The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 53, No 6, Nov.-Dec. 2000

Theology for the Laity

Universal Salvation in Christ and in the Church

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

Though Our Blessed Lord is no longer visibly present in the world through His human nature, He continues to dwell in and to speak to the world through His Body, the Church. He prayed at the Last Supper: “Father, the glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one as We are One, I in them and You in Me . . . so that the world may know that You have sent Me. . . ” (Jn. 17:22,23). Our Lord draws the Church into His own divine life, light, and joy - His own glory - making her one with Him and the Father. But what is more, the Church that is filled with His life then reveals to the world that He has been sent by the Father.

In this issue of Light and Life we will review this sending of the Son into the world by the Father, especially in the light of a recent declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Dominus Jesus. This congregation is one of many administrative branches of the Holy See and it deals specifically with clarifying issues of faith and morals that arise in the Church at large. At the request of Pope John Paul II, and under the leadership of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the congregation has released this declaration to reaffirm the Church's teaching that eternal life is available only through Christ and His Church. Considering that we are celebrating in this Jubilee year the entry of the Eternal Son into our world, we do well to examine the unique place our Blessed Lord has as the world’s sole means of salvation.

The Declaration “Dominus Jesus”

Before getting into the actual content of the document, it may be helpful to first say something about the authority of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and, in particular, of this declaration. Congregations are established by the Roman Pontiff, and to them he delegates his own supreme authority. When a congregation publishes a declaration, it is not proclaiming new doctrine to the faithful. Rather it is both reaffirming teaching that is already held, and providing corrections for erroneous interpretations that have arisen. Although it is not a document that comes from the Holy Father himself, no declaration can be published without the Holy Father’s express approval. Because of this approval such a declaration is binding on all the faithful. It is coming from the Magisterium, or teaching office of the Church, and represents belief that defines us as Catholics. Those who reject this or any doctrinal pronouncement can not legitimately call themselves Catholic, for they have rejected belief that is essential to the Catholic faith.

What this particular declaration is responding to is a growing acceptance among many in our society, and even in the Church, that all religions provide equally valid roads to salvation. The Holy Father wants it to be clear in the minds of the faithful that this is not Catholic belief, that there can be no relativism in our belief that Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior, and that the Catholic Church is the only source of salvation for our world as will be explained. Much current opinion about our Lord, circulating in both theological and popular circles, presents Him as the Savior for Christians only, not for Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or any other religion. Such religions, this error proposes, have their own path to God, and it is just as valid and reliable as that proclaimed by the Church. This is what is meant by the idea of "relativism". Truth is really at the heart of the problem. In a relativistic understanding of the world, each person determines what truth is for himself; there is no such thing as absolute truth that holds for people of every time and place. For the same reason, according to the relativistic view, it is not possible that there be a savior or a church that could claim to be the only means of salvation for people of every time and place.

The Fullness of Revelation in Christ

Against this current of opinion spreading throughout our society like a disease of thought, Dominus Jesus teaches that the Church must continue to proclaim what our Lord said of Himself: “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). In Him God has revealed Himself fully and definitively. He did not give a partial revelation that needs to be complemented by other religions. There are no gaps that require filling in by Hinduism, Islam, or any other religion. Everything that God has spoken about Himself has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Thus, the declaration affirms that, "the theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church’s faith" (par. 6).

Thus, God has revealed Himself once and for all in Christ, and the obligation then falls on man to respond to this definitive revelation. He does this through the obedience of faith. The intellect and will, indeed, the whole life of a person, have to be brought into line with God’s revelation. There must be a surrendering to it that is complete and unconditional, such that a person “freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering ‘the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’, . . . freely assenting to the revelation given by Him” (Vat. II, n. 25).

It is important to note that this complete surrender in faith is not the kind of assent that other religions make to their own teaching or their view of God. There is a difference, the declaration emphasizes, between belief as found in other religions and the theological virtue of faith possessed by the Christian. First of all, faith is a grace given by God, and not the result of a person simply exercising his own spiritual yearnings. There is nothing in the nature of man that can produce supernatural faith, nor can any leap of the mind to divine truth take place without God’s supernatural assistance. And secondly, faith moves someone to accept the absolute truth of revelation and to place full allegiance in God who reveals. When there is an ongoing search for absolute truth which has not found rest in God and divine revelation, there can as yet be no divinely given faith. Only a purely human belief is active, a product of human experience and thought. And such is the belief of the non-Christian, arising from "the human treasury of wisdom and religious experience" (par. 7). But this cannot be considered in any way the equivalent of the supernatural act of faith made by the Christian.

The Activity of the Holy Spirit

Among those who falsely hold that other religions are themselves legitimate paths to salvation, there are various erroneous explanations used to justify their position. One of these false theories is that the Holy Spirit acts in the world independently of Jesus, the Word-made-flesh. According to this mistaken outlook, He has extended His field of activity beyond Christianity. To other religions He has revealed divine truth, enabling them to lead people to God independently of the Church.

