Passages from
The Spirit of Catholicism
Concerning the Salvation of Non-Catholics

first published in English in 1935

Rev. Karl Adam

from Chapter X: The Church Necessary for Salvation

If we would interpret correctly the Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church, that is to say if we would understand it as the Church would have it understood, we should grasp its history and its connection with the rest of her teaching. For no Catholic doctrine is an isolated mass of thought, but has on the contrary its proper place and meaning in the whole unitary system and cannot be fully appreciated except through this whole system.

To begin with, it is certain that the declaration that there is no salvation outside the Church is not aimed at individual non-Catholics, at any persons as persons, but at non-Catholic churches and communions, in so far as they are non-Catholic communions. Its purpose is to formulate positively the truth that there is but one Body of Christ and therefore but one Church which possesses and imparts the grace of Christ in its fullness. Stated otherwise the declaration would run: Every separated church which sets itself up against the original Church of Christ stands outside the communion of Christ’s grace. It cannot be a mediator of salvation. So far as it is a separate and antagonistic church, it is essentially unfruitful as regards the supernatural life. So that that spiritual unfruitfulness which is predicated in the doctrine is not to be affirmed of the individual non-Catholic, but primarily of non-Catholic communions as such. By that which constitutes their separateness and differentiates them in faith and worship from the Catholic Church, they are able to awaken no supernatural life. Therefore, in so far as they are un-Catholic and anti-Catholic, that is to say in regard to their distinct character, they are not able to claim the honorable title of a “mother” church.

In saying so much we have already indicated the second dogmatic qualification which the proposition receives within the system of Catholic doctrine. For non-Catholic communions are not merely non-Catholic and anti-Catholic. When they set themselves up against the original Church of Christ, they took over and maintained a considerable amount of the Catholic inheritance, and also certain Catholic means of grace, in particular the sacrament of Baptism. They are therefore, if we regard them as a whole, not mere antithesis and negation, but also to a large extent thesis and affirmation of the ancient treasure of truth and grace that has come down to us from Christ and the apostles. Their churches are built not only of their own un-Catholic materials, but also of Catholic stuff from the original store of salvation. And in so far as they are genuinely Catholic in their faith and worship, it can and will and must happen that there should be, even outside the visible Church, a real growth and progress in union with Christ. So is the promise of Jesus fulfilled: “And other sheep I have that are not of this fold” (Jn. x, 16). Wherever the Gospel of Jesus is faithfully preached, and wherever baptism is conferred with faith in His Holy Name, there His grace can operate. When the disciples would have forbidden a man who had not attached himself to Jesus from casting out devils in His Name, Our Lord declared: “Forbid him not. For there is no man that doth a miracle in my name and can soon speak ill of me. He that is not against you is for you” (Mk. ix, 38-39). The Church acted entirely in harmony with these words of our Lord when in her severe struggle with St. Cyprian and the African tradition and afterwards in prolonged controversy with the Donatists, she upheld the validity of baptism in the Name of Jesus conferred by heretics. And it was Rome, Rome that is so violently attacked for her intolerance, and Pope Stephen, who even at the peril of an African schism would not allow heretical baptism to be impugned. The Church practices the same toleration with regard to the valid administration of the other sacraments, so far as their nature requires only the power of orders and not also the power of jurisdiction. In those non-Catholic bodies in which the apostolic succession has been maintained by means of valid episcopal ordinations, as in the schismatic churches of the East, and in the Jansenist and Old-Catholic churches, she still recognizes the validity of all those sacraments which of their nature do not require her power of jurisdiction but only valid orders. It is Catholic teaching, therefore, that in all these churches the true Body and the true Blood of Christ are received in the Holy Eucharist, not because they are schismatical churches, that is to say not because of their own special character, but because in spite of this they still preserve a part of the original Catholic heritage. It is that which is Catholic in them that still has power to sanctify and to save.

And—to pass to a third point of doctrine which illustrates the proposition we are discussing—we are not to regard these sacraments thus administered outside the Church as being objectively valid only, and not also subjectively efficacious. St. Augustine seems to have held such a view regarding the efficacy of these sacraments. He supposed, apparently, that the grace objectively provided in these non-Catholic sacraments was not subjectively effective in the heretics and schismatics who received them, because they were all in bad faith, or, more profoundly, because they were in deliberate and obstinate antagonism to the spirit of unity, and therefore to the Holy Ghost. The Jansenists in the seventeenth century followed St. Augustine and advocated the same erroneous opinion, setting it up as their principle that “outside the Church there is no grace” (extra ecclesiam nulla conceditur gratia). But again it was Rome and a pope that expressly rejected this proposition....

