In the last post I cited several texts affirming that the Church has always held the possibility of salvation for those who are not without qualification members of the Church, and who do not know Christ explicitly. This is true in a certain sense; the Church has, with some exceptions, always held this implicitly, even if not often explicitly. In fact, several distinct principles have been more or less consistently held by most of the Fathers, as well as the scholastics, and affirmed by the Church's magisterium:
1. Baptism or an act of supernatural faith is necessary for justification.
2. Faith in Christ is necessary for justification and/or salvation.
3. God wills the salvation of all, and thus makes it possible for all in the manner appropriate to their condition.
3b. Consequently, adults, who are capable of moving toward God by their free will, are either saved through God's grace and inherit eternal life, or are punished in hell for their personal mortal sins.
St. Augustine in his late writings and some followers of him constitute the principal exception to the universal holding of the third principle. Their interpretation of God's universal salvific will falls substantially short of the view of the early Fathers, the Eastern Fathers, the scholastics, and the magisterium of the Church. St. Gregory Nazianzen also suggest in one text that an adult who lives a moral life, but dies without baptism, is neither punished by God, nor enters into glory.
But though there are these few exceptions, it still seems basically fair to say that the third principle has been always held by the Church.
What are some of the ways that these principles are reconciled by the Fathers and by the scholastics?
(1) Some suggest or affirm that an explicit knowledge of Christ is not necessary in order to come into saving contact with him through faith, but that a more implicit knowledge can suffice. Thus St. Justin, basing himself upon the fact that all truth proceeds from and is oriented towards Him who is the Truth says that "those who lived according to reason are Christians, even though they were thought to be atheists… those who lived before Christ but did not live according to reason were wicked men, and enemies of Christ… whereas those who lived then or who live now according to reason are Christians" (First Apology, 46).
(2) The common method of reconciliation among the scholastics is that if someone in the christian era lives rightly, but has not heard the Gospel, God will send them a preacher or will enlighten them interiorly, so that they can come to have the faith that is necessary for salvation, at least before their death. They generally presume that if someone has heard the Gospel and not become a Christian, he is guilty of grave sin in this failure to accept the Gospel. Presumably, however, if they granted the possibility of invincible ignorance, they would maintain the same method of reconciliation: God would in his providence provide means by which such an upright person could come to explicit acceptance of the faith before death.
This method of reconciliation is also present in the Fathers, though less explicitly. St. Augustine himself in his commentary on the psalm Super Flumina, speaks of persons in the "earthly city called Babylon", who do not seek God as their end, but devote themselves to building up the political common good, this earthly city "has in it people who, prompted by love for it, work to guarantee it peace – temporal peace – nourishing in their hearts no other hope, indeed, by placing in this one all their joy, without any other intention. And we see them making every effort to be useful to earthly society." He goes on to say that if these persons live according to their conscience, God will not fail to lead them into the City of God: "Now, if they strive to do these tasks with a pure conscience, God, having predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem, will not let them perish within Babylon: this is on condition, however, that while living in Babylon, they do not thirst for ambition, short-lived magnificence or vexing arrogance…. He sees their enslavement and will show them that other city for which they must truly long and towards which they must direct their every effort."
This second proposal for reconciliation is also suggested by some of the eastern fathers. St. John Chrysostom says that God will not fail to bring all those who live virtuously to knowledge of himself:
This also Paul declaring, says, For there is no respect of persons with God. What then? Is the man yonder in Persia acceptable to Him? If he be worthy, in this regard he is acceptable, that it should be granted him to be brought unto faith. The Eunuch from Ethiopia He overlooked not. What shall one say then of the religious men who have been overlooked? It is not the case, that any (such) ever was overlooked. But what he says is to this effect, that God rejects no man" (St. John Chrystostom, Homily 23 on the Acts of the Apostles)
"He who loves, inasmuch as he fulfils the commandment which is most absolute of all, even though he have some defects, will quickly be blest with knowledge because of his love; as Cornelius and many others" (Homily 20 on First Corinthians).
These texts seem to imply that explicit faith in Christ is not necessary in order to be justified and to be pleasing to God, but that, in God's plan, he also brings such persons, if they do not turn away and persist in grave sin, to explicit knowledge of Christ before their death. It is also, possible, though less likely, that St. John Chrysostom is merely speaking of a "natural righteousness" without supernatural grace. Evidence for this is his Homily 25 on the Gospel of St. John (On John 3:5), where he seems to imply that everyone who dies without baptism (even if he has faith in Christ) goes to hell:
The Catechumen is a stranger to the Faithful. He hath not the same Head, he hath not the same Father… One has Christ for his King; the other, sin and the devil… Let us then give diligence that we may become citizens of the city which is above. How long do we tarry over the border, when we ought to reclaim our ancient country? We risk no common danger; for if it should come to pass (which God forbid!) that through the sudden arrival of death we depart hence unbaptized, though we have ten thousand virtues, our portion will be no other than hell, and the venomous worm, and fire unquenchable, and bonds indissoluble.
This text may, however, very well involve rhetorical exaggeration, being aimed at those who are guilty of despising the grace of baptism, putting it off without good reason, and thus are not living righteously.
(3) Another method of reconciliation is to see the faith in Christ that is necessary for salvation as able to be acquired through an encounter of the departed soul with Christ. Logically, this position is closely related to the position that a man may be justified without explicit faith in Christ, but God's plan involves bringing all such persons to explicit faith in Christ before their death, but is, perhaps, more in accordance with the (in principle empirical) fact that miraculous and conscious enlightenments about Christ are very rare.
In most cases this idea was explicitly applied only to those who had died before Christ without knowledge of him. Descending into Hades, he made himself known to those who hadn't had the occasion to know him before. However, the Pastor of Hermas, in a text also cited and followed by St. Clement of Alexandria, says that the Apostles, after they had fallen asleep "in the power and faith of the Son of God," preached his name to those who were asleep, and baptized them, suggesting that Christ is similarly made known to those who died after the coming of Christ yet still didn't have a chance to know him. St. Clement says "If, then, he [Christ] preached the gospel to those in the flesh in order that they might not be condemned unjustly, how is it conceivable that he did not for the same reason preach the gospel to those who had departed this life before his coming?" The reasoning in fact applies equally to those who died after his coming, but before hearing about him, if there are such persons. And in general, this doctrine of Christ's descent is closely connected with the christian conviction that Christ came for all, and makes his salvation available to all. St. Augustine explicitly supposes that if Christ's descent brought salvation to those who hadn't known him before they died, this salvation would also be available to those who died after Christ's coming without hearing of him, though he turns the argument around, to argue on this basis that Christ's descent to Hades didn't bring salvation to those who hadn't known him before they died, but only to those who had already believed in him.
This universal relevance of Christ's descent is suggested by the catechism, which says that the significance of the descent to hell is "the spread of Christ's redemptive work to all men of all times and all places" (CCC 634).
In recent years, Gavin D'Costa has taken up this line of thought, arguing that Christ's descent to hell provides the best conceptual means to explain how the salvation of non-Christians can happen.
Given that these various qualifications have almost always been made regarding the necessity of faith, yet an explicit affirmation of the general possibility of the salvation of non-Christians (in the sense of those who have not heard or accepted the christian preaching) is rare from the 4th to the 16th century, it seems it would be most accurate to say that the Church has "always held" the possibility of salvation for those who are not without qualification members of the Church and who do not know Christ explicitly, only "in radice" and implicitly.