In its teaching on the universality of salvation in the document Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council is careful to stress both the necessity of the Church for salvation as well the generous scope which participation in the church implies.
The Council, carefully basing itself upon Scripture and tradition, teaches that the universal church established here on earth is “necessary for salvation.” The Council Fathers clearly had to draw to this conclusion since the one mediator with the Father and sole path to salvation is Jesus Christ who founded the church, his mystical body, as the ordinary channel to eternal life.
To dispel any confusion, the Fathers made clear that the bonds which bind men to the church in a visible way are a formal profession of faith, the reception of the sacraments, and participation in ecclesiastical government and ecclesial communion. Christ himself had confirmed the necessity of personal faith and sacramental baptism, thus affirming the necessity of entering the church, “Unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit. ...” The Vatican document also insists frankly and ominously that whoever knows that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ but refuses to enter or to remain in it cannot be saved. And the decree adds carefully and frankly that anyone who, although part of the visible body of the church, does not persevere in charity cannot be saved. Such a person would remain in the bosom of the church, but only in a physical manner and certainly not in the spiritual aspect that supports authentic Christianity.
Conscious that previous generations of Catholics applied the aphorism, “Outside the church no salvation,” sometimes too stringently, the Council Fathers carefully and liberally outlined the various degrees of attachment to the one, true Church of Christ present here on earth. First of all the gathered bishops insisted that the church recognizes that in many ways the Roman Catholic Church is linked with those who are baptized and glory in the name Christian even though they might not profess the faith in its entirety or might not preserve any communion with the successor of Peter. These baptized, of course, would include the many Orthodox and Protestant Christians who adhere in varying degrees to the Scriptures and the sacraments.
God’s plan of salvation would furthermore extend to those who acknowledge the one true God as their Creator. In the prime place among these would clearly be the Jewish people and the Islamic tradition. Both these religious institutions profess a faith that commenced with Abraham and along with the Christian churches adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge all mankind.
Recalling St. Paul’s dialogue with the scholars gathered in Athens, the Council Fathers kindly recalled that God is not far distant from those who in “shadows and images” seek the unknown God, the one Supreme Being, who gives to all men life and breath and all things and who, as Savior, wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth. Clearly all those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience can indeed attain to salvation. Older generations referred to this openness as “baptism of desire.”
Finally, in a burst of admirable largesse, the Vatican Council II document, Lumen Gentium, boldly teaches that divine providence does not deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at any explicit knowledge of God and with his grace strive to live a good life. The so-called “anonymous Christian” was thus happily acknowledged by the Church Fathers gathered in solemn assembly.
Jesus startled his Jewish congregation at Nazareth with his magnanimous words about the Lebanese widow and Syrian commander. Christ’s townsmen were shocked that God’s mercy and kindness extended to these foreigners. This was pushing the envelope too far. Again Jesus and the Vatican Council remind Catholic believers not to be too stingy with the grace of God.