Let’s presuppose the basics. Salvation consists of at least the following: (1) the forgiveness of sins through the redemption offered in Jesus Christ, (2) the healing of human nature by the grace of Christ, (3) the elevation of human nature to participate in the life of God, by grace in this life, and ordered toward the beatific vision and the resurrection of the flesh in the life to come. Any definition that leaves out one of these elements is necessarily incomplete.
The Second Vatican Council affirms a number of traditional teachings on “who will be saved,” but also leaves open important questions. We should clarify why this is the case, and how it continues to effect the subject of evangelization today.
First, then, consider four traditional teachings that the Council affirms:
(1) God offers the possibility of salvation to all human beings. This idea is present in Gaudium et Spes 22 and Lumen Gentium 16. It is not really a new idea in Catholic theology. In the 1658, Pope Innocent X condemned the Jansenist opinion that Christ died only for the elect. In other words, the Church affirmed that Christ died for all men, a teaching that entails that the grace of Christ is offered to all. This teaching has its origins in Scripture (I Jn 2:2; I Tim 2:4-6) and is found in the thought of Doctors of the Church, including Thomas Aquinas. The idea is not an innovation.
(2) However, the Church also insists that the grace of Christ can be rejected or refused. This is the unambiguous teaching of the Council of Trent. (6th Sess., can. 4 and 17.) Consequently, the fact that grace is offered to all does not mean that all will be saved. On the contrary, the universal offer of grace opens up the possibility of the culpable refusal of grace, and the possibility of eternal loss. Again, the idea is scriptural (Mt. 11:20-24; 12:41-42). We find it in Lumen Gentium 13-14: “All men are called to be part of…the people of God…[yet] the Church…is necessary for salvation…. Christ himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (Mk 16:16) 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.”
(3) The Church teaches that there are seven sacraments that were instituted by Christ, and which are instrumental causes or channels of grace. This idea also was affirmed by the Council of Trent (7th Sess.) and is reiterated in Lumen Gentium 11. This is significant, because the teaching clearly implies that it is not enough to be baptized in order to be saved. The Christian who commits a mortal sin after baptism (losing the grace of charity) and who culpably fails to avail himself of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) cannot be saved. The reason for this is that only confession restores the grace of charity to a baptized person who has sinned gravely. (Trent, 14th Sess.) To seek purposefully to return to God without going to confession is itself a form of disobedience toward God, and thus not a remedy for sin. Meanwhile, baptism and confession are ordered toward communion in the Eucharist, a communion with the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter. Christians who knowingly refuse to enter into or to remain within the Catholic Church forsake union with the body of Christ, and so cannot be saved (Lumen Gentium, 14).
(4) However, God’s grace does work outside of the sacraments in many cases. For Catholic Christians this can occur when they are deprived of the sacraments through no fault of their own, or when they pray for grace outside the sacraments, even while also regularly receiving them. Likewise, a catechumen who dies without baptism can be saved from the “desire for baptism.” Outside the Catholic Church, those who are in invincible ignorance regarding the nature of the Church and the sacraments can still receive the offer of salvation. This was an explicit teaching of Pope Pius IX in the 19th century, and it has clear precedents in the teaching of 13th century scholastic theologians like Aquinas.
Lumen Gentium 15-16 presents this idea in a complex and nuanced way. (We find complementary teachings in Unitatis Redintegratio and Nostra Aetate.) Notice the emphasis on the conditional. The Eastern Orthodox Churches can communicate life in the grace of Christ, a grace that tends implicitly toward plenary communion with the Roman Church. Protestant Christians might live in a state of grace (with charity in their hearts) based upon their baptismal life in Christ, and his forgiveness of their sins, but they face potential setbacks due to problematic beliefs and seriously erroneous moral practices. It is possible for the grace of God to be at work among those who believe in the one God (Jews or Muslims), and also in those who, through other religious traditions, “in shadows and images seek the unknown God.” Grace may even be at work in the hearts of those who do not believe in God.
Nevertheless, the text goes on to say that we should not be presumptuous: “often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature,’ (Mk. 16:16) the Church fosters the missions with care and attention” (Lumen Gentium, 16).
All of this leaves us with a key theological question: how intensive is the activity of grace outside of the sacramental sphere?
The influential modern Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar have read Lumen Gentium in a more maximalist way, as if to suggest that effectively saving grace is present in all persons irrespectively of the sacraments, such that they should necessarily be saved. In other words, they have pushed for the idea of the effective universal salvation of all. However, this view leads to a kind of Gnosticism that ignores the signs of spiritual poverty and human callousness in the real world we live in. When secular cultures demonstrate indifference to the teachings of the Gospel and become increasingly non-sacramental, they also become less human and more estranged from God. We cannot be sure of the state of grace of any particular person. But there are probable signs of the presence of spiritual death, as well as spiritual life.
Who will be saved? We do not know. However, in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 836-56) and in the document Dominus Jesus, the Magisterium has insisted that the means instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church (her teachings and sacraments) remain the ordinary means of salvation in the world we live in. People can be saved without these means, but it is greatly to one’s advantage to receive their graces in order to be saved. The ignorance that many people live in is a dangerous one, not purely inculpable, but “affected ignorance.” They are alienated from God due to the consequences of original sin (CCC, 402-409). In this state, human beings partially recognize religious and moral truths that they nevertheless reject culpably. Here, the Church’s clear preaching and teaching are necessary in order to enlighten human consciences, and so that the grace of God can convict hearts and invite them to real conversion.
Vatican II gives us a number of sound principles on the question, “Who can be saved?” But the documents must be read carefully in the light of sacred tradition. This tradition, meanwhile, underscores the necessity for salvation of Christ and the Church. Consequently, we who live in a secular age should take note: we have a joyful obligation to evangelize. What is at stake is nothing less than the salvation of human beings. However, Christ is with us even in the midst of our secular age! Accordingly, we can evangelize with vigorous hope in the grace of God to illumine human minds, and to inflame human hearts with charity.