Let’s start with a big word: soteriology, or the meaning of God’s saving actions. What are we saved from, and what are we saved for? When most Christians say they’re saved, often they mean “safe from the possibility of going to hell.” For Catholics the usual formula for salvation gets boiled down to this: The danger of hell comes from original sin. Original sin is washed away by baptism. Baptism is a sacrament in Christianity. The Catholic Church contains the only full expression of Christianity. The bottom line: There is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church.
I don’t question the statements in that chain of logic. But additional links in the chain allow room at the conclusion for the equally Catholic mystery of divine grace. For one, salvation is God’s work, not a human enterprise. You and I are in no position to save anyone, and we don’t want to presume to tie God’s hands either. Although we might say where salvation is readily available, it would be arrogant to say God can choose no other channels of operation. Being divine, God is utterly free.
God’s freedom is a huge consideration. Another is the idea that hell is all we need saving from. What about absurdity, which arises from the reality of death? The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus imbue mortal life with purpose and destiny that rescues us from despair. And what about the baptism available through other Christian traditions? The Roman church admits baptism as a valid sacrament when it uses the formula of the Trinity (“In the name of the Father . . . .”).
Finally, church teaching maintains that everyone is “called by God’s grace to salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 836) and that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his church, 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—those too may achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 16).
Isaiah 45:22; 49:6; 52:10; Luke 3:6; 9:24; 1 Timothy 2:3-4
“Salvation” in The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996)