Scripture, Church Fathers, and Medieval Doctors on the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics

Sometimes I hear people argue that the Church has changed its teaching about the statement, “outside the Church there is no salvation.” To speak in non-theological terms, the modern Church allows an exception to this for those who are ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own. They can be saved if they try their best to serve God and do not knowingly commit a mortal sin and die unrepentant. (Yes, I know, that’s not technically an exception. But meh.) This is called “invincible ignorance,” and the claim is that this is a modern invention. The early Church and the medieval Doctors didn’t believe that, according to some people.

Also, the modern Church allows for the “the Church” to be understood broadly to include all people of good will who have not knowingly rejected the Church. The claim is that this, too, is a modern invention which the early Church and the medieval Church didn’t believe.

Several passages of the Bible can be used to defend the idea that non-Catholics can be saved if they try to serve God and that God forgives invincible ignorance.

The Bible on Invincible Ignorance and the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics

“The times of ignorance God overlooked.” - Acts 17:30

“Sin is not counted where there is no law.” - Romans 5:13

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” - Romans 2:14-16

“How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? … However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” - Romans 10:14-17

[Note: in verses 18-21 Paul says he is talking about Jews who have heard (verse 18) and understood (verses 19-21) the Gospel, but rejected the Gospel obstinately (verse 21). This supports the possibility of invincible ignorance because it bases the responsibility of the Jews on their hearing and understanding the Gospel. Therefore, not hearing the Gospel or not understanding it would have excused them.]]

“If I had not come among them, they would have no sin.” - John 15:22

“If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin.” - John 15:24

“In truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him.” - Acts 10:34-35

In the next two posts I will cite Church Fathers and Medieval Doctors who taught the same thing.

Church Fathers on Invincible Ignorance and the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics

Church Fathers:

97 A.D. - Pope St. Clement I - “Let us go through all generations, and learn that in generation and generation the Master has given a place of repentance to those willing to turn to Him. Noah preached repentance, and those who heard him were saved. Jonah preached repentance to the Ninivites; those who repented for their sins appeased God in praying, and received salvation, even though they were aliens of God.” (1 Clement 7:5-7)

157 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr - “Christ is the Logos [Divine Word] of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus.” (First Apology 46)

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “Christ came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who [are currently alive], but for absolutely all men from the beginning, who according to their ability, feared and loved God and lived justly…and desired to see Christ and to hear His voice.” (Against Heresies Book IV Chapter 22 Paragraph 2)

~335 A.D. - Hegemonius of Chalcedon - “From the creation of the world [God] has always been with just men. … Were they not made just from the fact that they kept the law, ‘Each one of them showing the work of the law on their hearts…?’ For when someone who does not have the law does by nature the things of the law, this one, not having the law, is a law for himself. … For if we judge that a man is made just without the works of the law…how much more will they attain justice who fulfilled the law containing those things which are expedient for men?” (Acts of Archelaus with Manes)

~340 A.D. - Eusebius of Caesarea - “But even if we [Christians] are certainly new…yet our life and mode of conduct, in accord with the precepts of religion, has not been recently invented by us; but from the first creation of man, so to speak, it is upheld by natural inborn concepts of the ancient men who loved God… But if someone would describe as Christians those who are testified to as having been righteous [going back] from Abraham to the first man, he would not hit wide of the truth.” (Church History Book I Chapter 1 Paragraph 4)

374 A.D. - St. Gregory Nazianzus - “[A certain pagan] was ours even before he was of our fold. His way of living made him such. For…many of those outside [the Church] belong to us, who by their way of life anticipate the faith, and need [only] the name, having the reality.” (Oration 18:6)

384 A.D. - St. John Chrysostom - “And Peter,” it says, “opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34.) … Was He “a respecter of persons” beforetime? God forbid! For beforetime likewise it was just the same: “Every one,” as he saith, “that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, would be acceptable to Him.” As when Paul saith, “For when the Gentiles which have not the Law, do by nature the things of the Law.” (Rom. ii. 14.) “That feareth God and worketh righteousness:” he assumes both doctrine and manner of life: is “accepted with Him;” for, if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook. “What say you then to this, that there are likely persons, men of mild disposition, and yet they will not believe?” Lo, you have yourself named the cause: they will not. But besides the likely person he here speaks of is not this sort of man, but the man “that worketh righteousness:” that is, the man who in all points is virtuous and irreproachable, when he has the fear of God as he ought to have it. But whether a person be such, God only knows. See how this man was acceptable: see how, as soon as he heard, he was persuaded.’’

