Q. I recently heard someone say that there is no salvation outside the Church. What does this mean?
A. In the third century, St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, wrote in a letter, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”— outside the Church, there is no salvation.
The term summarized the teachings of the Church from her very beginning: that all salvation comes from Christ, through his Body, the Church. The early Church taught, as the Church continues to teach, that baptism — a sacrament of the Church — opens the door to salvation, and that the Church’s other sacraments communicate grace needed for sanctification — the process of becoming holy.
Jesus Christ himself taught that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit (i.e. baptized), he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
In the Book of Acts, St. Peter taught that those wishing to be saved should “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to Him.”
Because the Church is entrusted with the “keys to the Kingdom,” and administers the sacraments of salvation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Christ “affirmed… 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.”
The Body of Christ, the Church, through Christ the Head, is the mediator of all salvation. But the Church also teaches that many who are baptized are not formally in communion with the Catholic Church — among these Protestants and Orthodox Christians. The Church teaches that this imperfect communion is still a kind of membership in the Body of Christ, through which salvation can be attained.
The Catechism also teaches that “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… may achieve eternal salvation.”
All salvation is mediated through Christ and His Church. When we live in visible communion with the Church, and earnestly participate in her sacramental life, we can have confidence in the saving grace made available to us. Those who are not Catholics — though they might be saved — do not enjoy the same confidence and assurance that comes through life in the Church established by Jesus Christ. For this reason, we should emphatically proclaim the Gospel, so that all people might come to know Jesus Christ more intimately through his Church.
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