Image via WikipediaPraised be Jesus Christ! [A friend] has asked me to write this message clarifying the Catholic Church's teaching on salvation, particularly as it pertains to those of the Muslim faith. I should state from the outset that I do not speak for the Church in any official capacity; that authority lies with our bishops and Pope alone. Rather, I repeat and--I hope--clarify the Church's teaching as it has been enunciated by our revered pastors. I pray that the Holy Spirit guide me in this and preserve me from error.
What about the Muslims?
Some non-Catholic Christians have suggested to me that the Church teaches that Muslims are saved through faith in the God of Abraham, rather that faith in Jesus Christ. This, however, is a misunderstanding of the Church's teaching. Quoting the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day (841).
Please observe that the Catechism does not say that Muslims are saved through faith in the God of Abraham, but rather that they are included in God's plan of salvation. In other words, God intends to save the Muslims, just as He intends to save everyone, for God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). Please also observe that the Catechism does not say that Muslims do hold the faith of Abraham, but profess to hold the faith of Abraham. While admitting our similarities (i.e. reverence for Abraham and the worship of God who is one, merciful and just), the Church does not deny our differences, still less suggest that these differences do not matter when it comes to salvation.
Salvation Through Christ Alone
It has also been suggested to me that the Catholic Church teaches that one can be saved without Jesus Christ. This also is a misunderstanding of the Church's teaching. Again quoting Vatican II, the Catechism states:
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--these too may achieve eternal salvation (847).
In other words, those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel are not thereby guilty of a sin worthy of damnation.
Further, the Catholic Church professes that "there 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 Church reiterates this in the document Dominus Iesus:
The thesis which denies the unicity and salvific universality of the mystery of Jesus Christ... has no biblical foundation. In fact, the truth of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord and only Savior, who through the event of his incarnation, death and resurrection has brought the history of salvation to fulfilment, and which has in him its fullness and centre, must be firmly believed" (13, emphasis mine).
Thus, there can be no suggestion that the Church teaches that salvation is possible without Christ.
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus
However, the Catholic Church also teaches that "outside the Church there is no salvation." The Catechism again:
How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His Body (846).
Make no mistake, since salvation comes from Christ alone, and the Body is perfectly united to the Head, there can be no salvation without the Church. However, this is not to say that all who are not "Catholic" in the way the world understands it are necessarily damned. But if they are saved, it is necessarily through the agency of the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ.
My feeling is that, in general, Christians need an attitude check when it comes to the salvation of unbelievers. The attitude of the Catholic Church, which is reflective of the attitude of Jesus Christ, is simply this: "Judge not, that you be not judged" (Mt 7:1). Remember, Christ's teaching is not that unbelievers must believe in the Gospel or woe to them, but that we believers must preach the Gospel or woe to us. For "to whom much has been given, much shall be expected" (Lk 12:48). If our attitude is fundamentally condemnatory of unbelievers, yet we never lift a finger to evangelize, the judgement upon us will be severe.
I hope that this helps to clarify the Church's teaching on salvation. Any questions or comments are most welcome. I only ask that they be offered in a spirit of Christian charity, realizing that we all "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
May Jesus Christ, our Lord and only Savior, bless you and those you love.
In the Hearts of Jesus and Mary,
Catholic seminarian (college level)