The Catholic Church is for everyone. Founded by Christ, her mission is to save souls and to save as many souls as she can. Sometimes, you may see the term societas perfecta in reference to the Catholic Church. It literally means “perfect society.” Automatically, some people misinterpret that phrase. It does not mean that all or only members of the Catholic Church are perfect or sinless, and it does not mean that only Catholics can go to heaven. What it does mean is that as a society, it perfectly has everything the members need to achieve their goal. A perfect society is not composed of perfect membership; rather, it perfectly and completely provides all that the members need. The fullness of grace (all seven sacraments, not just two) and the fullness of truth (Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, not sola scriptura).
Based on this premise that the Catholic Church alone has everything which is needed to satisfy every spiritual need and necessity by having the fullness of grace and the fullness of truth, then it stands to reason the Church is not optional but essential. It was not the apostles who founded the Church; it was Christ who said, “I will build My Church” (Matthew 16:18). He built it upon Peter and the apostles, and their successors continue the work of the Church two thousand years later.
Extra ecclesia nulla salus literally translates, “Outside the church there is no salvation. ” When taken out of context, it sounds very arrogant, xenophobic, triumphalistic, patronizing, and sectarian. The phrase does not mean that only Catholics can go to heaven, nor does it mean that non-Catholics are automatically damned to hell. It does mean that only the Catholic Church can provide what is needed for salvation in that she alone has the fullness of revealed truth, since she embraces both Sacred Scripture (Bible) and Sacred Tradition; religions which profess Scripture alone are limiting themselves to one half of divine revelation. The Catholic Church alone offers the fullness of grace in having all seven sacraments, whereas many Protestant Churches only have two sacraments.
Early in the twentieth century, Father Leonard Feeney, SJ, a Jesuit priest in Boston, taught a radical form of extra ecclesia nulla salus which amounted to saying, “If you’re not a card-carrying (baptized and registered) Catholic, you’re going to hell.” His extreme interpretation focused on external membership alone. It also rejected the validity of baptism by blood and baptism by desire which the Catholic Church has always taught are as valid as baptism by water. He was excommunicated in 1949 for his radical beliefs but reconciled before his death in 1978.
There is a proper way to understand this axiom. Anyone and everyone can go to heaven since Jesus Christ died for all, and according to Saint Augustine, God offers every man and woman sufficient grace to be saved. God’s grace becomes efficacious only for those who accept and cooperate with it. This universal salvific will of God is taught even by Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica III, Q. 68, a. 2, in which he discusses the necessity of baptism for salvation and explains that there is a baptism of desire which suffices for those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to obtain a baptism by water.
Some theologians call it being an anonymous Christian or being an anonymous Catholic Christian if, through no fault of his own, a person does not consciously, deliberately, and willingly reject Christ and the Catholic Church. Invincible ignorance refers to someone who does not know the truth but also does not realize he does not know it. Only someone who knows Christ is the Son of God and then consciously rejects Him, or who knows the Catholic Church is the true Church and consciously rejects it, is held liable for his decision.
The Catechism states:
1258—”Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament. And in 1260—’Since Christ died for all’…we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”
The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the year 2000 said:
#20—”The Church is the ‘universal sacrament of salvation’ …(but) for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation.” (Dominus Iesus)
Does this mean that the Catholic Church is right and the others are wrong? No. It means that the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth (revelation) and the fullness of grace (sacraments), whereas the other churches have some but not all. If there are seven sacraments and a church only offers two, or if divine revelation comes from both Sacred Scripture (Bible) and Sacred Tradition, but a church only teaches from one source, then the members are only getting part of the graces and part of the truth that is available. What they are getting is real, but it is not the totality and fullness of what God offers. Think of it as attending a school where only addition and subtraction are taught. What you learn is true. The school across the street, however, teaches addition and subtraction but also multiplication and division. One place you get some truth, the other, you get all of it. Rather than who’s right and who’s wrong, the question is who has the most to offer?
Non-Catholic Christians who innocently do not know that the Catholic Church is the true Church will not be penalized for what they do not or cannot know. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that 98 percent of those who reject the Catholic Church are rejecting what they think the Catholic Church is, not what she truly is. Most people who reject Catholicism reject a distorted concept of Catholicism or an erroneous explanation of her teachings, or base it on the human weaknesses of her individual leaders and members. Many good Protestants, Jews, and other non-Catholics can and do get to heaven by living good moral lives and trying to conform to the will of God; they just do not know what they were missing. Only someone who does know and makes a deliberate choice to reject it is accountable for that decision.