August 12, 2020

For Discussion: Has the Roman Catholic Church Changed Its View on the Salvation of Atheists and Other Religions?

“It [the Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.” Pope Eugene IV, Cantate Domino

Catechism of the Catholic Church 847 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.”

My wife and I have an agreement to not discuss Catholic/Evangelical differences, but if we were talking about those differences, I’d want to immediately talk about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches must be believed regarding the salvation of other religions and non-believers.

Religious has a page summarizing this issue, which I’m sure many RC friends will find less than acceptable, but it does get to the heart of the issue and it quotes several papal documents and church councils. Please read that page before continuing.

James White (I know, I know) played a clip from Catholic Answers today (episode 20080708, last 8-10 minutes) and Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin answers a phone question on purgatory with a clear affirmation that those who are atheists “through no fault of their own” do not have a “broken friendship” with God.

A Catholic Answers page on the subject ends with this statement:

As was stated recently in Dominus Iesus, those outside the Church have a salvific link to the Church, through which all salvation comes. What that link is exactly hasn’t been revealed to us. But we do know that it exists: Scripture and Tradition attest to its existence.

A dialog at the same site says much the same thing: salvation through the church is available outside the church through means we don’t understand.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has several things to say on this, reprinted here at Beliefnet.

Several statements by Pope John Paul II seem to starkly proclaim a Roman Catholic view that non-Christians can be saved by following their own religions:

Normally, “it will be in the sincere practice of what is good in their own religious traditions and by following the dictates of their own conscience that the members of other religions respond positively to God’s invitation and receive salvation in Jesus Christ, even while they do not recognize or acknowledge him as their Saviour (cf. Ad gentes, nn. 3, 9, 11)” (Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue – Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Instruction Dialogue and Proclamation, 19 May 1991, n. 29; L’Osservatore Romano English edition, 1 July 1991, p. III).

And here.

“…We are to accept the kingdom of God in our hearts, and to bear witness to it by word and deed. The kingdom indicates the loving presence and activity of God in the world and should be a source of serenity and confidence to our lives. The Gospel teaches us that those who live in accordance with the beatitudes: the poor in spirit; the pure in heart; those who will lovingly [endure] the sufferings of life; will enter God’s kingdom. All who seek God with a sincere heart, including those who do not know Christ and His Church, contribute under the influence of grace, to the building of this kingdom. In the Lord’s prayer we say ‘Thy kingdom come’. May this be the hope that sustains us and inspires our Christian life and world.” (“Thy Kingdom is Grace,” Papal statement Wednesday, December 6th 2000.)

And the current Pope echoes these same sentiments.

We want to commend to St. Augustine a further meditation on our psalm. In it, the Father of the Church introduces a surprising element of great timeliness: He knows that also among the inhabitants of Babylon there are people who are committed to peace and the good of the community, despite the fact that they do not share the biblical faith, that they do not know the hope of the Eternal City to which we aspire. They have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greatest, for the transcendent, for a genuine redemption.

And he says that among the persecutors, among the nonbelievers, there are people with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope, in the measure that is possible for them in the circumstances in which they live. With this faith in an unknown reality, they are really on the way to the authentic Jerusalem, to Christ. (Commentary on Psalm 136, 2005, as reported by Zenit.)

I am as interested in a “wider hope” as anyone, and I have a real interest in the relation of Christianity and non-Christian religions. I’m not a typical fundamentalist on this issue, and I deal with atheists, Muslims and Buddhists constantly in my ministry.

Nonetheless, it appears to me that there is an issue here. So I have some questions that I’ll invite anyone to comment on (respectfully and without personal attack.)

1. Given the earlier statements of the church cited in the Religious Tolerance article and elsewhere, has the RCC changed its position or its articulation on the relationship of non-Christians to the church and the possibility of salvation? Is this confusing to anyone else?

2. Would the previous popes or the Council of Florence find the statements of Vatican II and John Paul II to express their own views? Or is this an example of “developing doctrine?”

3. Does the RCC teach that non-Christians can be saved by good intentions and good works without explicit faith in Christ?

4. What is the RCC’s view of Romans 1 and Romans 5, specifically the universal pronouncement of judgement and condemnation? I’m especially interested in Romans 5, which makes it clear that the federal headship of Adam brings about universal condemnation. How is this removed in Roman Catholic theology if someone is unbaptized and ignorant of the Gospel?