As will be explained below, the Holy Spirit can and does work among the religions of the world to guide them in subtle ways to the fullness of truth in the Catholic faith. But these religions do not themselves become, through His action, means of salvation independent from the Church Jesus established. The Holy Spirit does not act on His own in human history. From the Scriptures themselves we learn of the Holy Spirit as the gift of Christ, and His helper in continuing to guide the Church. “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak. . . .” (Jn. 16:13). And so the declaration states that the “entire work of building the Church by Jesus Christ the Head, in the course of the centuries, is seen as an action which He does in communion with His Spirit” (par. 12).

The Church Necessary for Salvation

There can be no failure by the faithful to believe and proclaim the truth, revealed by the Holy Scriptures, that salvation comes to humanity through Christ and no other:

This being true for our Lord, it is also true for the Church. The Church's value for the world as a means of salvation is equally universal and absolute. And this arises from what our Lord designed the Church to be for the world. The declaration explains that the “Lord Jesus, the only Savior, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific [salvation-producing] mystery: He Himself is in the Church and the Church is in Him” (par. 16). Related to our Lord as members of a body to its head, the two together, Our Lord and the Church, form the “whole Christ.” Thus as there can be no salvation apart from Christ, there can also be no salvation apart from the Church that is one with Him. Above all else, it must be firmly believed that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in His body which is the Church” (par. 20).

Those Outside the Catholic Church

Other Christians. To hold the Catholic faith is to profess belief in the Church truly founded by Christ Himself. There is an historical continuity between the Catholic Church of today and the Church founded by Christ. She was entrusted above all to the pastoral care of St. Peter, with the other apostles governing and guiding the Church in communion with him. The division that has tragically occurred during the course of history has fractured this original Church of our Lord. But truths that were part of the original teaching of Jesus, which have been preserved fully in the Catholic Church, can still be found in a partial way in the communities that have broken away. In these communities, the declaration tells us, “many elements can be found of sanctification and truth.” The Second Vatican Council, to take account of these elements of the true faith present in non-Catholic denominations, spoke of these denominations as subsisting in the Catholic Church. In other words, the saving grace and truth found partially in other Christian communities flows from and is sustained by the full grace and truth present in the Catholic Church. Thus, such communities in a diminished way are members of Christ’s true Church. They too can reach salvation, albeit with much greater difficulty, through the fragmentary truths they have retained. So other groups of Christians are still members of Christ's Body, but they have this status in and through the Catholic Church: “But with respect to these it needs to be stated that ‘they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’” (par. 16).

Other Religions. Christ wills that all men be saved and come to know the truth. This is done exclusively through the Catholic Church which is His chosen instrument of salvation in the world, the “universal sacrament of salvation” (par. 20). But by God’s design, the grace that is active through the Catholic Church can reach those who are not of the Christian religion. Men of good will, sincerely seeking the truth, have a desire for God that He does not reject. He regards their desire as an obscure, imperfect acceptance of Him, but sufficient for salvation nevertheless. If they were not being prevented from knowing Him by obstacles beyond their control, they would be turning to Him in faith. So the declaration teaches that "For those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation" (par. 20).

However, with this mysterious activity of God among non-Christian religions, there is still a need for recognizing how imperfect their condition is. There is an immense difference between the vast sea of divine grace and truth available in the Church, and the tiny pool of human wisdom, not to mention grave error, present in non-Christian religions. Thus, the clarification: "If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation " (par. 22).

The Church’s Missionary Activity

There would be little need for the missionary activity of the Church if non-Christian religions were granted the means of salvation as fully outside the Church as inside. So although people outside the Church can come to salvation, we nevertheless cannot hold that they have arrived until they have come to the fullness present in the Catholic Church. Good people of other religions find truth in the world. God is giving them constant encouragements in their lives to seek truth, and they cooperate with His help. Thus, those "who obey the promptings of the Spirit of truth are already on the way of salvation” (par. 22). But being on the way is not the same as coming home. The slight trickle coming from the tap is not the same as the deep and expansive reservoir. The desire stirring in many for truth imposes an obligation on the Church to “go out to meet their desire, so as to bring them to the truth," to bring them to the very source of divine grace (par. 22).

If God is going to stir people to seek the truth, then this is not going to be a truth independent of that revealed in the Church. They will be coming to the true faith, not resting content where they are. The mission of the Church is not being subverted by God Himself.


The declaration Dominus Jesus is bringing out into the open the inherent contradiction in theologians, clergy, or even members of the laity who fail to acknowledge Christ and the Church as the sole means of salvation for the world. Such a failure nullifies the very words of our Lord Himself when He commanded the apostles to “go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:18-19). Our Blessed Lord’s insistence on the mission of the Church to announce the Gospel and to baptize makes sense only if the fullness of grace and truth is present in Him and His Church. Together they form the “whole Christ,” Who is indispensable for the salvation of mankind, without Whom no one will be saved.

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