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Albert Shurgalla wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have a few questions about the Church's view of salvation.

  • Does Acts 4:12 mean that all who do not know Christ, or have accepted Him, will be condemned to Hell?
  • What is the position of the Catholic Church on the salvation of non-believers?
  • How does the Church reconcile this with the Bible?
  • What about all the good men and women in history who have led exemplary lives —
    like Gandhi and Buddha, for example?
  • Are they all automatically condemned to Hell?
  • The Bible seems to clearly say so, but I recently read about a priest who was excommunicated for preaching this as heresy: Fr. Feeney.
  • What should we believe, as Catholics, and must we believe it?

Albert

  { I have a few questions about the Church's view of the salvation of non-believers. }

Eric replied:

Albert —

Acts 4:12 says merely that salvation comes through Jesus Christ, and that anyone who is saved,
is saved by Christ and his life-giving sacrifice on the Cross. They may or may not explicitly know Christ, but it is Christ who, in his grace, accepts their prayers and devotion and saves them from their sins. Hence, if any Muslim is saved, he is saved by Christ; so as well with any Jew or pagan.

The Catholic position on salvation of non-believers is that it is possible for those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of Christ and His Church to be saved if they seek God, responding to his grace, and faithfully follow the dictates of their conscience. Explicating this from Scripture would take a whole book but for a start, look at John 9:41, which says,

'Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains." '

Thus, we are only accountable for what we know. The concept of conscience excusing or accusing those outside the fold (Gentiles) may be found in Romans 1:14-16. However, the most assurance of salvation can only be found by faith in Christ and communion with the Church which is his body.

  • It's sorta like asking, can a homeless man survive a winter night without shelter?

Sure, it's possible, but wouldn't you want to give him shelter and food and protection and wouldn't he be more likely to live, if he received it?

It would not be possible for someone to be saved who, knowing Christ was the Savior and that the Catholic Church was the Church He founded, refused to have faith or refused to enter the Catholic Church.

We can never judge anyone's soul, including our own (although the Pope can declare people are in Heaven, we call them Saints.) See 1 Corinthians 4:3-5, Matthew 7:1, and Luke 6:37. We know neither whether Gandhi was saved or condemned. He seemed to be attracted to Christ but ultimately repelled by Christ's followers.

What we believe as Catholics is found:

For example, paragraphs 846-848 of the Catechism states:

Outside the Church there is no salvation

846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? (cf. Cyprian, Ep. 73.21:PL 3,1169; De unit.:PL 4,509-536)
Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the
Head through the Church which is his Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time 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.

(Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 14; cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5)

847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:

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 - those too may achieve eternal salvation.

(Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 16; cf. DS 3866-3872)

848 "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men." (Vatican II, Ad Gentes 7; cf. Hebrews 11:6; 1 Corinthians 9:16)

Eric

Mike replied:

Hi, Albert —

In addition to what my colleague has said, I think it is important to clarify several things:

  • Fr. Feeney was not excommunicated for doctrinal reasons, that's just historical fact.
  • He was excommunicated for reasons of discipline, like Archbishop Lefebvre was.
  • In 1972 all the apparent censures were lifted from Father Feeney, without his having to retract any of his teachings.

This issue was never the doctrine, which the Church has always taught and will always teach,
but the proper interpretation of the doctrine.

During the period of time Fr. Leonard lived, the Church was going through a few growing pains explaining and clarifying this important doctrine of the Church. There was confusion in Rome on what Fr. Feeney was teaching due to various newspaper reports from liberal Boston newspapers.

He was called to Rome to explain his views, but refused to go, and thus was excommunicated.

Nevertheless, before his death, he was reconciled with the Church; interestingly enough, in a bookstore in Harvard Square, where it all began :-)

If you want the whole scoop, check out the book by a central figure at the time, Abbot Gabriel Gibbs:

Hope this helps,

Mike

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