My previous two posts were historical-theological prolegomena to my main question, which is how non-Christians today can be saved even though they don’t believe in Jesus Christ. (This will lead to my fourth and final post on the question of whether everyone will be saved.) The fundamental answer, as I will explain, is they can be saved the same way Christians are: by freely co-operating with God’s unmerited grace, apart from which no one is saved.

The salvation of non-Christians from Pius IX to Pius XII

This doctrine of the universal accessibility of salvation was first defined by the papal magisterium in Pius IX’s 1863 encyclical, Quanto Conficiamur Moerore:

Anyone laboring in invincible ignorance about our most holy religion who, carefully keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved by God onto the hearts of all and ready to obey God, leads an honest and upright life can obtain eternal life by the effective power of divine light and grace. For God, who looks at, examines, and understands clearly the minds, hearts, thoughts, and conditions of all, in his supreme goodness and mercy in no way permits anyone at all who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to be punished with eternal torments.[1]

The theological groundwork for this declaration had been laid by the Jesuit theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as St. Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez, and Juan de Lugo, who distinguished between an “explicit” and “implicit” desire for baptism.[2] The reasoning may be illustrated by a 1949 letter from the Vatican’s Congregation of the Holy Office, written in response to a Bostonian priest named Fr. Leonard Feeney, who in defiance of church authority was preaching that non-Catholics can’t be saved. The letter qualifies the “necessity” of the Church for salvation with the by-then standard, neo-scholastic explanation that it is not “intrinsic.” One can be united to the Church without baptism through desire (votum),[3] as the Council of Trent defined.[4] The key sentence of the letter states:

For someone to obtain eternal salvation it is not always necessary that they actually be incorporated as a member of the Church, but it is at least required that they be near it through longing and desire. Yet this longing need not always be explicit, like as happens with catechumens, but when a person labors in invincible ignorance, then God accepts their implicit longing (votum), thus named because it is contained in the soul’s good disposition by which the person wants to conform their will to the will of God.

The righteous non-Christian is “near” (adhaeret) the Church, though not formally a member. The concept of an “implicit votum” comes right out of St. Thomas Aquinas’s notion of “implicit faith” (see part 2). For Thomas, it meant that Gentiles before the time of Christ could still believe in divine providence. But God’s providence includes Christ as the unique Savior, so, even though they didn’t know that, their faith in providence “implicitly” included it.

The letter explains that “implicit votum” here refers to the “good disposition” of the person’s soul. Explicitly, they desire to conform themselves to God’s will as they understand it. But because God’s will, objectively, is for all to believe in Christ for salvation, their “good disposition” implies faith in Christ even without their knowing it. Pius XII, in his encyclical on the Church Mystici corporis, calls this implicit longing “unconscious.”[5] If asked, such people would certainly say that they do not desire to be baptized or join the Catholic Church, but that is only because, from the Catholic point of view, they do not understand that God has established the Catholic Church as the necessary means of salvation.

Vatican II

By the time of the Second Vatican Council, it was recognized that this papal teaching required one important revision: it failed to distinguish between baptized non-Catholic Christians and those who are not Christians at all. Faithful Christians, even if separated from the Catholic Church by historical divisions, do not require an extraordinary path to salvation apart from faith in Jesus, for they already have the ordinary, normative path: explicit faith in Christ and actual baptism in his name. In explaining the real relationship such Christians have with Catholics in the Holy Spirit, the Council sees no obstacle to salvation at all: “They are marked by baptism, by which they are joined to Christ. … Indeed there is a true bond in the Holy Spirit, since it is he who is also at work in these persons with his sanctifying power through gifts and graces” (Lumen Gentium 15; cf. Unitatis Redintegratio 3). Non-Catholic Christians can be saved since they are being made holy by the Holy Spirit. Their separation from the Catholic Church is inculpable because it stems from centuries-old divisions for which they are not personally to blame.

