Is there salvation outside the church?
Can my Buddhist husband be saved? What about my Jewish neighbors and my sister-in-law who is an atheist?
An ancient doctrine says extra ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the church there is no salvation"), so how does this affect those who are not Christian? You may be surprised that the doctrine still holds, but this doesn't mean that salvation is unavailable to those of other religions or of no religion at all.
The doctrine is associated with St. Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of North Africa martyred in 258 and urgently concerned about Christian unity. His was a time of great turbulence. Superstitious Romans had long believed natural disasters and other difficulties to be punishment by their patron gods, angered at the refusal of Christians to give them honor.
In 250 the emperor Decius required Christians to perform a public act of sacrifice documented by a libellus, or certificate of compliance. Some Christians obeyed; others refused, suffering death (martyrs) or torture (confessors). Others secured their libellus by making payment to Roman authorities.
Whether by sacrifice or bribery, those Christians who secured the required documentation were a source of consternation for some church leaders. (Not so for Bishop Euctemon of Smyrna, a practical fellow who encouraged his entire congregation to save themselves by complying with the law!)
Understandably, a great debate arose concerning those who had succumbed, known as lapsi, or "the lapsed." Hardliners took the position that these apostates not be reconciled to the church until their deathbeds; a few insisted that they could never be received back into the church. Moderates called for penance, followed by reconciliation.
Disagreements on how to handle the problem eventually led to arguments and even schism, splits or divisions in church communities. It was to those who had split the church asunder that Cyprian aimed his warning: If you have turned your back on the church of Christ, you cannot know the rewards of Christ. Cyprian understood such persons as former inheritors of light and life, which they renounced by departing from the communion of the faithful. Once outside, there was no salvation without repentance and return.
Sadly, this doctrine was later used to suggest that none can be saved unless they are baptized and in union with the Holy See. But God is not a miser, and our limitations are not limitations upon God's grace. If Christ is truly the goodness and truth of God, then all who seek truth and respond with goodness must somehow be experiencing Christ.
Our doctrine today clearly explains that these persons can be saved, and that there is much to be gained by learning the teachings of other great religions.
This doesn't mean there is little reason to be a Christian. Christ has much to offer the world, and he cannot do so without our cooperation. This insight must be what inspired St. Cyprian in the first place. Bringing it into our contemporary situation, perhaps we would do better to see the world's religions as complementary rather than competitors.
This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 12, page 46).