Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed in the Bull Unam Sanctam in 1302 that "Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins… Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary to salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

One hundred and forty years later, 1442, the Council of Florence proclaimed in its Bull of Union with the Copts that the Church "firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives."

Some recent free-thinking theologians have understood these decrees to mean that, as a matter of fact, no one is ultimately saved who is not a member of the Catholic Church at the time of his death. When one examines these decrees in their historic context, this interpretation is highly questionable. The Bull Unam Sanctam affirms that there is no "remission of sins" outside the Church, that is to say, it is not talking only about ultimate salvation, but about sanctifying grace. Examining the decrees prior to the Council of Florence, as well as noting that the Council of Florence's decree draws heavily upon Fulgentius (who held the necessity of being in the Church for grace as well as for salvation), it is probable that the Council of Florence intended to affirm the same: not only the necessity of being in the Church for ultimate salvation, but also for grace. Now, the common teaching at that time was that sanctifying grace can, as a matter of fact, be possessed by those who are, in fact, outside the Church, as in the case of persons baptized in a heretical or schismatic sect, or have not yet come to recognize the error of their sect, and are thus not culpable for their separation from the Church. Consequently, to do justice to these decrees, they have to be understood to mean that God presents man with no other alternative for grace and salvation than incorporation into Christ, in his Church, and yet, in his will for the salvation of all, he in fact saves men who are in invincible ignorance of the necessity of belonging to the Catholic Church for salvation.

To attain, by historical investigation, complete historical certainty regarding the meaning of the decrees may require more inquiry than has been done until now on this matter. However, even granting that the historical data leaves the matter ambiguous, granting that either the superficial interpretation or the context-based interpretation is a possible one, for the Catholic there is another, very important hermeneutic principle: "This dogma [outside the Church there is no salvation] must be understood in that sense in which the Church herself understands it. For, it was not to private judgments that our Savior gave for explanation those things that are contained in the deposit of faith, but to the teaching authority of the Church" (Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, August 8, 1949).

How does the Church understand this dogma? Pius IX makes three statements that imply interpretations of it or of its consequences:

It must, of course, be held as a matter of faith that outside the apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved, that the Church is the only ark of salvation, and that whoever does not enter it will perish in the flood. On the other hand, it must likewise be held certain that those who are affected by ignorance of the true religion, if it is invincible ignorance, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord. (Allocution Singulari quadam, December 9, 1854)

There is only one true, holy, Catholic church, which is the Apostolic Roman Church. There is only one See founded in Peter by the word of the Lord, outside of which we cannot find either true faith or eternal salvation…. The Church clearly declares that the only hope of salvation for mankind is placed in the Christian faith, which teaches the truth, scatters the darkness of ignorance by the splendor of its light, and works through love. This hope of salvation is placed in the Catholic Church which, in preserving the true worship, is the solid home of this faith and the temple of God. Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through invincible ignorance. (Encyclical Singulari quidem, March 17, 1856)

7. And here, beloved Sons and Venerable Brothers, We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God Who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means allow anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin.
8. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who stubbornly separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom "the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior," cannot obtain eternal salvation. (Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863)

In the first text the Pope affirms that those who are in invincible ignorance of the fact that the Catholic Church is the Sacrament of Salvation established by God, are not subject to guilt on account of their not entering or not being in the Church. This does not directly imply that these persons can be saved. However, inasmuch as he is clearly making reference to the dogma "Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus", it gives a certain indication of how the dogma is to be understood, suggesting that in some sense it doesn't apply to those in invincible ignorance (a complete argument for this implication would, again, involve examining the historical meaning and application of the dogma.)

In the second text the pope, again in the context of the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, qualifies the impossibility for life (sanctifying grace) or salvation outside the Church to apply to those who are not in invincible ignorance of the necessity of the Church.

In the third text the pope affirms positively that persons in invincible ignorance of the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation "can be saved", and in recalling the dogma Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus, applies it to those who obstinately and stubbornly are separate from the Church.

Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis implies a slightly different, though related, interpretation of the dogma: the Church is necessary for salvation, not in such a way that everyone as a matter of fact must belong to the Church to be saved, but in such a way that also those can be saved who belong to the Church only by an implicit desire, inasmuch as they wish to be conformed to the will of God, though without knowing that God's will is for all to enter into the unity of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Office in its Letter to the Archbishop of Boston interprets the dogma in two senses: first as the implication of the command of Christ to be incorporated into the Church by baptism and to adhere to Christ and to his Vicar, so that "no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely instituted by Christ, refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience to the Roman Pontiff"; secondly, as referring to the fact that the Church is a necessary means of salvation, where the qualification is made that "God, in his infinite mercy, willed that the effects, necessary for one to be saved, of those helps to salvation which are directed toward man's final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing;" the Council of Trent made this qualification with regard to baptism and penance, and the Holy Office declares that the same thing must be understood of the Church as well: "that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing." It cites Pius XII and Pius IX as magisterial confirmation of this view.

