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Salvation of the Infidel

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

New Catholic Encyclopedia
Vol. 7, 1967, pp. 502-504

The problem of how persons outside Judeo-Christianity can be saved has troubled theologians for centuries, and the final solution is still a matter of speculation. Certainly God wills all men to reach their heavenly destiny. But where do those who have traditionally been called *infidels obtain the *faith that St. Paul says is necessary to please God, and how can they be saved outside the Church, which is the only ark of salvation? (Cf Denz 870.) These are the basic issues involved in any satisfactory solution of the problem.

The infidels under discussion are unbaptized persons who have reached the age of reason and who die in their “infidelity” before the Christian “revelation has been sufficiently proposed to them. A preferable term might be afidelity, since infidelity implies a culpable refusal to believe and corresponds to what patristic tradition called perfidy or positive, and not merely negative, *unbelief.

As a context for examining the problem, a number of propositions should be assumed either as defined by the Church or as commonly held in theology. Thus, God sincerely wills the salvation of all men; the act and habit or virtue of supernatural faith (elevated by grace) are necessary for the salvation of adults; the motive for such faith is the authority of God revealing and not simply natural knowledge derived from reason alone; the object of faith, or what is believed, indispensable for salvation is certainly God’s existence and attribute of Rewarder, and probably belief in Christ and the Trinity; every adult can in some way acquire sufficient knowledge of revelation to make an act of saving faith and perfect love of God before death; and the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla saIus— “outside the Church there is no salvation,” is universally valid, so that mediation of the Roman Catholic Church, which is the *Mystical Body of Christ, is needed for the salvation of every human being. (See EXTRA ECCLESIAM NULLA SALUS.)

Acquisition of Faith. Christ Himself told His disciples that “he who does not believe shall be condemned” (Mk 16.16). St. Paul made this obligation the basis for the Christian apostolate, asking: “How then are they to call upon him in whom they have not believed? But how are they to believe him whom they have not heard? And how are they to hear, if no one preaches?” (Rom 10.14). The question, however, is how can people out of contact with the Christian religion obtain the faith when no one has preached to them. A broad range of theories has been stimulated by a legitimate concern for the destiny of millions of these nominal pagans.

The least satisfactory solution argues that only habitual but not actual faith is necessary for adults to be saved. Provided a man does what he can in following his conscience, God will infuse the virtue of faith and dispense with the duty of also actually believing in supernaturally revealed truths. This theory seems to evade the problem since it ignores the centuries-old conviction expressed by St. Thomas, that, in order to reach heaven, “for all those who can exercise free will, the act of faith, as well as habitual faith, is necessary” (In 3 sent

A more plausible explanation was given by the late Cardinal Louis Billot, who also avoided the main difficulty by suggesting that infidels may be rational enough on the lower plane of secular knowledge, but they are moral infants on the higher level of religious culture. Since they are not responsible for their actions, God will treat them as children who have not the full use of their reason, with the prospect of going to a kind of *Limbo after death. Theologians find it hard to reconcile Billot’s generous hypothesis with the repeated insistence in Scripture and tradition on the relative ease of knowing at least something about God and the moral law, even without special revelation. If such minimal knowledge is easy to secure, there seem to be no valid grounds to suppose that most infidels are morally irresponsible. Of course, exceptions are possible, but Billot wished to describe a regular occurrence.

Pinard de la Boullaye made the suggestion that with persons who have neither direct nor indirect knowledge of the true historic faith, God may accept as equivalent any pseudorevelation that happens to coincide with the truth. He went beyond merely saying that a man’s reason for believing can be inadequate or only subjectively convincing, as a child in Christian surroundings might believe only on the word of a parent or teacher. A completely false deity is erroneously credited with having revealed what he never said. Pinard’s theory has not been favorably received, mainly because it allows God to infuse the grace of the true faith on the strength of two objective errors, intellectual assent on the word of a legendary god and belief in the attributes of a deity who does not exist.

A once widely held solution of the problem as to where the infidel gets his faith began with the postulate of a primitive revelation at the very dawn of history (see REVELATION, PRIMITIVE). Although much dimmed in the process of transmission, this primordial speaking of God to the human family would have been, according to this theory, sufficiently diffused and substantially preserved throughout the world to become the groundwork of a religious faith distinct from either Judaism or Christianity. Were one to grant that authentic traces of primitive revelation exist, and that people believe in it on divine and not merely human authority, these traces would offer sufficient grounds for that supernatural faith which the Council of Trent defined as “the beginning of human salvation” (Denz 1532).

