It is not a popular thing to say that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. When Catholics who believe uncompromisingly in this doctrine actually profess it, the adverse reactions can be very bitter, which is one of the many reasons to be grateful to Bishop Athanasius Schneider for his recent declarations occasioned by an ecumenical event in the indifferentist accents:[T]there is also a danger that we, the Catholic Church, do not simply appear as one of many religions. …We are not one of many religions, we are the only true religion that God has commanded all to believe in. … There is no other way to salvation [emphasis mine].”
A lot of people don’t like Catholics talking that way. But if the reaction is often strong, it is also generally serious. For the sake of contrast, let’s engage in a thought experiment for a brief moment. Suppose the Missouri Synod Lutherans claim that there is no salvation outside of their particular denomination. Or the Southern Baptists. Or the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC). The dominant reaction, I believe, would be either laughter or pity at the sheer madness of the assertion. To my knowledge, none of these organizations really believe this because they all realize that they were founded by men. They are basically organizations of people who have come together with certain common beliefs. To a greater or lesser degree, each denomination claims to help the individual believer in some way or another in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity, but none claims exclusively to be this” Body of Christ” of which Saint Paul speaks in Sacred Scripture (cf. Eph. 4:12, 1 Cor. 12:27).
The purpose of our little thought experiment is not to be provocatively offensive to members of these denominations – which in itself would be unnecessary – but to clarify the issue using contrast. The Catholic Church has always regarded itself as this one exclusive body, and it did so before any of the above-named existed. Take, for example, these papal words:
“We are compelled, our faith urging us to do so, to believe and hold – and we firmly believe and merely confess – that there is a the holy catholic and apostolic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins; her Spouse proclaiming it in hymns, ‘My dove, my immaculate is only one, she is the chosen one of her who gave birth to her’; which represents a mystical body, whose head is Christ, but of Christ, God. (Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam)
“A is indeed the universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one is saved at all…”. (Lateran Council IV)
Ecclesiastical bodies which are not the Catholic Church are loath to make such professions because they see themselves as non-exclusive parts of a larger reality which is essentially invisible and is composed of other parts which they can or not recognize as members of the Bible. “Body of Christ”. For them, ecclesiology is a very inexact science.
When Catholics affirm the unique prerogatives of our Church, it is not because we are conceited, proud, arrogant or obnoxious towards non-Catholics. It is simply because, by the theological virtue of faith, we know that our Church is that unique, supernatural organism, founded by and united exclusively to Jesus Christ as his Spouse and his Mystical Body. This entity is so prominent in the Divine Spirit that it has its own article – the ninth – in the Apostles’ Creed, the corresponding article of the longer Nicene Creed specifying that this holy Catholic Church is also a and apostolic.
Consider this, dear reader: in our Creed, faith in the Church is placed alongside faith in the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation of the eternal Logos and eternal life! This fact speaks volumes.
Many who might otherwise object to this juxtaposition of the Catholic Church alongside the Trinity and the Incarnation in the Creed must contend with the fact that they too profess this same Creed. Such an objection would make their ecclesiological inaccuracy a form of religious inconsistency. Those self-proclaimed Christians who oppose the Nicene Creed and refuse to profess it, simply exclude themselves from the continuity of historical Christianity. They can just as easily admit that they are Arians or Gnostics.
There is nothing at all arbitrary in the Catholic Church’s exclusive claim to salvation. Comparing the love of a husband for his wife, Saint Paul says to men “love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself up for her…” (Eph. 5:25). What more can we say of the Church than what Saint Paul says, that “Christ gave himself up for her”? Divine lover that he is, Jesus died for his beloved. And if He is a Lover, Christ is a chaste Lover; therefore, His beloved is one, as the Song of Songs says. No mere human institution can claim these divine affections. The truth of this last statement comes out with more relief when we consider that all mere human institutions which claim to be Christian churches have been distinguished from the divine institution which is the one Church of Christ. He cannot love what opposes his Bride.
Loving the individuals within these bodies is another matter. He can and loves such people in His one true Church all the time.
At the upcoming Saint Benedict Center conference (October 7-8), whose theme is “The Catholic Church Has the Answer,” my talk will be titled “The Catholic Church Has (and Is) the Answer to Salvation.” Thank you for considering joining us. There is room left.