5. Does the teaching of the Vatican II on this subject mean that those who are ignorant of the Gospel are closer to salvation than Protestants who reject the Roman Catholic Church as the means of salvation?


  1. Paul in the GNW says

    I need to stop trying new editors!

  2. Paul in the GNW says

    Joe M,

    I feel your pain. I’ve been lurking around the internet since 1989 or so, on listserv, and ETC.. I remember when I first started, and I was critical of the Hunthausan debacle – critical of John Paul II. The whole infallibility issue and what was infallible and what wasn’t, and what was discipline and what was doctrine and on and on. Certain people always seemed to be shifting the ground under our feet.

    It seemed like the Church held all the cards, and got to make up all the rules – which it does, but God is the House, the dealer, the banker and the Judge to boot.

    Overtime, and some ‘casual’ study, it got better. I found a set of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia in the library of my secular college. I moved to a town that had a (heterodox tending) Catholic bookstore and bought copies of Humanae Vitae, the Vatican II documents and some basic books. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was finally released in English. The internet brought easier access to Church documents, writings of the early fathers and loads of stuff. EWTN and Catholic Answers and books by convert apologists gave me a leg up along the way.

    I think you are quite right about the “average sheep” in the flock and what they have been, and are being taught. Pre-Vatican II, many if not most Catholics probably believed that absolutely, no one who wasn’t Catholic was going to Heaven – due to the emphasis of the time and inadequate catechism in this area. Post Vatican II many if not most Catholics probably believe that it doesn’t matter what religion you are, as long as you are a good person due to the emphasis and just plain p*** poor catechism. (in both eras, too many Priests and even Bishops have held and taught both errors).

    Pope Benedict talks regularly about the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” on the part of both the “progressives” and the radical conservatives who want to revoke VII. I hope and pray that Pope Benedict lives long and is able to fully establish a reform within the “hermeneutic of continuity”.

    God Bless


  3. Note here that the decisive significance of God’s universal salvific will for JPII: because salvation is offered to all, it *must* be made concretely available to all. Hence the necessity to consider the possibility that God works to achieve his salvation apart from the ordinary means of word and sacrament.

    Someone mentioned 1 Timothy 2:4 earlier and I think we should be careful here. The verse in 1 Timothy states that yes, God desires all men to be saved(The KJV translation of that verse uses “will” but it is better understood as “desire”.), but it in no way obligates Him to action. When we start saying that God “must” do anything, we are treading on dangerous ground. God doesn’t owe any of us anything. He doesn’t owe us a shot at salvation. He doesn’t owe us eternal life. If you know of a place in Scripture that says otherwise please point it out to me. Praise be to God that He graciously offers eternal life and salvation to any who will believe, but I don’t find any promise in Scripture that everyone will hear or that everyone will respond when they do.

  4. Fr Alvin Kimel says

    God doesn’t owe us salvation or anything else. But he does owe it to himself to be faithful to his character as self-revealed in Jesus Christ. Love brings its own wondrous and incomprehensible necessities.

    But I agree with you, Jeff, that we are not told that everyone will hear and respond in faith and love to God’s offer of salvation. Yet with Hans Urs von Balthasar, I think we may hope.

  5. Paul, I think that your division of the Catholic Church into “rites” is anachronistic, judging by the Carolingian program of Latinization and certain canons in Gratian’s Decretum regarding the normative nature of the liturgy at Rome for the entire Church. But I could be wrong. But that, of course, is immaterial. What you are certainly wrong about is that when Protestants say “Roman Catholic Church,” they are referring to the entire papal communion, not merely the collection of congregations that currently follow Novus Ordo or the Tridentine Mass.

    Furthermore, liturgical use of a term does not freeze its meaning in time. One of the most obvious examples is the response, “And with your spirit.” In Imperial-era liturgies (4th C, 5th C, etc), this congregational response was an affirmation of the priest’s status as standing in the person of Christ as bearer of the Gospel; however, this meaning was lost in the ensuing centuries until it came to mean little more than a spiritual version of “Right back at ya,” which is why Vatican II changed it to “And also with you.” Of course, if one goes even earlier than the 4th C, Paul closes a couple of his epistles that way, so it’s not certain which is the “real” meaning. I’d also refer you to the varying liturgical use of “sacrifice” from the 4th century to the development of propitiatory oblation theory, but some people are very sloppy with that.