395 A.D. - St. Augustine - “[Y]ou are not considered at fault if you, against your will, are ignorant; however, if you are ignorant because you fail to ask, you are at fault. … So even now, if ignorance of the truth and difficulty in behaving rightly are [natural]…no one properly condemns the soul because of its natural origin. But if a man refuses to strive for excellence, or wills to step back from where he set out, he justly and properly suffers punishment.” (On Free Choice of the Will Volume III Chapter 19)

~440 A.D. - St. Cyril of Alexandria - “[The Lord] is also the God of the gentiles, and has fully satisfied by laws implanted in their hearts, which the Maker has engraved in the hearts of all. For when the gentiles, [Paul] says, not having the law, do by nature the things of the law, they show the work of the law written on their hearts. But since He is not only the Maker and God of the Jews, but also of the gentiles…He sees fit by His providence to care not only for those who are of the blood of Israel, but also for all those upon the earth.” (Against Julian 3)

More Church Fathers, Medieval Doctors, and Pre-Vatican II Popes on Invincible Ignorance and the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics

593 A.D. - Pope St. Gregory the Great - “The passion of the Church began already with Abel, and there is one Church of the elect, of those who precede, and of those who follow. … They were, then, outside, but yet not divided from the holy Church, because in mind, in work, in preaching, they already held the sacraments of faith, and saw that loftiness of Holy Church.” (Homilies on Ezekiel Book II Chapter 3 Paragraph 16)

~853 A.D. - Haymo of Halberstadt - “[Some pagans] show surely that they have the natural law written on their hearts, and they are the law for themselves: because they do the things that the law teaches, even though it was not given to them. For example, the Saracens who have neither the law of Moses nor of the Gospel, while by nature they keep the law, do not commit murder, or commit adultery, or other things, which the law written within them contains; they are a law to themselves. … In the second way: When the gentiles…naturally do the things…because they have the same law of Moses written on their hearts by the inspiration of Almighty God…‘their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts in turn accusing or even defending.’ And when will this be? ‘On the day when the Lord will judge the hidden things of men’ according to my Gospel.” (Exposition on Romans 2:14-16)

~990 A.D. - Oecumenius - “[Some pagans] do the things of the law using the reasonings of nature for just actions. These are wonderful, not needing a teacher, being their own lawgivers and fulfillers of the legislation. … ‘Their conscience bearing witness to them,’ for it is enough in place of the law to have their own conscience testifying for them. … At that judgment we do not need external accusers or witnesses…but each one’s own reasonings and conscience either accuses or defends.” (On Romans 2:14-16)

1274 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “*t is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin.” (Summa Theologica I-II Question 76 Article 2)

1532 A.D. - Francisco de Vitoria - “For [those] to whom no preaching of the faith or Christian religion has come…if they do what in them lies, accompanied by a good life according to the law of nature, it is consistent with God’s providence [that] He will illuminate them regarding the name of Christ [so that they may be saved]… [And] if before hearing anything of the Christian religion they were excused [from the sin of unbelief], they are put under no fresh obligation by a simple declaration and announcement of [the gospel], for such announcement is no proof or incentive to belief… Nay…it would be rash and imprudent for any one to believe anything, especially in matters which concern salvation, unless he knows that this is asserted by a man worthy of credence…[therefore] matters of faith are seen and become evident by reason of their credibility.”

1863 - Blessed Pope Pius IX - “There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” (Quanto Conficiamur Moerore 7)*

Thank you for collecting these references!

Thanks. I also think we should add a few passages from the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X. A lot of the people in the SSPX society claim that it’s “modernist” to believe that non-Catholics can be saved in a state of invincible ignorance, but even their namesake taught it!

1908 A.D. - Pope St. Pius X - “A person outside the Church by his own fault, and who dies without perfect contrition, will not be saved. But he who finds himself outside without fault of his own, and who lives a good life, can be saved by the love called charity, which unites unto God, and in a spiritual way also to the Church, that is, to the soul of the Church.” (Catechism of Christian Doctrine)

And: “If [a man] is outside the Church through no fault of his [own], that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God’s will as best he can,] such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation.” (Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, the Ninth Article of the Creed, Question 29)

And: “The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.” (Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, On Baptism, Question 17)

in your opening thoughts you mention

From the quotes you gave, I’m seeing that comparing Pius X and his understanding then, with today’s understanding of (Re: salvation for non-Catholics) , I see the same understanding. I see the same caviots are there between both eras, I don’t see that they’ve changed. Do you see a difference?

I don’t see any major differences. Just a difference of language. The ideas are the same. And that’s basically what I always find when I look into the history of the Church’s modern doctrines. The Church has not changed its teaching, it has just found clearer and clearer ways of expressing it.

By the way, I got almost all the quotes I used from the appendix of Father William Most’s book, Our Father’s Plan. Readers should check out that book for more details.


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