The Council does not stop there. It also includes in God’s “plan of salvation” first Jews and then Muslims, since they with us Christians “hold the faith of Abraham and along with us they worship the one merciful God” (LG 16). Their explicit faith in God and inclusion in his “plan of salvation” puts them in an even better position than other non-Christians. As for how non-Christians generally can be saved, Vatican II mostly repeats the teaching of Pius IX in less-technical language:

There are those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his Church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart and, under the influence of grace, try to put into effect the will of God as known to them through the dictate of conscience: these too can obtain eternal salvation. Nor does divine Providence deny the helps that are necessary for salvation to those who, through no fault of their own, have not yet attained the express recognition of God yet who strive, not without divine grace, to lead an upright life. (LG 16)[6]

But the second sentence goes beyond Pius IX by explicitly making room for people to be saved who lack even an “express recognition of God,” that is, atheists.

Who are inculpably ignorant of Christ?

The name of Jesus is “the only name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). This is why the Catholic Church stipulates that non-Christians can be saved only when they are inculpably ignorant of the revelation of Christ. God, being good, does not damn people for mere ignorance. Pius IX stated this principle using the scholastic term “invincible ignorance.”[7] This is the principle, known by both Scripture and reason, that people incur guilt only when they genuinely understand that what they are doing is wrong. “So for one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, it is a sin” (James 4:17). For example, if I knowingly give someone a poisoned drink, I’m guilty of murder. But if I do so unknowingly, I am blameless; I was “invincibly ignorant” of the poison’s presence in the drink. Not all ignorance is “invincible” (inculpable), however. Sometimes a person should know better, and thus are culpably ignorant. For example, if someone warned me that they had reason to suspect one of several drinks before me had been poisoned, but I ignored this warning and heedlessly gave out the drinks anyway, I would be guilty of serious fault (even if not murder per se). St. Thomas thus distinguishes between willful sin, sinful “negligence,” and “invincible ignorance.”

Those who lived before Christ was preached in their land were inculpably ignorant of Christ; obviously there can be no question of negligence on their part. St. Paul says the same: “God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent” (Acts 17:30). But in the context of the modern world, where practically everyone has heard of Jesus and Christianity, Vatican II must have something much more robust in mind. Does invincible ignorance of Christ persist even today?

The Catholic Church says it does. Rather than spelling out various cases, examples, and situations in an attempt to determine who is and who is not to blame for their ignorance or negligence of Christ, the Council lays down a simple, broad principle: “Those cannot be saved who refuse to enter the Church or to remain in it, if they are aware that the Catholic Church was founded by God through Jesus Christ as necessary for salvation” (LG 14).[8] The knowledge in question is that God gave Christ and his Church as the means of salvation. If a person knows that Christ and his Church are the exclusive way to salvation, then they must obey that. To refuse to accept Christ and his Church at that point would be to say no to God. But the mere fact of having heard that there was once a man named Jesus, whom Christians call Christ and Savior, is not enough. It is not enough just to know Christianity exists. One needs to know and understand that Christianity is true. If at that point a person refuses God’s free offer of salvation and does not convert, then they condemn themselves.

Granted that nearly all people today have at least heard of Christianity, how many should we suppose know that Christianity is true yet refuse to join the Church and follow Christ’s teachings? I think that most people, using common sense and experience, would say that it is a very small number.[9] After all, when a person comes to believe that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, they join the Church! Certainly, if one reads modern Catholic theologians or the speeches and writings of the popes (going back at least to Pius IX),[10] one finds a deliberate unwillingness to assume that any given person falls under this condemnation. Only God knows. The warning in both the letter of the Holy Office and Lumen Gentium is directed at Catholics. We are the ones who have come to believe that the Catholic Church is the one ark of salvation; therefore, we are warned to stay close to the Church. In this regard, the Holy Office remarks that it is incomprehensible that Fr. Feeney could call himself “defender of the faith” while contradicting the Magisterium, and they warn him that it is his own salvation he should be concerned about.[11]

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors enslaved indigenous people on the specious pretext that they had rejected the Gospel and baptism. In response to this, two Dominican theologians, Bartolomé de las Casas and Francisco de Vitoria, argued from the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas that they were invincibly ignorant. Firstly, they said, the Christian faith had not been presented to them in a convincing way, and it is imprudent for someone to embrace a new religion without compelling reasons.

