By Fr. Ray Ryland
The Second Vatican Council affirmed that the Holy Spirit can use non-Catholic traditions for the salvation of their members. If in ignorance of the whole truth of the Church these persons serve God as best they can, they can be saved. The Church also teaches that non-Christians can be saved if they strive to serve God with faith on the basis of the best information they have of Him.
And yet, down through the ages, the Church has taught, in the words of Saint Cyprian, extra ecclesiam nulla salus: “outside the Church, no salvation.” The Second Vatican Council re-affirmed this doctrine: “Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it [the Council] teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in his Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation.”
Several years ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document that states, “With the coming of the Saviour Jesus Christ, God has willed that the Church founded by him be the instrument for the salvation of all humanity.” Note that the Church is not saying “an instrument”; she is saying “the instrument.”
These two themes seem contradictory at first glance: salvation by Jesus Christ is available to non-Catholic and non-Christians, and yet there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. Yet proper understanding of extra ecclesiam resolves this apparent contradiction. This doctrine says nothing about the scope of Christ’s salvation. It only designates how Jesus Christ makes His salvation available to all human beings.
Start with the fact that Jesus Christ is the redeemer, the only redeemer of the world. He revealed Himself in absolute terms: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Equally categorical is Saint Peter’s proclamation of Christ to the Sanhedrin: “[T]here is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks of “the one universal gift of salvation offered by the Father through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.” God has never left any of His children without some knowledge of Himself (Rom 1:18ff.).
To fulfill His messianic mission, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity took on human nature from His mother, Mary. He lived a natural life in a human body through which—and only through which—He redeemed the universe. Since His ascension, and until the end of time, Jesus lives a supernatural life in another body: the body of His members, the Mystical Body. For Protestants—and I once believed this—the phrase “Body of Christ” is essentially a metaphor. For Catholics, it denotes literal reality.
Here’s why. The Catholic Church is not simply Christ’s representative on earth, although she is that. The Catholic Church is Christ Himself, living an incarnate life in the bodies of His members who together constitute the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. The Catholic Church is the body in and through which Christ continues to live and love and speak until His Second Coming—indeed, just as truly as when He lived and loved and spoke in the Holy Land two thousand ago. Our Lord emphasized the supernatural quality of His Church when He said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The branches express the life of the vine. Branches can do nothing apart from the vine. But the vine can bear fruit only through its branches.
Recall how Jesus identified Himself with His Church when He spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus. Falling to the ground, Paul “heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 9:4–5). Paul had never laid eyes on Jesus. Yet twice Jesus indicted Paul for persecuting Him. Paul persecuted Jesus when he persecuted the Mystical Body of Christ.
In his encyclical Mystici Corporis (1943), Pope Pius XII stressed Jesus’ identification with His Church. The Holy Father drew a parallel between the Incarnation and the founding of the Church: “As the Word of God willed to make use of our nature, when . . . he would redeem mankind, so in the same way throughout the centuries he makes use of the Church that the work begun might endure.” Redemption, subjectively speaking, is an ongoing process, not a once-for-all event.
Pope Pius emphasized the fact that Christ carries on His redemptive work through His Mystical Body. Christ could have imparted all His graces “to mankind directly, but he willed to do so only through a visible Church.” And why only through His visible Church? Christ wanted all the members of His Mystical Body to “cooperate with him in dispensing the grace of redemption.” Dispensing: a continuous process.
The Second Vatican Council underlined Pope Pius XII’s parallel between Christ’s physical body and His Mystical Body. Just as Jesus used His natural body “as a living organ of salvation,” in a similar way “the visible social structure of the Church serve the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it.” Again, Christ constituted a supernatural body out of all His members. And for what purpose? To be the “entity with visible delineation through which he communicated truth and grace to all.”
“Outside the Church, no salvation.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us, “Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (846). Wherever the grace of Christ appears—and it appears throughout creation—it always comes, however mysteriously, through His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church: His Mystical Body on earth.
Drawn from Shadows into Truth: A Memoir is the autobiography of the late Fr. Ray Ryland, a convert, apologist, and one of the first Protestant ministers ordained to the Catholic priesthood in America. His autobiography is a moving testament to the presence of Providence in the life of a man who seemed patiently dedicated to pursuing Truth, no matter where He might lead.