If we consider the Church’s claim to be the only Church wherein men may be saved in the clear and radiant light of her belief that God’s grace knows no bounds or limits to its operation, we at once see the true and profound meaning of that claim. The Church understands it to mean that by virtue of the express institution of Christ she represents in the economy of salvation the ordinary proper institute of the truth and grace of Jesus on the earth. In the Catholic Church the saving power, which was revealed in Christ, flows into the world with original force, in untroubled purity, and in complete and exhaustive fullness. With original force—for while non-Catholic bodies owe such Christian truth and grace as they possess to the Catholic Church, the Church receives it through no intermediary but direct and fresh from our Lord Himself. She is in fact nothing else but His body of disciples, expanded in space and time. In untroubled purity—for she has not, like the various sects, contaminated her Christian heritage with novelties and modernisms, but has in the unbroken series of her bishops maintained it as immaculately pure as she received it from Christ. In exhaustive fullness—for she does not choose only this or that precious jewel, but she calls her own the whole inheritance of revealed truth contained in Scripture and Tradition. Therefore the Church is the true and ordinary institute of the grace and truth of Jesus. But that does not prevent there being, alongside this ordinary institute, extraordinary ways of salvation, or hinder the grace of Christ from visiting particular men without the mediation of the Church. But because and in so far as the Body of Christ comprehends all those who are saved by Christ, those also who are visited by His grace in this immediate way belong to His Church. It is true that they do not belong to its outward and visible body, but they certainly belong to its invisible, supernatural soul, to its supernatural substance. For the grace of Christ never works in the individual in an isolated fashion, but always in the unity of His Body. This-point is repeatedly emphasized by St. Augustine: “Wouldst thou live by the Spirit of Christ, thou must be in the Body of Christ.... For only the Body of Christ can live by the Spirit of Christ” (In ev. Joann. xxvi, 13; cf. xxvii, 6). And thus it holds good, even for those brethren who are thus separated from the visible organism of the Church, that they too are saved in the Church, and not without her or in opposition to her.

But, it may be objected, how can there be true Christians who belong to the soul of the Church and yet are separated from her visible body? How can a man belong to the Body of Christ and yet not belong to the body of the Church? In supplying a brief answer to this question, we shall pass from the theological to the psychological explanation of the dogma under discussion. From the purely theological standpoint, in the light of the dogmatic idea of the intimate and necessary connection between Christ and the Church, the only possible conclusion regarding all heretics and schismatics, Jews and pagans, is that judgment of condemnation which the Council of Florence pronounced upon them. In so far as they stand, and will to stand, outside the one Church of Christ, they stand according to strict theology outside the sphere of Christ’s grace and therefore outside salvation. It is thus, from this purely theological standpoint, that we are to understand the sharp anathemas pronounced by the Church against all heretics and schismatics, as also those contained in that Borromeo Encyclical of Pope Pius X which was so much impugned. In these pronouncements the Church is not deciding the good or bad faith of the individual heretic. Still less is she sitting in judgment on his ultimate fate. The immediate purport of her condemnation is that these heretics represent and proclaim ideas antagonistic to the Church. When ideas are in conflict, when truth is fighting against error, and revelation against human ingenuity, then there can be no compromise and no indulgence. If our Lord had exercised such indulgence, He would not have been crucified. When He called the Pharisees whited sepulchers and a brood of vipers, and Herod a fox, He was not inspired by any sort of hatred against individuals, but by the tremendous earnestness of truth. It was His defiant and vivid conviction of responsibility for eternal truth that caused Him to use such strong words towards error and its representatives. And if we do not fight thus for the truth, then we lose all moral and spiritual power, we become characterless, we disown God. Dogmatic intolerance is therefore a moral duty, a duty to the infinite truth and to truthfulness.

But so soon as it is a question, not of the conflict between idea and idea, but of living men, of our judgment on this or that non-Catholic, then the theologian becomes a psychologist, the dogmatist a pastor of souls. He draws attention to the fact that the living man is very rarely the embodiment of an idea, that the conceptual world and mentality of the individual are so multifarious and complicated, that he cannot be reduced to a single formula. In other words the heretic, the Jew and the pagan seldom exist in a pure state. What we actually have before us is living men, with their fundamental outlook influenced or dominated by this or that erroneous idea. Therefore the Church expressly distinguishes between “formal” and “material” heretics. A “formal” heretic rejects the Church and its teaching absolutely and with full deliberation; a “material” heretic rejects the Church from lack of knowledge, being influenced by false prejudice or by an anti-Catholic upbringing. St. Augustine forbids us to blame a man for being a heretic because he was born of heretical parents, provided that he does not with obstinate self-assurance shut out all better knowledge, but seeks the truth simply and loyally....

True there is only one Church of Christ. She alone is the Body of Christ and without her there is no salvation. Objectively and practically considered she is the ordinary way of salvation, the single and exclusive channel by which the truth and grace of Christ enter our world of space and time. But those also who know her not receive these gifts from her; yes, even those who misjudge and fight against her, provided they are in good faith, and are simply and loyally seeking the truth without self-righteous obstinacy. Though it be not the Catholic Church itself which hands them the bread of truth and grace, yet it is Catholic bread that they eat. And, while they eat of it, they are, without knowing it or willing it, incorporated in the supernatural substance of the Church. Though they be outwardly separated from the Church, they belong to its soul.

So that the non-Catholic of good will is already fundamentally united to the Church. It is only that he sees her not. Yet she is there, invisible and mysterious. And the more he grows in faith and in love, the more plainly will she become actually visible to him. Many have already seen her, and many more yet will see her. There is a special possibility of such reunion with the Catholic Church wherever Protestantism has remained faithful to Christ and believes truly in the Incarnate God. And it is because we believe that very many non-Catholics are already thus invisibly united with the Church, that we do not abandon our conviction that this invisible union will one day be made visible in all its beauty. The more consciously and completely we all of us exhibit the spirit of Christ, the more certainly will that hour of grace approach, when the veils will fall from all eyes, when we shall put away all prejudice and misunderstanding and bitterness, when we shall once again as of old extend to one another the hand of brotherhood, when there shall be one God, one Christ, one shepherd and one flock.

The passages were taken from Chapter X: The Church Necessary for Salvation in The Spirit of Catholicism in the Catholic Church Documents Library @ the Eternal Word Television Network website.
See also Passage from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Passages from Radio Replies, and Passage from Whereon to Stand.
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Lane Core Jr. (
Created August 3, 2001; revised August 5, 2001.