The barbarians are not bound to believe from the first announcement of the Christian faith, in the sense of sinning mortally by not believing due to this alone: because it is merely announced and proposed to them that the true religion is Christian, and that Christ is the savior and redeemer of the world, without miracles or any other proofs or arguments.[12]

Secondly, the indigenous people’s mistreatment by the Spanish made it morally impossible for them to accept their religion. Las Casas expresses himself forcefully: “A great many unbelievers are excused from accepting the faith for a long time and perhaps for their whole lifetime, no matter how long it lasts, so long as they see the extremely corrupt and detestable conduct of the Christians.”[13]

Vatican II likewise says that the sins of Christians obscure the truth of Christ:

No small part in the rise of atheism is attributable to believers who may be described more as concealing the true features of God and religion than as revealing them, through the neglect of education in the faith or false explanations of its doctrines or even through the faults in their religious, moral and social lives. (GS 19)

I believe that very many non-Christians today are in a state of invincible ignorance regarding Christ partially because of the failures, crimes, and hypocrisy of Christians. Pope Francis must believe the same, because he wrote in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti: “Paradoxically, those who claim to be unbelievers can sometimes put God’s will into practice better than believers” (74).

To further illustrate how someone can know about Christianity yet be not at fault, in God’s eyes, for “rejecting” it, I find helpful the idea of the “living option” of the 19th-century philosopher of religion William James.[14] He distinguishes between merely hypothetical choices and the actual “living” choices that lie before us. For example, in theory, you could convert to Mahayana Buddhism tomorrow. Certainly, you have heard of the Buddha and have some sense of his teachings, the Four Noble Truths. Or at least you know that there is a religion called Buddhism. But have you ever seriously considered becoming a Buddhist? I’ve personally studied the Buddha and Buddhism and found it to be reasonable, yet I have never, for even the slightest moment, seriously considered becoming a Buddhist. The choice has never entered into my consciousness, in part because I already have a religion and I don’t know any Buddhists. My conscience has never been confronted with the existential, “living” choice to become or not to become a Buddhist.

Experience and reason (upon which all theology depends) prove that the same process works for non-Christians. They have heard of Jesus and Christianity. They know Christians believe he was the Son of God, somehow born of a virgin, who died and miraculously rose again. They know we belong to a society called the Church and profess to follow Jesus’ teachings about loving your neighbor as yourself. Yet, for basically the same reasons I don’t become a Buddhist, for most of these people, Christianity is not a “living” option. They have not been confronted, in conscience, with the absolute decision whether to accept or to reject Christ. Certainly at least a few of them will be eventually; after all, people become Christians all the time, just as they also become Buddhists. But most reach the grave without that moment ever having come. Fortunately for them, according to Catholic doctrine, God “in his supreme goodness and mercy” does not hold their ignorance against them (unless they were somehow culpably negligent). In a way known to God,[15] his grace is available to their innermost selves as well, and they too can be saved by the Savior they don’t know, but who loves them no less for it. We see visible evidence that some of them at least have accepted God’s grace when we see them performing the same works of love that we Christians perform. Let me explain.

Salvation by grace alone

What does it mean to speak of non-Christians being saved who “live an upright life”? Does it mean that to be saved one need only be a “good person”? No doubt many Catholics take it that way, but our Protestant brothers and sisters would rightly quote here the divine wisdom of St. Paul: “As it is written: ‘There is no one just, not one’ (Ps 53:4c). … All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10,23). “For if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it” (Jas 2:10). It is among the most fundamental truths of revelation, at the very heart of the Gospel of God’s mercy and love, that salvation comes by God’s grace alone (cf. Gal 2:16). Following God’s law is insufficient for salvation, since we are all sinners who break God’s law. Christians can’t save themselves, nor can Buddhists or atheists.

