A few weeks ago, Bishop Robert Barron sat down to discuss Catholicism with Orthodox Jewish conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. With respect to His Excellency, it was not at all an impressive showing on any level, but the main point that has sparked controversy came at about the sixteen-minute mark, when Mr. Shapiro asked him, point blank, “What’s the Catholic view on who gets into Heaven and who doesn’t?”

This, together with the recent scandals in the Church, has brought the doctrine “No one is saved outside the Church” back into the public conversation.

Before I attempt to address this, I want to make something clear. It seems to me that in today’s world the question “Can I be saved” is, intentionally or not, usually approached from a perspective akin to a black man in 1950s Louisiana asking a restaurant owner, “Can I eat here?” That is, as a test of how open-minded, welcoming, and (of course) ‘tolerant’ a given faith tradition is.

In fact, of course, it ought to be approached more from the perspective of a man with cancer asking his doctor “can I be cured?” It is not up to the doctor to decide who will and will not survive, it’s based on the nature of the disease and the person; it is a question of objective fact, irrelevant of how anyone feels about the answer.

With that out of the way, the Christian doctrine is, and always has been, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the Church, no one is saved.

Scripture Is Clear on This Question

The reason for this is inherent in the Christian claim. Christ came to save mankind from his sins, and by His saving death and resurrection He has opened a path to Heaven for those who follow Him. Salvation, in other words, is the exception, not the rule; we are not naturally directed to heaven. “wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and those who enter through it are many,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:13). Christ is not, as His Excellency said, the “privileged route” (whatever that means), He is the only route.

Our Lord is very clear on this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), “To as many as believed in Him, He gave power to become sons of God” (John 1:12) and so on.

Christians, amid the heresies and schisms of the first few centuries after Christ, taught from very early on that there was one Church, which alone was the Body of Christ on Earth. Membership in this body is an essential part of following Christ, and hence there is no salvation outside it.

This is a hard saying (though not quite so hard as it seems, as we’ll see), but as with many of the hard sayings of the Catholic Church, it ultimately comes down to the question of whether the Church is what she claims to be, namely, the Bride of Christ and His instrument upon Earth. If she is, then of course there can be no salvation outside of her, since there is no salvation apart from Christ.

Exceptions in the Cases of Dire Circumstances and Sincere Ignorance

Of course, this raises the question that Mr. Shapiro asked, that, as a Jew, is he “basically screwed here?” My point thus far is that if we were to simply answer “yes,” we would not be involved in any logical contradiction, though we may find our sense of justice offended. But the real answer is more complicated than that.

No one is saved apart from Christ; the Church is the Body of Christ upon Earth. A man is brought into the Church by baptism, being “Born again of water and the Holy Spirit” (John 3:5). Now, say a man sincerely desires baptism, but dies before he is able to receive it. Obviously, God would not exclude him because circumstances outside his control made it impossible for him to put his desire into action.

Now, take it one step further: what of the man who hears of Christ, but misses that he must be baptized? Clearly, he is much the same position.

And what of a man who, hypothetically, is told of Christ, and believes in and desires him, but is never told His name or what he must do to be saved except that he must “do good”? Again, he is in much the same position; he intends to follow Christ, but due to circumstance outside his control, he does not know either the name of who he is following nor all that he must do in order to put that desire into action, so he follows what he does know because it is the best he can do.

The principle in all the scenarios is called “Baptism of Desire,” and what it amounts to is that if a person genuinely desires God to the best of his knowledge and abilities—that is, sincerely intends to do good, and to know the truth and to conform his life to it when it is found—then he is, whether he knows it or not, in fact following Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This desire makes him in truth a member of the Church, whether or not he is outwardly a part of it, because he is being as much of a Catholic as he knows how to be. He is what Monsignor Ronald Knox called an “Unconscious Catholic.”

But we have to be careful here; we say that if a man follows God to the best of his knowledge and abilities, he may be saved by his unconscious intention to be a Catholic. It is the sincerity of both the ignorance and the intent that makes the point. A man who, due to his circumstances, abilities, upbringing, and so on has no real opportunity of hearing and understanding the Catholic claim is in a state called ‘invincible ignorance:’ that is, ignorance that the man could not himself correct if he chose. This does not apply to the man who avoids facing the issue because he fears losing his job or friends or public approval if he becomes Catholic. Nor does it apply if he remains as he is for ‘cultural’ or egoistic reasons (e.g. we can imagine someone in the modern day refusing to consider the Church because he is emotionally invested in maintaining the religion of his particular ethnic group).  

This principle also, it seems to me, dispels the question, “then why bother trying to spread the faith if non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved?” In the first place, as indicated, this is a reason for hope, not a guarantee. It is akin to saying, “most people who are shot with handguns don’t die.” To take this to mean, “Then we don’t have to worry about bringing people into the Church” would be as foolish as to say “Then we don’t have to worry about gun safety.” Furthermore, God knows whether a person is in a state of invincible ignorance; we do not. The very same principle that gives us reason to hope for their souls (that of acting to the best of our knowledge) forbids us to use it as an excuse to neglect them.

Then there is this: if a person is genuinely seeking Christ, whether consciously or unconsciously, then it is only common charity to reveal to him what he seeks if we can. If he isn’t, then he ought to be convinced, if at all possible, that he should. In neither case is there a reason to neglect evangelization if we have the opportunity.

What Bishop Barron ought to have said, therefore, was something like this: “Not necessarily; if you honestly and sincerely have not had the chance to really hear and consider the Christian claim, and if you genuinely are seeking to follow God to the best of your knowledge and abilities, then we may hope that you are in fact already a Catholic and just don’t know it yet.”