Vatican II in Lumen Gentium also takes up these two sense of the dogma:

14… Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

15. The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter…. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power.

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God….Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. [Vatican II here footnotes the letter of the Holy Office.]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church formally takes up the question of how the doctrine Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus is to be understood: "How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?" (CCC 846) It first states the positive meaning: "Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body." It cites Lumen Gentium 14 as an explication of this principle and the consequence of it, then rejects an interpretation of this affirmation as referring to those in invincible ignorance: "This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church," (CCC 847) and cites Lumen Gentium 16 in explication of how these persons can obtain salvation.

The same doctrine is taught by the Catechism in its section on baptism. An important principle is there articulated, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments" (CCC 1257), which is also relevant to the necessity of explicit faith in Christ and membership in the Church:

1260 "Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, 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" (GS 22 § 5). 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 CDF's declaration Dominus Iesus, 2000, also referring to the Letter of the Holy Office to the Archbishop of Boston, explicitly declares that the formula "extra Ecclesiam nullus omnino salvatur" is to be interpreted in the sense that, for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace that comes from Christ, and that has a mysterious relationship to the Church. (Dominus Iesus, n. 20, footnote 82).

The CDF's Doctrinal Note on some Aspects of Evangelization, 2007, implies the same interpretation:

Although non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in "ways known to him" (Second Vatican Council, Decree Ad gentes, 7; cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 16; Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, 22), the Church cannot fail to recognize that such persons are lacking a tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us…. The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.[28] Therefore, every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom.

The CDF affirms that non-Christians can be saved without (explicitly) "knowing the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ", yet that the grace that is at work in them by its nature leads to Christ and is oriented towards entrance into his Church.

Augustine and Ratzinger on Faith and Salvation

Augustine, arguing against the view that when Christ descended to Hell, he brought salvation (or preached for the first time) to those who died without having the opportunity to know Him, appears to argue that this view, or in general the view that those who die without faith in Christ may be united to him in death, would make faith in Christ useless or worse than useless:

Those who hold this opinion do not consider that the same excuse is available for all those who have, even after Christ's resurrection, departed this life before the gospel came to them…. But if we accept this opinion, according to which we are warranted in supposing that men who did not believe while they were in life can in hell believe in Christ… [if] it be alleged that in hell those only believe to no purpose and in vain who refused to accept here on earth the gospel preached to them, but that believing will profit those who never despised a gospel which they never had it in their power to hear another still more absurd consequence is involved, namely, that forasmuch as all men shall certainly die, and ought to come to hell wholly free from the guilt of having despised the gospel; since otherwise it can be of no use to them to believe it when they come there, the gospel ought not to be preached on earth, a sentiment not less foolish than profane. (Augustine, Epistle 194, Ch. 4)

Again, arguing for the impossibility of salvation without faith and baptism, he says:

God is not so unjust as to defraud righteous persons of the reward of righteousness, [Augustine may be here speaking in the person of his opponent] because there has not been announced to them the mystery of Christ's divinity and humanity, which was manifested in the flesh…. before the actual preaching of the gospel reaches the ends of all the earth… what must human nature do, or what has it done — for it had either not heard that all this was to take place, or has not yet learned that it was accomplished — but believe in God who made heaven and earth, by whom also it perceived by nature that it had been itself created, and lead a right life, and thus accomplish His will, uninstructed with any faith in the death and resurrection of Christ? Well, if this could have been done, or can still be done, then for my part I have to say what the apostle said in regard to the law: "Then Christ died in vain." … If, however, Christ did not die in vain, then human nature cannot by any means be justified and redeemed from God's most righteous wrath — in a word, from punishment — except by faith and the sacrament of the blood of Christ. (Augustine, The Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and On the Baptism of Infants, book 3, ch. 2)

I would like to set these texts in comparison with two statements by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:

What troubles us is no longer whether and how 'others' will be saved. Through our belief in divine mercy, we now know for certain that they can be saved; but how this can happen is something we trustfully leave to God…. To be a Christian does not mean… to find salvation placed more easily within one's grasp. But it does mean an invitation to greater generosity of heart, to volunteer the service which Jesus Christ gives to all men of all times. We could even say that to be a Christian means above all 'to be for others'… To secure the salvation of all men, the Church has no need to be exteriorly identified with all men. (Ratzinger, "The Church's Mission in the World," in Rethinking the Church, pp. 48, 52, 53, translated from La Fine della Chiesa come Società perfetta, 1968)