How, then, should we understand “upright life”? The letter from the Holy Office is helpful, as it stresses an essential point, namely, that faith and love are necessary for salvation:

However, it should not be thought that just any kind of votum to enter the Church suffices for a person to be saved. For it is necessary that the votum, by which someone is ordered to the Church, be shaped by perfect love; nor can the implicit votum be effective unless the person has supernatural faith.

The traditional proof-text, Hebrews 11:6, is then quoted: “But without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Vatican II also quotes this verse to prove that faith in God is necessary for salvation, but it adds that “By ways known to himself, God can lead to faith people who through no fault of their own are ignorant of the Gospel” (Ad Gentes 7, my translation).

The concept of “faith” here must be very capacious, since it can include even atheists (LG 16). The Council makes no attempt to explain how this may be, beyond the reference to the “dictate of conscience.” They left a difficult problem for Catholic theologians to solve. Some have suggested that fidelity to conscience and belief in transcendent values like justice can, in the conscience of the atheist, be a form of theological faith that responds to God’s offer of himself.[16]

At any rate, when the magisterium of the Church speaks of an “upright life,” it does not mean merely being a good citizen and a nice guy. It means living the supernatural life that is marked by the love of God and neighbor, which Christ taught: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:12-3). “For whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).

Our eternal salvation is contingent upon our love, as Christ teaches. Even the baptized and believing Catholic Christian will not be saved, “who does not persevere in charity” (LG 14). If we fail to perform the “corporal works of mercy” – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned – we “will go off to eternal punishment” (Mt 25:31-46; cf. Rev 20:11-15). This is not at all contradictory to what I just said about salvation coming by God’s grace alone. For the virtues of faith and love are supernatural gifts of God; that is, they are that grace by which we are saved.[17] God does not save us apart from ourselves: we must freely choose to cooperate with God’s saving grace (what the Orthodox call “synergy”). This is why Pius IX and Vatican II say that the non-Christian’s salvific responsiveness to God’s will occurs under the “impulse” or “efficacious power” of grace. Without this, you have the heresy of Pelagianism, which says human beings can, by their own power, obey God’s law and be saved.

What all of this theological jargon boils down to, in the final analysis, is the same as the case of righteous Gentiles before Christ: God, in his mercy, accepts anyone who does what is right and loving, even if they are ignorant of Christ. Or as St. Peter put it, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). Even Paul, the great champion of righteousness by grace through faith in Christ, says: “Yes, affliction and distress will come upon every human being who does evil, Jew first and then Greek. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, Jew first and then Greek. There is no partiality with God” (Rom 2:9-10).

Conclusion

I have shown how and why the Catholic Church teaches that non-Christians and even atheists can be saved by grace without explicit faith in Jesus.[18] The magisterium largely leaves it to God and the speculations of theologians how exactly. But the Council Fathers do give an important indication of the theological basis for this universal possibility of salvation:

By his incarnation the Son of God united himself in some sense with every human being. … Christians share in the paschal mystery and are configured to the death of Christ, and so are strengthened in the hope of attaining the resurrection. This applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers everyone the possibility of sharing in this paschal mystery in a manner known to God. (Gaudium et Spes 22)

The basis for the salvation of all human beings, Christian or not, is the Christ event: the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Savior. By his incarnation, Christ “united himself in some sense with every human being.” More than that, he “died for everyone,” and God calls every individual to share in the power of that redeeming death. Therefore, everyone can be saved.

In my final installment of this essay, we will look at whether everyone will be saved.

Notes

[1] My translation. Eos, qui invincibili circa sanctissimam nostrum religionem ignorantia laborant, quique naturalem legem eiusque praecepta in omnium cordibus a Deo insculpta sedulo servantes ac Deo oboedire parati, honestam rectamque vitam agunt, posse, divinae lucis et gratiae operante virtute, aeternam consequi vitam, cum Deus, qui omnium mentes, animos, cogitations habitusque plane intuetur, scrutator et noscit, pro summa sua bonitate et clementia minime patiatur, quempiam aeternis puniri suppliciis, qui voluntariae culpae reatum non habeat (DS 2866). Pius IX had previously said the same thing in his 1854 allocution Singulari quadam.