Still another possibility was suggested by St. Thomas, that in urgent cases God would “reveal by internal inspiration what he has to believe,” to the “good pagan” who followed the dictates of conscience in doing good and avoiding evil (De ver. 14.11). A few theologians have extended the idea to say that every dying person is faced with a supreme moral test on which his destiny depends. At that moment infidels receive a special revelation. There is no objection to the theory, unless a possible exception to the ordinary course of Providence is stated as an absolute and universal law.

Necessity of the Church. Correlative with the practical question of how infidels obtain the faith they need for salvation is the dogmatic one of how they can be saved at all if they die without having professed the Catholic religion. The Church’s necessity has been solemnly defined on three occasions, notably by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which declared, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all (nullus omnino) is saved” (Denz 802). Elaborated by generations of theologians, the doctrine was authoritatively clarified by the Holy Office in a letter to Archbishop Cushing of Boston in 1949, in connection with the “Boston Heresy Case” (Bousc-O’Connor 3:525.-530).

The issue resolved was whether God denies the grace of conversion to the Catholic Church to a person who is perfectly faithful to the divine will. It was contended that because God has promised to bestow that gift on all men of good will, He cannot withhold it from any man, except if this man has wickedly resisted all the graces already given to him, and would also resist this grace. By implication all infidels who die without actually professing Catholicism are lost.

Reacting to this rigorism, the Holy Office recalled the ancient tradition that God is master of His grace and not obliged to grant the gift of the Catholic faith to anyone, even to those who are perfectly submissive to His laws. Yet such persons can be saved. For although the Church is indispensable in two ways, by precept and as instrument of grace, they can satisfy both conditions without actual Catholic membership.

A precept implies the duty of obedience only when the obligation has been adequately proposed and sufficiently recognized. Invincible ignorance, therefore, as in the case of negative infidels, would excuse from culpability for not professing the Catholic faith. As long as there is good will and correspondence with the graces received, “God also accepts an implicit desire, so named because contained in the good disposition of soul by which a person wants his will to be conformed to the will of God” (ibid. 528). Consequently, on this level he is saved through his connection with the Church, voto (by intention) or desiderio (by desire). See VOTUM.

Also on the second level as channel of grace everyone needs the Church, including nominal infidels who enter eternity before entering the Catholic Church, which God has made the repository of all graces and the channel for their communication to the world.

In order to attain the beatific vision, in the face-to-face possession of God in heaven, a person must have died with sanctifying grace on his soul. This supernatural gift is always dispensed through the Church, of which Christ the God-man is the invisible Head. In other words, whoever is finally saved owes to the Church the divine blessings he received during life, from the first glimmer of faith by which an infidel came to believe in revelation to the gift of perseverance that assured his eternal destiny. All of this was possible, however, only because he was somehow attached to the Church by his responsiveness to the divine will. God recognizes the good will to imply a desire of becoming a Catholic. It matters little that psychologically the infidel is unaware of the full implications of his generosity. Objectively God sees the implications and credits the soul accordingly.

In terms of St. Paul’s analogy of the Church as the Mystical Body, this means that the Body of Christ (not unlike human bodies) is active beyond its own physical self. From the Spirit of Christ, which animates the Church (see SOUL OF THE CHURCH), it radiates a power that sanctifies its actual members and others besides— including the most remote infidels—through all the channels of grace (notably through the sacrifice of the Mass).


Bibliography: R. Aubert, Le Problème de Pacte de foi (3d ed. Louvain 1958). L. Capéran, Le Problème du salut des infidèles, 2 v. (new ed. Toulouse 1934). J. Daniélou, The Salvation of the Nations (New York 1962). P. De Letter, “Good Pagans and Baptism of Desire,” Clergy Monthly 16 (1952) 288-297, 409-416. J. De Reeper, “The Problem of the Salvation of the Heathen,” Worldmission 6 (1955) 355-370. M. Eminyan, The Theology of Salvation (Boston 1960). J. C. Fenton, The Catholic Church and Salvation (Westminster, Md. 1958). A. S. Hernandez, Salvación y paganismo (Santander 1960). J. J. King, The Necessity of the Church for Salvation in Selected Theological Writings of the Past Century (Washington 1960). R. Lombardi, The Salvation of the Unbeliever, tr. D. M. White (Westminster, Md. 1956). F. I. Ortega, De vocatione omnium gentium in salutem (Manila 1946). P. Parente, “La possibilita dell’atto di fede negl’infedeli,” Euntes Docete 3 (1950) 161-180. Pius XII MysCorp. S. Tromp, Corpus Christi quod est Ecclesia, 3 v. (Rome 1937-1960), v.1 tr. A. Condit (New York 1960).

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