We cannot start to set limits on God's behalf; the very heart of the faith has been lost to anyone who supposes that it is only worthwhile, if it is, so to say, made worthwhile by the damnation of others. Such a way of thinking, which finds the punishment of other people necessary, springs from not having inwardly accepted the faith; from loving only oneself and not God the Creator, to whom his creatures belong. That way of thinking would be like the attitude of those people who could not bear the workers who came last being paid a denarius like the rest; like the attitude of people who feel properly rewarded only if others have received less. This would be the attitude of the son who stayed at home, who could not bear the reconciling kindness of his father. It would be a hardening of our hearts, in which it would become clear that we were only looking out for ourselves and not looking for God; in which it would be clear that we did not love our faith, but merely bore it like a burden. . . . It is a basic element of the biblical message that the Lord died for all—being jealous of salvation is not Christian (Ratzinger, God Is Near Us:The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003], 35–36).

Cardinal Ratzinger surely does not intend to affirm that St. Augustine lost "the very heart of the faith", but may intend to make a criticism of certain elements in St. Augustine, and likely intends to reject a certain way of interpreting or using Augustine and his teachings on grace.

Are We Obliged to Do the Impossible?

In asking whether passions and emotions can be sinful, Aquinas raises the objection:

"No one sins in doing what he cannot avoid," as Augustine says (On the Free Choice of the Will III, 18). But man cannot escape the inordinate movement of sensuality, since "the sensuality ever remains corrupt, so long as we abide in this mortal life, and that is why it is signified by the serpent," as Augustine says (On the Trinity XII, 12,13). Therefore the inordinate movement of the sensuality is not a sin. (ST I-II, 74:3, obj. 2).

The response he makes to this objection is that though it is impossible to avoid all inordinate movements of sensitive appetite, it is possible to avoid any particular inordinate movement, and that this ability is sufficient for a voluntary sin.

[The corruption of the sensitive appetite] does not prevent man from using his rational will to suppress individual inordinate movements, if he has a presentiment of them. He can do this by, for example, turning his thoughts to other things. Yet while he is turning his thoughts to something else, an inordinate movement may arise about this also: thus when a man, in order to avoid the movements of concupiscence, turns his thoughts away from fleshly pleasures and to the consideration of science, sometimes an unforeseen (impraemeditatus) movement of vainglory will arise. And therefore a man cannot avoid all such movements, on account of the aforesaid corruption. But it is enough, for the account of a voluntary sin, that he be able to avoid each individual one. (Ibid., ad 2)

Now, if a man is in proximate danger of having an extremely disordered desire for sensitive goods, it seems clear that he ought to do what he can to avoid that, and would be guilty of neglect if he turned his attention to avoid sins into which he is in no special danger of falling. Consequently, it seems to follow from Aquinas's position that a man can in one and the same period of time have acted morally as well as he could, have made the best moral decisions that he could make, and yet be guilty of a voluntary sin. This conclusion seems, on the face of it, rather problematic.

Does Aquinas hold the same position when he considers more particular matters? It does not appear so. In a later article, he asks whether disobedience is a mortal sin, and raises the objections:

Someone is said to be disobedient when he does not fulfill his superior's command. But superiors frequently give so many commands that it is scarcely or not at all possible to keep all of them. Therefore, if disobedience were a mortal sin, it would follow that man could not avoid mortal sin, which is an untenable position. Therefore disobedience is not a mortal sin. (II-II 105:1 obj. 3)

Now, it seems equally true in this case that a person could keep any given command, and thus, by focusing on keeping the most important commands, he fails to keep some of the less important commands (whether because of time conflicts or just because there are some many commands that he can't remember all of them). It was nonetheless absolutely speaking possible for him to keep any individual one of those other commands, and thus by Aquinas's general reasoning, it would seem that the failure to keep the command remains a sin.

Aquinas does not accept the reasoning in the concrete, however, but replies:

No one is obliged to what is impossible. Therefore, if a superior gives so many commands that a subject cannot fulfill them, the subject is free of sin. And therefore superiors should refrain from giving very many commands. (Ibid, ad 3.)

I'm not sure what to think about Aquinas's position here. Is he, in an attempt to describe scientifically a real human experience, to get at the experienced psychology of such faults, making an abstract argument that is not strictly valid, and this becomes evident when one considers not abstract but concrete cases? Or is there a decisive difference between the two cases?

Are Quick and Slow Death Different?