[2] See Francis Sullivan, SJ, Salvation outside the Church? Tracing the History of the Catholic Response (1992), 88-99.

[3] Infinita sua misericordia Deus voluit, ut illorum auxilium salutis, quae divina sola institutione, non vero intrinseca necessitate, ad finem ultimum ordinantur, tunc quoque certis in adiunctis effectus ad salute necessarii obtineri valeant, ubi “voto” solummodo vel “desiderio” adhibeantur (DS 3869).

[4] Council of Trent, session 6, c. 4: sine lavacro regenerationis aut eius voto (DS 1524).

[5] Mystici corporis Christi says of those outside the Church that they “cannot be sure of their salvation” (propria salute securi esse non possunt) and “by a kind of unconscious desire and longing they are ordered to the mystical body of the Redeemer” (inscio quodam desiderio ac voto ad mysticum Redemptoris Corpus ordinentur) (DS 3821). The letter of the Holy Office inverts the negative “cannot be sure of their salvation” to a positive “they can be saved.” At the same time, it makes the relationship between the saved non-Christian and the Church closer; they are not only “ordered to” (ordinare) the Church, but actually “near” it (adhaerere).

[6] I am using the translations found in Vatican II: The Essential Documents (ed. Norman Tanner, SJ).

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas defines the principle thus: “Through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called “invincible,” because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know” (Summa theologiae 1-2, q. 76, a. 2).

[8] Compare this to the Holy Office letter: “No one will be saved who, knowing that the Church was divinely founded by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or denies obedience to the Roman Pontiff.” It speaks in terms of obedience because of its disciplinary nature with respect to Fr. Feeney. Vatican II rephrased the same idea only in a more positive way, consistent with the Council’s pastoral aim.

[9] On the other hand, the end of LG 16 says that people “more often” (saepius) commit idolatry or despair!

[10] Pius IX in his aforementioned allocution (Singulari quadam) says that it would be exceedingly arrogant for anyone to try to delimit who is and is not invincibly ignorant.

[11] DS 3873. This warning should make the blood of the “traditional” opponents of Pope Francis run cold.

[12] Francisco de Vitoria, OP, De Indis recenter inventis, et De jure belli Hispanorum in barbarous (ed. Walter Schötzel, 1952), 76, quoted in Steven Bullivant, “Sine Culpa? Vatican II and Inculpable Ignorance,” Th. Studies 72 (2011): (70-86) 77-78.

[13] Bartolomé de Las Casas, OP, In Defense of the Indians (trans. Stafford Poole, 1974), 133, quoted in Bullivant, 80.

[14] William James, The Will to Believe and Other Essays (1897).

[15] See Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes 22 and Ad gentes 7.

[16] By far the most prominent and debated Catholic solution to this problem is Karl Rahner’s theory of “anonymous Christians” (“Anonymous Christians,” Th. Inv. 6, 390-98; “Observations on the Problem of the ‘Anonymous Christian,’” Th. Inv. 14, 280-94; “Anonymous and Explicit Faith,” Th. Inv. 16, 52-59). For a summary of his approach as well as that of other Catholic theologians to the problem of the faith of the atheist, see Sullivan, 178-81.

[17] One could go into much greater detail exploring the relationship between faith and works of love in salvation, but that would go well beyond the scope of this essay!

[18] Those interested in exploring this subject further should read Fr. Sullivan’s book Salvation Outside the Church?


Bartolomé de Las Casas. US Govenment work, Architect of the Capitol. Constantino Brumidi, Oil on plaster, 1876. Senate wing, U.S. Capitol. https://flic.kr/p/avhJi3


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Dr. Rasmussen is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's Department of Theology & Religious Studies. He has a Ph.D. in the same subject from The Catholic University of America, specializing in historical theology and early Christianity. He is the author of Genesis and Cosmos: Basil and Origen on Genesis 1 and Cosmology (Bible in Ancient Christianity 14; Brill, 2019).

How non-Christians can be saved
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