Q. Is it true that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church?
A. Yes. But, unlike the oft heard teaching that, “If you are not a Christian you are going to Hell”– this teaching of The Catholic Church does NOT mean that you must be Catholic in order to be saved or that if you are not Catholic you are going to Hell. But, the Church also does NOT teach that everyone will be saved.
In fact, in the early 20th century. Fr. Leonard Feeney, SJ taught that all unbaptized people, including babies, would be condemned to Hell. This was contrary to Catholic Theology so the pope called him to Rome to explain himself. He refused to go.
He was excommunicated for disobedience, refusing to go to Rome to explain his position. Then the Holy Office, under Pius XII, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Boston, condemning Feeney’s error. (It is known that Pius XII personally checked the English text of that letter). The very first paragraph pointed out what is obvious: we must avoid private interpretation of Scripture — for that is strictly Protestant. But then the letter said we must also avoid private interpretation of the official texts of the Church. To insist on our own private interpretation, especially when the Church contradicts that, is pure Protestant attitude.
Some years before his death he was reconciled to the church. The Church teaches that she KNOWS that a baptized person who dies without mortal sin on his soul may go to Heaven. Because
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. John 3:5
The unbaptized we leave to the mercy and justice of a loving God.
However, the Church also acknowledges that God is God and although baptism in the normal way to begin the journey to Heaven and be initiated into the Body of Christ, God is the final Judge. So, even those who might attain Heaven without having been baptized (like some of the inhabitants of the Americas for thousands of years before Christianity was introduced) are saved by Christ death and the ministry of His Church, according to the plan of God.
This teaching, “There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church” does not mean your are going to Hell if you are not Catholic. It means basically that salvation is possible only through Jesus and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church; even if:
a person is not a member of a Catholic Church,
a person lived before the time of Christ,
a person never heard of Jesus, etc.
a person was never baptised
All these are left to the mercy of God to judge how they responded to His graces by keeping the moral law. They will be judged on what they knew, not what they didn’t know. So, those who are judged worthy to attain to salvation do so through Jesus Christ and His Church.
Roman 3:1 Then what advantage is there in being a Jew (Christian)? Much in every way, for to (us) has been entrusted the very words of God….
We have more information and especially GRACE from God through the sacraments to strengthen us and help us stay close to Christ.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Wounds to unity
817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.”269 The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism270 – do not occur without human sin:
Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers. Origen
818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”272
819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth”273 are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”274 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him,275 and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”276