In the post The Principle of Double Effect and Abortion, or more precisely, in a comment on the post, the example was given, taken from Steven Long, of two persons in a space capsule with a limited air supply. There would be enough air for one of the persons to reach earth safely, but not for both. Moreover, one person is mortally allergic to an anti-viral agent in the air, and so will die in any case. The question was raised, can the other person deny him air by ejecting him from the spaceship?

I would like to compare this case with a analogous case inspired by my last post. Two persons are on a island with just barely enough water for one person. Again, one person is allergic to something in the water, and will die in three to four weeks if he drinks it–whereas he will die in one to two weeks if he does not. Can the other person deny him water, by force if necessary, or is this murder?

Steven Long asks, apparently, rhetorically, "By moving him, do we not in fact hasten his death? If we deliberately hasten the death of another—and let us suppose we do so against his will—do we not then commit murder?" I think in terms of people's instincts, it makes a tremendous difference how much the death of another person is hastened by our action, that ejecting someone from a spaceship, where he will die immediately, is much more revolting and instinctively wrong (at least to persons who are not in that situation; I would not be surprised to find that the moral instincts of persons on both sides who were actually in such a situation were much less strongly against this action) than denying a person water that is anyway poisonous to him, and thus shortening his life span from about three weeks to one week.

Is this right? Are your instinctive judgments regarding the two cases the same or different? Is denying someone water that would kill him anyway over a space of three weeks seem instinctively the same or different than denying him air that would kill him over a space of one week?

The Mistake of Expecting Moral Systems to Resolve All Cases

Aquinas points out that while the first principle of natural law, "good is to be done and pursued and evil to be avoided", is most certain, the more concrete and particular the principles and situations at which one looks, the less great is the certainty that can be attained. Consequently, anyone who sets out to develop or expound a moral system that will enable him to objectively judge every moral case with certainty, is sure to fail in this mistake: either there will be cases that cannot be judged with clarity by the system, or there will be cases that are misjudged by it. The following series of situations may serve as an illustration of inevitability of "grey" cases.

1. A mother is stranded with her child, aged 10, on an island, has no way to contact anyone off the island, and no way to procure additional fresh water. She knows that people will be arriving by boat in four weeks, as the island is a scheduled and never missed stop on a cruise. There is enough water for her child to survive four weeks, though getting somewhat dehydrated. She refrains from drinking any of the water, so that she can give it all to her child, though she knows she is morally certainty to die herself.

2. Ten adults are stranded with ten children in a similar situation. The adults all go without water for the sake of the children, and die of thirst.

3. Twenty adults are stranded on the island. Ten volunteer to give their share of the water to the others.

4. Twenty adults are stranded on the island, with adequate fresh water for all of them for 18 days. Thus, if they all drink a normal share of the water, they may well not all die, but will all run a serious risk of death. Five of them therefore volunteer to give up their share of water, and are thus virtually certain to die.

5. The same situation as four, with the additional remark that those who volunteer to give up their water persons with incurable cancer who expect to die within a few years, and so consider a greater chance of survival for the healthy and younger persons worth giving up their own chance of survival for.

6. The same situation as five, except that there is adequate fresh water for everyone for a little more than 20 days, so that if everyone drinks their share of water, the risk of death for each individual is relatively low, around 0.5%.

7. The same situation as six, except that the persons who give up their water are persons suffering from a disease that will kill them within two months in any event, and causes them constant and great pain, and this horrible pain and short life span plays a significant role in their decision to volunteer to give up their water.

It is quite clear, in the first three cases, that the persons who give up their water are not guilty of suicide either directly or indirectly, that is, either by reason of their intention (they will to die), or by reason of the objective character of their choice. (By "objective character" I mean that theoretically, it might be that giving up the water only makes sense if someone considers his life of no value, and is basically throwing it away; but this is clearly not the case in the first three examples.)

In the last case, if the risk of death given that everyone drinks water is low enough, and if the painfulness of the people's lives plays a great enough role in their deliberation, it is clear that their decision to give up drinking water is suicidal in its very intention. Similarly the sixth case is clearly suicidal in fact, if not in intention, and is morally wrong.

There is, however, a continuum between the first cases and the last cases–a continuum both in regard to the greatness of the risk of other people's death avoided by giving up one's own water, and in regard to the shortness of life and greatness of pain that makes one less concerned to preserve one's own life.

Consequently, it is impossible to make a system that will enable one to objectively judge every such decision as objectively right or objectively wrong. One might say that "if a person in giving up their water is objectively treating their life as though it were of no value, the decision to give up their water is wrong," but there will be cases in which it is unclear whether giving up their water is "treating their life as if it were of no value."