    Regarding Trent’s “let him be anathema,” the origin is the Vulgate translation of Galatians 1:8-9. Of course, asking what the conciliarists meant by that phrase by studying Jerome or Paul is, well, like asking what they meant by “iustificare.” Words may change meaning over time. I’m not actually saying they don’t mean the same thing as your favorite 8th century prayer, I’m simply pointing out that it’s fallacious logic to try and determine what some person or group of people meant by a certain word by doing your etymology 600 years earlier. Of course, I find your whole distinction to be misdirected. No one that I know thinks that Trent’s “anathema” means, “You shall be damned for eternity, no exceptions.” It appears very transparently to mean, and your 1908 encyclopedia appears to affirm this, “You shall be damned for eternity unless you change your belief.”

  6. Fr Alvin Kimel says

    In Imperial-era liturgies (4th C, 5th C, etc), this congregational response was an affirmation of the priest’s status as standing in the person of Christ as bearer of the Gospel; however, this meaning was lost in the ensuing centuries until it came to mean little more than a spiritual version of “Right back at ya,” which is why Vatican II changed it to “And also with you.”

    Vatican II, of course, made no such change. The normative Latin rendering of the phrase remains as always: et cum spritu tuo. Most jurisdictions have translated the Latin fairly literally, so I understand; but in English-speaking countries, via the work of ICEL, the phrase was translated by the silly “And also with you.” In the forthcoming new translation of the Roman rite, the ICEL phrase will be replaced by the more literal translation “And with your spirit.”

  7. “But if their light is the REJECTION of the truth of the Gospel, I see absolutely nothing in scripture that says one can pursue the true God by following an idolatrous faith in an idolatrous “god.””

    I agree Michael. But more to the point of the post, I think most of catholic church history (Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) alike would be on your side (to say nothing of Scripture). While there was some uncertainty about particular “special circumstances,” worshiping another God—and doing it well(!)—was not one of these.

    While I respect the Catholic Church, they have painted themselves into quite a corner here and it is (forgive me) entertaining to see them change (without really changing). Ahh shucks, to be fair, we Protestants are the best at worming our way out of things…just look at how we handle some of the Bible discrepancies! It is an awesome site to behold!

  8. BTW, you need to get the wordpress plugin that allows you to subscribe to comments.

  9. Dear Imonk,
    I always thought that this verse in Romans was justification for believing that non-Christians could access salvation. That by their actions, gentiles are demonstrating a kind of faith ascribed to Abraham in the book of James. That is, a faith demonstrated by one’s actions. It seems hopeful to me that our God, who is love, will judge the “secret thoughts” of all.

    [Rom 2:11] For God shows no partiality…
    [Rom 2:13] For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.

  10. There hasn’t been much response to the point I raised in this thread on July 11. Unless you believe that there is at least some mysterious mechanism for people to have a chance at heaven without church or Gospel teaching… then you must believe that God creates people and sends them to hell with no chance at salvation. Pre-Columbian native Americans who worshiped pagan idols, for instance.

    If that’s what you believe, fine. I would like to see more people admit it. Face up to the implications of what you are saying.

    If, on the other hand, you think a few of the Indians might have made it to heaven but you don’t fully understand how God did it… then you agree with the Catholic position on this point.

  11. caucazhin says

    ROMANS 2:14 (for when Gentiles that have not the law do by nature the things of the law, these, not having the law, are the law unto themselves;
    15 in that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness therewith, and their thoughts one with another accusing or else excusing them);
    16 in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men, according to my gospel, by Jesus Christ.

    ACTS 17:24-28 The God that made the world and all things therein, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
    25 neither is he served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
    26 and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation;
    27 that they should seek God, if happily they might reach out to him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us:
    28 for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain even of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. God gives all people life, breath, and all things. From one man He made every nation that dwells on the whole earth. He determined the times and places people would live. God did this so that men would seek Him, reach out to Him, and find Him; though He is not far from each of us.

    “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them. And what ye would not that men should do unto you, do ye not so unto them; for this is the Law and the prophets.”

