For centuries now, that question has evoked passionate intensity among Western Christians. People are understandably reluctant to believe that those whom they have loved, and who seemed to be "good people" during their lives, are damned to hell forever just because, for whatever reason, they either did not make an explicit act of faith in Christ or belonged to the wrong church. People are especially reluctant to to believe that their conceived children who are miscarried, aborted, or stillborn are damned. That was the motivation for the medieval theory of limbo. But what impressed the broader question on the Western mind was the discovery, during the age of exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries, of entire races who had never heard of Christ or the Gospel.
Cardinal Avery Dulles asserts, in a new First Things article entitled Who Can be Saved?: "The New Testament and the theology of the first millennium give little hope for the salvation of those who, since the time of Christ, have had no chance of hearing the gospel." I think that calls for qualification in light of some of the Eastern Fathers; but as a generalization about Western theology, it is pretty accurate. There were fairly obvious reasons for that. At first, the pagan world through which the Church first spread was precisely "the world" from which Christians were assumed to be saved. Not long after the Roman Empire became Christian, Augustine introduced the influential idea of original sin as personal guilt, not just corruption of human nature. And so, for centuries thereafter, when the then-known world had already had the Gospel preached to it in some-or-other fashion, Catholics generally believed that all those who did not convert and accept baptism were culpably rejecting the Gospel, thus belonging to the massa damnata of humanity. Yet the exploration of the "New World" overturned those old assumptions, and with it the assumption that membership in the Church, "the body," had to be formal and explicit in this life. That left a theological lacuna; and as Dulles says: "If God has a serious salvific will for all, this lacuna needed to be filled, as it has been by theological speculation and church teaching since the sixteenth century." That is what motivated Pius IX's assertion that those who are "invincibly ignorant" of the Gospel can still be saved.
Of course it is possible to go too far with that idea, as for instance Karl Rahner did with his theory of "anonymous Christianity." If, as Rahner argued, it is possible to have "saving faith" without even being some sort of theist, then it's hard to see the point of missionary activity in particular, as distinct from that charity which all Christians are enjoined to exhibit in their daily lives. No theory that weakens the imperative of proclaiming the Truth in his fullness, as itself a work of love for those preached to, can be right; no form of religious relativism and indifferentism is acceptable. Dulles, therefore, understandably questions the idea, first formulated in such terms by Pius XII, of "implicit faith," which is "vague" and thus too readily lends itself to a relativist or indifferentist interpretation. As I do, Dulles prefers the language adopted by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium and subsequent popes. Yet there remains a difficulty.
After adducing several key considerations, Dulles ends:
We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7). If non-Christians are praying to an unknown God, it may be for us to help them find the one they worship in ignorance. God wants everyone to come to the truth. Perhaps some will reach the goal of their searching only at the moment of death. Who knows what transpires secretly in their consciousness at that solemn moment? We have no evidence that death is a moment of revelation, but it could be, especially for those in pursuit of the truth of God.
Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.
Now in substance, I agree with that. It conforms with, indeed follows from, the developed teaching of the Church. But especially as regards atheists, Dulles's formulation does not clearly distinguish between Church teaching on this point and Rahner's theory of anonymous Christianity. A lot of people, including not a few Catholics, still do not see how to reconcile the imperative of evangelization with the real possibility of non-Christians being saved. If we are not to speak, then, of "implicit faith," just what are we talking about?
The medieval Church dogmatized the patristic formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the Church there is no salvation." And rightly so. Membership in the Church is necessary for salvation because incorporation into Christ is necessary for salvation, and the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ comprises with him "the whole Christ." But that doesn't close or even raise the question what, exactly, suffices for membership in the Church. Nothing defined by popes or councils has closed that question either. One can and should ask, e.g., whether membership a strictly binary matter—you're either in or you're out—or a matter of degree. We know what suffices for full membership: professing the faith of the Church and undergoing the sacraments of initiation. That has always been clear. But what suffices for some sort of membership has not always been so clear. Baptism by blood—i.e., martyrdom by death—and by explicit desire—on the part of believers who, through no fault of their own, didn't manage to get baptized before death—were recognized rather early, but nothing beyond that has been uncontroversial. I suggest that the key to resolving the controversy (at least in Catholic terms) is to understand the Church as sacrament, of which Lumen Gentium was the first magisterial document to speak.
In general, a sacrament is a tangible sign that helps to effect what it signifies. Theologically, a sacrament is a tangible sign of grace, of God's divinizing, self-giving presence, which punctualizes that presence in and for those who celebrate the sacrament. In a still more particular sense, a sacrament is a celebration by the Church of a specific means of grace instituted by the Lord. Thus the "seven" sacraments are said to be, by divine decree, the "ordinary means" of sanctification for members of the Church. Yet grace is ubiquitous, far wider than the celebration of sacraments by the Church in space and time. Similarly, the Church as Body of Christ is the "sacrament of salvation and unity" for the human race as a whole; she is thus the "ordinary means" of salvation, the "ark" into which are all called; yet the presence of grace in the world is ubiquitous, far transcending the boundaries of the visible Church. That is because Christ, by whose merits all grace is granted, is far more than the visible Church: he is a cosmic Christ, indeed God himself. Yet grace is ubiquitous in the world also because of his Church, because she is his Mystical Body. The existence of the Church is therefore necessary for all the grace that God offers in this world, and the scandal of the Church's particularity is part and parcel of the universality of God's love "reconciling the world to himself" in Christ. Divine grace is offered to humanity through the visible Church and never without her. And yet grace, understood as God's divinizing, self-giving presence to humanity, pre-exists and far overflows the visible Church. Some people can and do respond positively to divine grace without even being in a position to consider the question of the Church. That is why the Church is the "sacrament" of salvation and unity without its following that full membership in her is necessary for salvation.
The question for us, then, is whether and to what extent a real, positive response to grace can incorporate a person into Christ, and therefore into the Church, without that response leading to full membership in the Church before death. Yet short of formal incorporation into the Church, that is not a question which anybody is in a position to answer for themselves. Even to raise such a question for oneself is to seek excuses for not undergoing a full conversion of mind and heart. Nor can the Church answer the question with certainty in any particular case. That is one reason why inviting people to full membership is so important. What we can and must say, however, is that the death and resurrection of Christ has destined all for "eternal life" in and through him. Such life is and will be some sort of union with God that death and time cannot end. As individuals, each of us is in a position to decide by our choices whether that union will be bliss or torture for us: "heaven" or "hell." That holds for everybody: non-Christians as well as Christians. The advantage of full membership in the Church is that one is given to understand what is at stake and is given the ordinary means for conforming one's mind, heart, and life to Christ. But given that God's grace suffices for the salvation of each and every person, even the unevangelized; and given also that membership in the Church is necessary for salvation, any real, positive response to God's ubiquitous grace that objectively orients one's life to Christ sets one on the path to full incorporation into the Church. If a person's failure to be fully incorporated is inculpable for some reason, God can and does count that person's positive response to grace as a measure of incorporation into Christ, and therefore as a degree of membership in the Church. If a person is on that path when they die and meet their Maker, then their response to him will be an act of explicit faith, and constitute their salvation.
Accordingly, the question "Who can be saved?" is to be answered not by citing formal religious affiliation, but thus: "Whoever dies while being headed in the right direction." Full incorporation into the Church gives one all one needs to head in the right direction; those whose membership is only partial are in a position that then-Cardinal Ratzinger called "gravely deficient." As the recent CDF document on evangelization indicates, therefore, it is an imperative of love to preach the truth fully to all and invite them to full incorporation into the Church.