During the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, we pray for the Jewish people, “to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant” and that “the people [God] first made [his] own may attain the fullness of redemption.” It is a beautiful prayer of hope and inclusion, that no person may ever be left without the salvation won for all humanity by Jesus Christ.
Since at least the early part of the third century, the doctrine has been that, outside the Church, there is no salvation (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus). In large part, the teaching rests on the words of Christ himself: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Because the Church was established by Christ (Matthew 16:18) who shows us the way to the Father, there can be no salvation outside the Church.
Recognizing that this teaching has been widely misunderstood, the worldwide college of bishops clarified its teaching during the Second Vatican Council in the document, Lumen Gentium (“LG”), otherwise known as the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. As a result, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) now states more positively that “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC n. 846). Indeed, “[a]ll men are called to belong to the new People of God,” which is “present in all the nations of the earth” (LG 13).
While it is true that there is no salvation for those who knowingly reject the Church (CCC 846) and that salvation is most certain for those fully incorporated into her, nevertheless, “all people are related to the People of God” and therefore may be saved (LG 16). Non-Catholic Christians, for instance, are “in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit” (LG 15). Moreover, the Jews, “are a people most dear,” and “the plan of salvation also includes . . . the Moslems.” (Id.) “Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God . . . , since the Saviour wills all [people] to be saved.” (Id.) Those unaware of the message of Christ but who “nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience . . . too may achieve eternal salvation.” (Id.)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul firmly rejects the notion that God has rejected the Jews who did not accept Christ. Israel’s current unbelief is only temporary, he insists, and will last only until “the full number” of Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25). In a poignant hope for his own people, Paul believes that, one day, “all Israel will be saved” by believing in the gospel (11:26).
We must always respect the religious traditions and beliefs of all people. However, as the People of God to whom the message of Christ has been entrusted, it is our sacred duty to pray for all those who do not yet believe in Christ and to work earnestly for their salvation.
Father Roger Gustafson