    “When one cultivates to the utmost the principles of his nature, and exercises them on the principle of reciprocity, he is not far from the path.(( What you do not like when done to yourself, do not do to others ))”

    “He who lives in Tao (GOD), and Tao (GOD) in him, is a good man: He keeps in good terms with men, takes things easy, loves the world as he does his own person; he is simple like an infant, cautious, modest, yielding. He is humble, and thus he remains entire. He is subtle, penetrating and profound; avoids excess, extravagance, and indulgence. He makes the self of the people his self”… he acts to the good or to the bad with goodness, and to the faithful or the faithless with faith. He returns love for great hatred”…

  12. PatrickW:

    I can’t say I am convinced that the Catholic position is *some* non-believers are saved. In his latest encyclical, for instance, the Pope writes that we can hope that most everyone is finally saved, except for the extremely bad people. And all the references in the CCC that hint at universal salvation corroborate the idea. It really seems that post Vatican II theology has made the universal salvific will of God the determinitive doctrine. I think von Balthasar caught it from Barth and passed it on to all the latest Popes.

  13. I hope all the people with cancer are cured tomorrow. I hope there are no more brush fires in California. I hope that Jews and Muslims will learn to live in harmony. I hope for world peace. I hope everyone I know wins the lottery.

    I hope for all these things. Do I expect them? No. Similarly, I hope that all people will be saved. It does not follow that I think all people will be saved, or even most people. I hope because in many cases it is all I can do. I am well aware that my hopes will often not be fulfilled.

    Hope, you may recall, is mentioned in Scripture along with Faith and Love as a good thing. This is why you see Popes expressing it. I don’t get how this is a problem.

  14. “Hope, you may recall, is mentioned in Scripture along with Faith and Love as a good thing. This is why you see Popes expressing it. I don’t get how this is a problem.”

    Try reading his encyclical in context and you will have a different interpretation. JPII and Benedict are essentially universalists.

  15. Paul in the GNW says


    I’ve read the encyclical. Exactly what passage do you read to equate to universal salvation?


  16. Paul in the GNW says


    I assume you mean Spe Salve, or Saved by Hope by Pope Benedict? Just checking.


  17. Paul in the GNW says


    Just a word of thanks for mentioning the Carolingian program of Latinization. I happened across a synopsis of this history, and would of passed it over. Because of your reference to it, I actually took time to read a few paragraphs. Quite interesting really. Doesn’t really connect to your point, but I’m done arguing 🙂

    For any who aren’t familiar, look it up.

    Pax et Bonum


  18. Paul in the GNW says

    Michael, delete that one too – I forgot to actually change the text.

    I have quit the field in this discussion, but I think some who have participated might find interesting reading in St. Ambrose’s “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” Book II, Chapters XXV through XXIX, particularly the last five paragraphs of chapter XXIX (which requires reading back a few chapters to understand).

    God Bless


  19. PatrickW says

    If universalism is now official Catholic doctrine, we’re doing a darn good job hiding it, no?

    Millions of people around the world, clergy and lay, devote their lives to helping others learn the faith and do what is necessary to gain salvation. Obviously they are wasting their time if everyone is saved anyway. You’d think JP2 and BXVI would have the courtesy to let them know.

    Joe, salvation is no small matter. If the Church changes its view on who is saved and how, I think it will be obvious. You won’t have to glean this fact by reading a few sentences in one or two encyclicals while ignoring entire libraries of authoritative teaching that says otherwise.

  20. Reston Bob says

    From John Spong’s book “The Sins of Scripture”. This is the last two paragraphs from Chapter 27 titled Since I have the truth, “No one comes to the Father but by me”.

    There is a difference between my experience of God and who God is. There is a difference between affirming that I walk into the mystery of God through the doorway called Jesus and that in my experience this is the only doorway that works in my journey, and asserting that there is no doorway through which anyone can walk except mine. Imagine the idolatry present in the suggestion that God must be bound by my knowledge and experience! Yet that claim has been made and is still being made by imperialistic Christians today. The text written by persecuted minority members of the early Christian community to justify their claim to be part of the larger people of God becomes a text that is interpreted in such a way as to become a claim that issues in religious imperialism. Is it not interesting how little attention is paid to another text that proclaims an open and inclusive faith? It is found in the words attributed to Peter in Acts 10:34ff.: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

    We live in a religiously pluralistic world, but there is only one God. This God is not a Christian, nor is this God an adherent of any religious system. All religious systems are human creations by which people in different times and different places seek to journey into that which is ultimately holy and wholly other. Until that simple lesson is heard, human beings will continue to destroy each other in the name of the “one true God.”