Can Divine Mercy Save Those Outside The Church?
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 9, 2010)
In recent months I have received several questions about the eternal destiny of people who are sincere seekers after truth and virtue, but who cannot in good conscience accept the Catholic faith and join the Church. What happens to them when they die? Are they cut off from grace in this life and lost forever in the next because they remained outside the Catholic Church?
For example, a woman named Cheryl shared with me these concerns:
A few years back I went on an Emmaus walk and learned about the many graces of God, which are non-denominational. ... I no longer claim [adherence to] a denomination preferring "Christian" as my faith....I don't accept the belief of those denominations that believe they are the only ones going to heaven and/or that God's grace is not given equally to all Christians. God gave Jesus and His grace to all who believe in Him and His Son Jesus Christ.
A man named Francis also wondered what happened to those who died before the crucifixion of Christ, the birth of the Church after Easter and the spread of the Gospel. How could those people be saved? For example, he wrote, our Lord said to St. Faustina, commenting on His death at the three o'clock hour:
At that moment mercy was opened wide for the whole world (Diary, entry 1572). What does this mean for those who died before 3 p.m. on Good Friday? For as we know, many generations of people lived and died before Christ even appeared on earth. What, therefore, is their relationship with the mercy that began at 3 p.m. on Good Friday?
A couple of years ago I wrote a column for the Q&A series called "Divine Mercy and People of Other Faiths". That column touched upon some of these issues, but in that column I was responding to a question about the extraordinary graces of Divine Mercy Sunday, and whether those graces are available to non-Catholics as well. Here I want to expand what I said in that old column, and talk about the eternal destiny of all those in honest doubt who remain outside the Church.
First, to the question posed by Francis: What about those who lived before the coming of Christ? How could they possibly partake of the graces of salvation Jesus won for us on the Cross for all who repent and believe in Him?
Well, Francis, the ancient Fathers of the Church, living as they did in a largely pagan world, discussed this question in considerable depth. They held to the orthodox Christian Faith that, as Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (Jn 14:6). Thus, the Fathers taught that apart from participating in the life of His "Body" on earth, the Church (see I Cor 12), one cannot find salvation. At the same time, they held that to participate at least to some degree in the life of Christ and the Church it is not absolutely necessary to be a "card-carrying member" of the Church. Rather, the Church of Jesus Christ existed in some sense from the beginning of the human race. All who follow the truth and commandments of God, as far as they are aware of them, are in a spiritual sense part of the one, true Church.
For example, St. Justin Martyr in the second century taught that some people who lived before the coming of Christ were really Christians because they followed the "Logos," the Divine Word or Wisdom of God, in their hearts (see Jn 1:1-13). The same Divine Person of the Trinity — the eternal Son or Logos — is both the pre-incarnate Logos, "the light who enlightens every man who comes into the world" (Jn 1:9), as well as the one who later became incarnate for us as Jesus Christ and who died for our sins on the Cross. Thus, when relatively virtuous and godly pagans followed the guidance of the pre-incarnate Logos in their hearts, they were participating, to some extent at least, in the truth and life of Christ. Saint Justin Martyr reasoned such people would not suffer eternal loss (Apology, 1:46). This was also the view of St. Irenaeus of Lyons (Against Heresies, 4.28.2) and St. Augustine (Epistle 102, Retractions 1.13.3).
That is also one reason why the Church included in the Apostles Creed the doctrine that Christ "descended to the dead." This phrase does not only mean that Jesus Christ died a real human death. It means that between His death on the Cross on Good Friday and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning, His soul descended to the realm of the dead, and brought the full light and life of the Gospel to the souls of the patriarchs and prophets — and also, presumably, to the virtuous pagans — so that they could share in the fruits of His redemption. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this doctrine in entries 631-637: "In His human soul united to His divine person, the dead Christ went down to the realm of the dead. He opened heaven's gates for the just who had gone before Him" (entry 637; cf. I Peter 3:18-19, and 4:6).
In short, a God of mercy would not unjustly condemn for all eternity everyone who lived before the time of Christ or who lived outside of the reach of Christian missions and who therefore had no chance to hear the Gospel. It must be possible for people who live in a state of "invincible ignorance" of the truth of the Gospel (in other words, ignorance of the Catholic faith that is not primarily their own fault) to be saved in the end. They may not know of God's special revelation of His love and grace through Jesus Christ. They may only know God's Divine Word or Logos through His "voice within," the voice of conscience calling them to do what is right (Rom 2:14-16) and through the beauty and order of nature, "for the invisible things of Him are clearly seen through the things that are made, even His eternal power and deity" (Rom 1:19-20). The Bible says that God has not left anyone without some witness to Himself (Acts 14:17) and that the human heart can feel after Him and find Him in its very depths, even if that heart does not yet know Him by name, because "He is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:27-28).
God surely judges us in the end based on how we respond to the truth about Him that we can know, not according to what we cannot know. Blessed Pope Pius IX summed up the matter in 1863 in his encyclical Quanto Conficiamur Moerore:
We all know that those who suffer from invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law which have been written by God in the hearts of all men, if they are prepared to obey God and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can by the power of divine light and grace attain eternal life. For God, who knows completely the minds and souls, the thoughts and habits of all men, will not permit, in accord with His infinite goodness and mercy, anyone who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to suffer eternal punishment.
