Who can be saved in the Church founded by Christ has long been a big debate among Catholics, Protestant Christians, and non-Christians. Because of cultural diversity and ethnocentrism, Christians, non-Christians, and even atheists believe that they can be saved by their own religion, church, or spirituality. No one accepts that his/her religion is fake and would not save them in this world or in the next life.
But the problem is: There are numerous religions and forms of humanist and religious beliefs that offer salvation to people in the world or afterlife. The Catholic Church was once the only the dominant religion in the Western world after Emperor Constantine made baptism in the Catholic Church compulsory in the Christian Roman empire during the third century A.D. Thereafter, the Church adopted and preached the doctrine that “there is no salvation” outside the Catholic Church. Catholics then believe that Christ founded the Catholic Church as the true Church of Christ. No one can be saved without receiving the sacrament of baptism as the means of membership in the Church. This is the reason why the early Christian missionaries were in a hurry to baptize non-Christians and natives outside Europe in order to save as many people as possible since pagans and unbaptized are judged to go to hell and receive eternal damnation.
With the growing modernization of the world and the birth of various Christian and non-Christian religions competing with the Catholic Church, the doctrine of “No salvation outside the Catholic Church” would surely bring millions of people to perdition even if they are fundamentally people of good will and conscience. The realization that the salvation of Christ is for everyone and that there is only one Church founded by Christ has inspired Catholic theologians and the hierarchy to revisit the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Catholic Church.” Thus, when the Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), a universal council and an assembly of bishops and top theologians headed by the Pope in 1962, a new ecclesiology or model of the Church of Christ emerged.
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This time the doctrine of salvation recognized that the Church founded by Christ is only one, not many, and that this Church includes believers from different religions, churches, and denominations. It also recognizes the possibility of salvation even to non-believers with good will and membership in Christ’s Church through baptism of desire. But Vatican II still held to the belief that the institutional fullness for salvation of the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. With this, the membership in the Church of Christ has a hierarchy with the Catholic Church possessing all the institutional means for people’s salvation, but other religions also share these means for the salvation of their members. People who are faithful to the demands and beliefs of their religion are members of the one Church of Christ and can be saved. Even atheists with good will and who aims to serve humanity can be saved in the Church of Christ. It seems that everyone can be members informally in the Church and can be saved in Christ if they follow the requirements of their religion or possess good will.
But there is one caveat in the Catholic Church’s renewed teaching on salvation. Even though Catholics are even the fullness of the means of salvation, it doesn’t mean that they are automatically saved if they do not follow what is expected by them by the Church. Moreover, Vatican II also teaches that those who fully recognized or believed in their conscience that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church but “refuses to enter or remain in the Catholic”, would not be saved.
*This article is based of my recollection of my ecclesiology course while studying at Loyola School of Theology, Ateneo de Manila University, under the late Fr. Eduardo Hontiveros, S.J.
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