Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations has been musing of late about an apparent dilemma that I've been confronted with periodically in my catechetical and apologetic work. In one post he observes:
It's as though we can't find any ground between, "Non-Roman Catholics are damned, so we need to convert everyone," and, "Non-Roman Catholics aren't necessarily damned, so we don't need to convert anyone."
In another post soon after, he calls our attention to a 1964 sermon given by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, in which the latter said: "Anyone who looks on the loss of salvation for others as the condition, as it were, on which he serves Christ will in the end only be able to turn away grumbling, because that kind of reward is contrary to the loving-kindness of God." Tom responds:
Fr. Ratzinger had in mind the grumblers who resent sharing salvation with non-Catholics. But what about the sluggards who are delighted by the thought, because of all that evangelization work it saves them?
Here I want to share my response to the problem.
The key is to recognize, with Vatican II, that the Catholic Church is the "sacrament" of unity with God for all humanity. The Church as Mystical Body of Christ is thus the ordinary sign and instrument of salvation, so that being in full communion with her puts one in a better position to belong to Christ than one would be otherwise, ceteris paribus. But as Vatican II also taught, the salvific work of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. All the baptized are in some degree of communion with her; those brought up as non-Catholics cannot be held responsible for not being in full communion; and it would be unwise to assume that most people who voluntarily leave the Church know just what it is they're leaving, so that they too could be held culpable. Moreover, since the Passover of Christ offers to all people grace enough for salvation, the unbaptized can belong to him, and therefore to his Mystical Body the Church, if their responses to grace are such that they would seek baptism if all involuntary obstacles to their knowledge of its necessity were removed. Yet the grace to which the unbaptized can respond so salubriously is only offered to people through said Mystical Body, which is precisely why she is the "ordinary" sign and instrument of salvation. Hence, people who live without being in some recognizable form of communion with her are only saved by extraordinary means; by the very nature of the extraordinary, that puts them, in the words of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in a "gravely deficient" position.
Accordingly, while we may and should hope for the final salvation of non-Christians, we cannot responsibly presume that it will often occur. It is a work of charity to evangelize so as to try to remedy their situation. But it would also be contrary to charity simply to write them all off if or when evangelization is not done or doesn't seem to bear visible fruit; and of course it would be prideful for Catholics to assume they've got final salvation locked up unless they do something particularly ugly. "Many of the last shall be first, and many of the first shall be last." We must always evangelize, beginning and ending with ourselves; but we must not presume that those who haven't heard the Word at all, or can't hear it because of our sins, have no salvific relationship with the Logos. All we must presume is that they don't have the advantages that make us all the more accountable.
I don't think that walking such a tightrope makes the mistake that Bush I did, or was said to do. I think it's the only logical conclusion to draw from what the Church teaches.