The late Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J was one of the most prominent Roman Catholic scholars in American history. A frequent contributor to the ecumenical magazine First Things, Dulles wrote on a variety of topics in the context of the Catholic Church’s “developing doctrine.” In “Who Can Be Saved?”, from the April 2008 edition of First Things, Dulles addresses the question of salvation for non-Catholics in the theological tradition of the Church, stretching from the Gospels through the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II. Dulles concludes that while the New Testament is silent at best about the fate of the unevangelized and even contemporary Catholic doctrine remains cautious on that subject, there is sufficient historical support, dating from the earliest centuries of the Faith, to hold to the possibility of salvation for those who through no fault of their own do not believe in Christ, and who follow the dictates of their consciences.
Dulles begins his article with several paragraphs dedicated to the requirements for salvation as outlined in the New Testament. He finds the clearest elucidation of the doctrine in St. Paul, particularly in Romans, which he summarizes as “faith…inseparable from baptism.” Tellingly, however, he notes that “it seems apparent that those who became believers did not think that they had been on the road to salvation before they heard the Gospel.” As the Apostolic Church matured into the Patristic Church, the primitive theologians acknowledged that the Jews who had lived in anticipation of the Messiah were certainly saved, and they also sometimes included with them the pagans who, ignorant of the Old Covenant, had attempted to live in accordance with reason. Still, Dulles insists that “there was no doctrine that pagans could be saved since the promulgation of the Gospel without embracing the Christian faith.”
An unqualified embrace of extra ecclesiam nulla salus was the theological order of the day until the Counter-Reformation. With the discovery of the Americas, and in reaction to the thought of Luther and Calvin, who rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church that God truly wills the salvation of all, Catholic theologians elaborated the doctrine of a “baptism of desire” for those who, inculpably ignorant of the true Faith, nonetheless strove to follow the natural law and would, it was assumed, accept baptism were it credibly offered, along with belief in the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ (which since the time of Aquinas had been regarded as the essential doctrines of salvation). Whether or not this implicit desire necessarily led to explicit faith in this life or only in the moment of death was left unanswered, though the Second Vatican Council appeared to favor the latter and also tended to think of the Church as the “all-embracing organ of salvation,” working through other faiths, as opposed to a restrictive view of the Church’s function as the Ark.
The key to understanding Catholic doctrine across the centuries and especially in the modern age is Cardinal Newman’s idea of “development,” really an innovation of the Patristic period and an expression of the whole idea of a “New Covenant” – just as Christ authoritatively reaffirmed and yet also reinterpreted the Mosaic Law, so the Church has the right, with the guidance of the Spirit, to develop doctrine, sometimes even against the expectations of the dogmatizers, but without ever contradicting its inner logic. This is especially clear when we regard the question of salvation outside the Church: Cardinal Dulles openly acknowledges that the original authors of the New Testament did not appear to admit the prospect of salvation for those who did not explicitly profess faith in Christ. The loophole, which Counter-Reformational Catholicism exploited, is that belief in the Son implies that one has heard, understood, and become convinced. If one has not heard, understood, or become convinced, then they cannot be held responsible for not believing. Dulles summarizes this at the end of his essay: “God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.”
Still, one might fault Dulles for not making his case as strongly as he might. I was surprised to find no reference to Limbo in the essay, where Dante famously consigned even great Muslims such as Averroes and Saladin, who were hardly ignorant of Christianity. Limbo is in hell, to be sure, but the literary Dante describes it as an abode “luminous and lofty.” And despite referring to the teaching of Bl. Pius IX, who taught that non-Catholics living in ignorance might be saved, Dulles neglects to mention the Pope’s forceful declaration: “Now, then, who could presume in himself an ability to set the boundaries of such ignorance, taking into consideration the natural differences of peoples, lands, native talents, and so many other factors?” It is important here to note that under the Pope’s own logic (though doubtless he would not have gone so far), it is possible that all might be saved. Again, this refers us to the development of doctrine: the earliest Christians may not have believed the unevangelized might be saved, but their theology does not exclude the possibility, and therefore it may validly be reinterpreted by the Church.
Notwithstanding these flaws, “Who Can Be Saved?” is an erudite, readable summary of Catholic thought regarding the opportunities for salvation outside the Church. Cardinal Dulles credibly but honestly traces the evolution of the doctrine from the very words of Christ Himself to the twenty-first century, showing that while the Church’s acknowledgement that many non-Catholics may confidently be saved is fairly new, its roots go deep in Catholic theology and even bears some resemblance to the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers. This article is indispensable for those desiring any degree of competency in the historical development of Roman Catholic soteriology.