The Catechism sums it up in entry 847:
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.
What About Other Denominations?
Now, to Cheryl's question. Cheryl asked if Christians of other denominations can receive grace too, and ultimately be saved. Or is it only Catholics who receive the grace of God and make it to heaven in the end?
The Catholic Church teaches that those who remain outside of her fold, through no real fault of their own, are not beyond the workings of divine grace. They may live beyond the reach of Catholic missions, or they may have had the Catholic faith poorly presented to them. They may have received divine grace instead from the Catholic inheritance of Protestant or Orthodox communities of faith, churches that retained elements of Catholicism (channels of grace such as the sacraments of baptism and holy matrimony, prayer and the Holy Scriptures) even though they broke away from Rome.
The Orthodox churches in particular retained the apostolic succession of bishops, and all seven of the fully authentic sacraments of the Church. Given that these Christian communities to varying degrees are channels of divine grace to their members, these communities are not fully outside of the Catholic Church. They are sharing in the life of the Holy Spirit, who is the "soul" of the Body of Christ; and they are in "imperfect communion" with the Catholic Church. Many of their members are walking in the way of salvation, following as much light and grace as they have as best they can. In fact, a few great saints, such as St. Meletius and St. Cyprian of Carthage, almost certainly died out-of-communion with the Bishop of Rome, because of squabbles with the Holy See, so it is not only possible to be saved, it is even possible, in very rare cases, to attain sainthood in such a state!
Thus, to the first part of your question, Cheryl, the answer is clearly "yes": Those who remain outside of the Catholic Church due to invincible ignorance or honest doubt about her teachings can still receive divine grace through other Christian communities and can still be saved.
However, Cheryl, it seems that you want to go even farther. You want to believe that God's grace is equally available to all Christians. You seem to suggest it really doesn't matter what church you belong to — that all are equal paths to the same heaven. Someone might say the same thing about other religions, too, that perhaps they are all equal paths to the same heaven. After all, if everyone can know at least the pre-Incarnate Logos in their hearts and find salvation in that way without ever knowing about, or believing in, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then what is the point of Christian evangelism? If everyone can be saved — non-Catholics of every kind, whether they are Christians or not — then what was the point of the last 2,000 years of Catholic missions?
The point was simple, and must never be forgotten: Those who remain outside the Catholic Church are in a state of considerable spiritual danger! To say that they can possibly find a path to salvation is not to say that they necessarily will, or that the way is easy. Rather, it is fraught with peril, for outside the Church they necessarily lack many great gifts and assistance from God — the fullness of revealed truth and the fullness of the means of grace for their journey — that can only be found within the Catholic Church, "the ark of salvation" founded by Jesus Christ on the "rock" of St. Peter in the See of Rome.
To be guided on your life journey by the light of the fullness of the truth that God has revealed about Himself through Jesus Christ, and to receive the aid of the fullness of the means of grace for spiritual refreshment and healing along the way, you need to go to the Church that He originally founded through His Son (in fact, that is what the Greek word "catholikos" really means: fullness, wholeness, the whole truth and all the means of grace for the whole world).
That is why so many of the saints dedicated their lives to spreading the Catholic fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, even at the cost of martyrdom. And that is why Jesus Christ, after His resurrection, gave "the Great Commission" for world evangelism: "Go therefore and make all nations My disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. For lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:18-20). Notice the "Catholic" emphasis here: they are to bring the whole truth, to all nations, until the end of time.
Jesus must have thought that getting the Catholic fullness of truth and grace to everyone was pretty important. Otherwise He never would have given this Great Commission to His disciples. He just would have said, "It really doesn't matter whether or not you have some distorted ideas about what God is like, which might confuse and mess up your relationship with Him, or some false ideas about the path of salvation that might lead you to go around in circles, or very limited access to the sources of grace to help you on your journey. Just set out on your life journey with your fingers crossed and try your best and everything will turn out fine!"
We would hardly call Him our "Savior" if that were the approach He took!
Of course, all this does not necessarily mean that all card-carrying Catholics are necessarily better people or more grace-filled than all non-Catholics. We all know Catholics who refuse to learn in depth the truths of their faith and who do not devoutly receive the sacraments or make any real effort to cooperate with God's grace in the way they live their lives. In the eyes of God, some non-Catholics, who have prayerfully and obediently accepted God's truth to the extent that they can discern it, and who have followed the promptings of His grace to the extent that they have access to it, are doubtless in better spiritual condition than those Catholics who have every advantage of the fullness of truth and grace, yet who squander their spiritual inheritance!
But again, Divine Mercy can be received in its fullness in this present life only in the Body of the merciful Christ on earth which, in its fullness, is the Church Jesus Christ founded on Peter and the apostles: the Catholic Church. Those who long to be "mercified" in the fullness of His grace and who really want to become saints of His merciful Heart, will always be found within the embrace of His Church, or at least journeying ever closer to her, in good conscience, as fast as they can.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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