question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, 16) states:

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. (CCC 847)

Vatican II document Gaudium Et Spesteaches similarly on the possibility of salvation:

All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. (22)

This teaching is consistent with Jesus’ own teaching about those who innocently reject him: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin” (Jn 15:22).

But once a person comes to know the truth, he must embrace it or he will be culpable of rejecting it. We see this in Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains” (Jn 9:41). Paul taught likewise concerning the Gentiles:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Rom 2:14-16)

Notice Paul’s carefully chosen words: “their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” Paul did not say that those who are innocently ignorant of the truth will be saved; he simply keeps open the possibility of it.

Similarly, he wrote: “[I]s God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith” (Rom 3:29-30).

Necessary for Salvation

As we have seen, God introduced salvation to the world through his chosen people, the Jews. God’s revelation to the Jews found its fulfillment in Christ, the Messiah, who established the Catholic Church. The grace necessary for salvation continues to come from Christ, through his Church. Those who innocently do not know and embrace this might still attain salvation but those who knowingly and willingly choose to reject it, reject salvation on God’s terms.

The Catechism (once again quoting Lumen Gentium) summarizes all this as follows:

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. (CCC 846)
Jim Blackburn



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    This is marketecture. Nothing is changed – only the way it is presented. The long and short of it, is that the RCC still insists that just about anything short of a miracle is required to go to heaven if you aren’t a Catholic in good graces. Basically, they’re asking you not to tell all your Protestant friends that they are all going to Hell, even though they are.

    I love the part about there being a chance for salvation if one has never heard “the word.” I imagine myself as an indigenous person worshipping nature, with little or no opportunity for sin, living in a desolate, struggling land and seeking to do the best I can. I have an opportunity at this point to go to Christian heaven. Then along comes a Catholic missionary who tells me about Jesus. I don’t believe in this Jesus fellow. I’ve never seen anyone walk on water, rise from the dead, turn water into wine or drive evil spirits into pigs; so I’m hesitant to believe in this Jesus fellow. Now, according to the Catholic Church, I am destined for eternal torment in Hell, and everything good I did in my life up to that point doesn’t count for anything. If the missionary hadn’t come, I’d have had a good chance at heaven, and now I have none, and will be sent to Hell. How is the Church the “good news” in this situation?

    What of all the babies born in childbirth, miscarriages or aborted fetuses that never had the opportunity to be baptized, or participate in the other mandatory rituals. They used to go to Limbo, but now I’m told, they have a “hope” for salvation. Perhaps this is because their status is similar to that of the indigenous fellow, who had a hope for salvation, prior to learning anything about Christianity. In that case, these souls should go to heaven, right? In that case, what harm is being done? If these souls wanted another opportunity to come to earth and suffer like the rest of us, and throw the salvation dice like the rest of us, and gamble on going to Hell like the rest of us, is God going to say in a thunderous voice: “NO! I condemn you to eternal bliss!”

    And what of this Hell – which one exactly do we go to? There’s Sheol from the Old Testament – a place of permanent unconsciousness, not punishment, then Gehenna, the Jerusalem town dump that Jesus spoke of allegorically (it’s closed), and Hades, home of the the pagan brother of Zeus and Poseidon, then Tartarus, the bottom layer of Hades… which of these Hells do we go to; and aren’t they all really pagan? The word “Hell” itself is of German origin and refers to the pagan Norse underworld.

    It’s all rather silly, when it comes right down to it, isn’t it? It’s very interesting that on the public front, the Pope is playing the media like a fiddle, touting a softer, gentler Catholic Church, while in forums like this, the RCC is doubling down on old time, Catholic fundamentalism.

    1. EDL Reply

      The point of salvation is being saved from hell. The Jews in the OT who died observing the Jewish Law did not go to heaven outright but were taken to the “bosom of Abraham” while they were waiting for the Messiah. They were then taken to heaven by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Those who did not know God but were observing the Law of God given in their heart will be saved from hell, probably taken to “limbo” and will be preached. But those who reject the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and committed “deadly sins” that are not remitted, will not be “saved”.

      1. Patrick Gannon Reply

        EDL, you need to catch up. The Church did away with Limbo. It was never fully official – just something to make mothers who had miscarriages feel absolutely horrible about never getting to see their babies.

        The Jews in the OT went to Sheol – one of the four words that was translated to “Hell” but as you indicated, it was not a place of punishment. We didn’t have to worry about a punishing, tortuous Hell until after Jesus came.

        It doesn’t seem fair that those who died before Jesus will be “preached” to and will have full evidence of the reality of God and Jesus, while the rest of us have no such evidence. If Jesus stood in the middle of my pond turning water into wine and a small fish fry miraculously into a large one in violation of the laws of physics and nature, and then preached to me that he was God, it would be much easier to believe than the current situation in which there isn’t a shred of objective, empirical evidence.

      2. Patrick Gannon Reply

        EDL – which Hell do all the Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Jews and other religions go to? There are four of them: Sheol, Gehenna, Hades and Tartarus. Which one do they go to?

        You would worship a God who sends people who simply failed to believe what you believe to eternal torment? Or send those who manage to die without being baptized, such as miscarriages and abortions to Hell when they had absolutely no opportunity to believe the right things, perform the right rituals, etc.?

        How do you think Hell works? When I was a Catholic kid it was suggested that I should take a lighter and put my hand in the flame and keep it there till it starts to smoke and spit and scorch. I would be screaming by then, if I had done so. Next I was told to envision that feeling over my entire body, and finally I was told to imagine this for all of eternity. This was to be my fate if I didn’t do what the RCC told me to do.

        Now in what universe is this “good,” fair, just, proportional, merciful, loving, etc? Trillions and trillions of years of screaming torment, even though we only have a few decades here on earth in which to believe the right thing – whatever it is that you believe, right? Do you ever consider how detestable it would be to actually worship a being who would do such horrible things? It makes Hitler look like Mother Teresa. Do you really think this is how a good god would act if in fact there was one? Does it give you pleasure to imagine all the billions of people in eternal torment? Does that make you happy and fill you with glee? Is part of the benefit of heaven that you get to watch the torment of other, simply because they failed to be Catholics? That’s the prime entertainment, perhaps?

  2. Marisol Reply

    Of the verses you gave none say membership in the catholic church saves you. You can overanalyze all you want but it says nowhere in the bible that a man has power over any other man. Only God and Jesus are all powerful, all knowing and all forgivng and it is SOLELY through belief in Jesus that saves you. NOTHING ELSE DOES. The thief on the cross repented of his sins and knew he deserved to be on the cross and then he asked Jesus to save him. He did not go through baptism, communion, confirmation, or any other membership in any church and NONE of those things save you except for repentance and belief in Jesus Christ. I feel so sad for all the people in the Catholic Church who allow satan to deceive them. God bless you and God show you the truth

    1. EDL Reply

      The Thief on the cross was in the presence of Jesus Christ and the Thief’s confession was received personally by Jesus, and his sins were washed in Jesus’ blood by the crucifixion which are now the Catholic Church’s Sacrament of Confession and the Sacrament of the Holy Mass. Jesus Christ’s Sacrifice and Salvation are not outright given to humanity but rather He gave those to Himself – to His Church – the Body of Christ. Your “belief” system nor the bible alone can not save you. Salvation from hell and going to heaven is through the Catholic Church that Jesus Christ built through the foundation of His apostles.

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