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Ask A Catholic: Do only Catholics go to heaven?

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What’s your question about the Catholic faith? Submt it anonymously here or leave it in the box below.

By Matthew Sewell

Please explain if the Catholic faith supports the belief that only Catholics go to heaven.

catholicThat particular phrasing can be a little misleading — the more accurate question would be, “Do Catholics believe there is no Salvation outside the Catholic Church?”

Here’s what the Church says.

  • “Re-formulated positively, [the statement “there is no Salvation outside the Church”] means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body. Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, [Vatican II] 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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 846 – read more)
  • “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.” (paragraph 847)
  • “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.”

Here’s what that means.

The basic answer is “Yes, BUT.”

This teaching stems from the two core beliefs that a) Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Risen Savior of all mankind, and b) he founded a church before being raised to heaven – one that was built on the 12 Apostles, led by St. Peter, and protected until the end of time by the Holy Spirit.

Salvation can only come through the Church because salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. We simply believe that the Church is the “how-to” Jesus set down by way of the sacraments, like Baptism and Confirmation (John 3:3-5), Confession (Luke 13:3), and the Holy Eucharist (John 6:27-69).

As Jim Blackburn from Catholic Answers writes, “Catholics recognize that these sacraments are administered through the Church. In fact, in the case of the latter two, a validly ordained priest is necessary for their administration, so the sacrament of ordination must also be associated with salvation.”

Here’s where the “but” comes in. The above two paragraphs apply to people who have come to understand Jesus’ offer of salvation and what it demands of them with regard to Jesus and the Church. But, as the second and third passages from the Catechism above state, a person who is entirely and innocently ignorant of Christ’s promise of salvation through no fault of their own wouldn’t be culpable for their lack of belief in Christ or knowledge of the Church.

A good way to understand this is offered by C.S. Lewis at the end of his book, “The Last Battle,” the final installment of his “Chronicles of Narnia” series. A soldier of Tash – Narnia’s equivalent of the devil – finds himself in paradise after his death, and is approached by Aslan – Narnia’s Jesus equivalent.

Upon arriving in paradise, the soldier, who had never known of Aslan prior to dying, came to see the great lion in all his glory. Lamenting to Aslan that he had served Tash all his life, and was thus unworthy of paradise, Aslan gently corrected him, saying:

“Child, all the service you have done to Tash, I account as service done to me . . . Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” (emphasis added)

To be VERY clear: I am not saying that all non-Catholics are devil-worshippers. Instead, this example shows that only God knows truly the hearts of his children, and doesn’t punish them for what they do not know.

While Catholics are bound by the sacraments, God is not. God, if necessary, can work beyond and outside them, because of his transcendence and authority over the very sacraments themselves, and that is exactly the reasoning the Church uses with this question.

Even for people who never hear the Good News, or those who never come to know Christ or his Church (through no fault of their own), the route to heaven is the same for all: through the one Savior and the same Catholic Church he founded 2,000 years ago.

Matthew Sewell

About Matthew Sewell

Matthew Sewell, a Denver Broncos fan and amateur Chestertonian, loves golf, music, truth and good food. A lifelong Catholic, he graduated from a Catholic college (Carroll College; Helena, Mont.) but experienced a "re-version" to the faith during graduate studies at a state school (N. Arizona; Flagstaff, Ariz.). Irony is also one of his favorite things. He and his wife currently reside in Spokane, though they're Montanans at heart. He blogs at mtncatholic.com.

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6 comments

  1. “…a validly ordained priest is necessary for their administration, so the sacrament of ordination must also be associated with salvation.”

    I guess us outside the ‘validly ordained priesthood’ are in trouble and leading the masses to error. Correct?

    • Hey Eric – great question. It all stems from the idea that people are personally culpable before God for going against, resisting, or denying what they know and understand to be true.

      I think this in particular is saying that Catholics who have the understanding of the truth and know what they’re bound by wouldn’t receive the graces of Confession or the Eucharist if they received them from an invalidly ordained priest or an unordained person claiming to be a priest, and may in fact be sinning in the process (for going against what they know to be true).

      In the same way, a minister who knows and understands that only a validly ordained priest can confer the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist, but chooses to ignore that and move forward would be culpable both for his own ignorance of the truth, but also for leading his people astray (a-la Luke 17:2).

      However, a minister who hasn’t come to that knowledge or understanding could be culpable for it, so long as they are true and faithful to what they DO understand to be right and just.

      I hope that clarifies! I’d of course welcome additional question or needed clarifications.

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