The Church teaches that she is necessary for salvation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body” (CCC 846). Now, this doesn’t mean that only Catholics can be saved; rather, it means that even when non-Catholics get to heaven, they are saved only by being united to the Church in some way, even if they don’t realize it (Dominus Iesus 20).
For many people today, this is a very arrogant claim. It goes against the grain of our culture, which celebrates diversity and preaches acceptance and tolerance above pretty much everything else. As a result, most 21st century Americans can’t fathom how such a claim could possibly be true.
I would suggest that our culture’s difficulty with this doctrine essentially comes down to a misunderstanding of salvation. Most people today think that going to heaven is more or less what naturally happens when we die as long as we are not terrible people, and if that is the case, then the Church’s claim that all salvation comes through her doesn’t make much sense. If people just naturally go to heaven when they die, the Church cannot have any special role to play in people’s eternal destiny. As long as you are a good person, the religion to which you belong is totally irrelevant.
However, the Catholic understanding of salvation is very different from this. The Church takes her cue from the Bible, which tells a story about God, sin, and salvation that has no place for the idea that people just naturally go to heaven when they die. In fact, in the biblical view of things, the natural thing is for us not to go to heaven. To understand this, we need to take a closer look at the story of salvation history.
The Story of Scripture
The Bible starts off with the creation of the world and the human race. Initially, everything God made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and humanity lived in perfect harmony with him. Unfortunately, this harmony didn’t last long, as the first couple, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and introduced sin into the world. As a result, humanity also became subject to death (Romans 5:12-17), so God needed to intervene to save us from this predicament. He had to reverse the effects of the Fall in order to reopen the gates of heaven to us, and the rest of the Bible is all about how he went about doing this.
The next few chapters of Genesis contain stories of mankind’s growing sinfulness, and then in chapter 12 we get the beginning of God’s plan of salvation. God called a man named Abram (his name was later changed to Abraham, the name most people know him by) to be the father of a new nation, and that calling was passed on to his son Isaac and to Isaac’s son Jacob. Jacob then had twelve sons, and they became the fathers of the twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel.
Echoes of Creation
Interestingly, when God called these three men (often called “the patriarchs” for short), the promises he gave them echoed the words he spoke to humanity right after he created our first parents. To see this, let’s look at the key texts side by side (I have italicized the important parts):
First Words to Humanity: “And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.'” (Genesis 1:28)
Promises to Abraham: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly…I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you…And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession…And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies.” (Genesis 12:2; 17:2, 6, 8; 22:17)
Promises to Isaac: “Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfil the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands.” (Genesis 26:3-4)
Promises to Jacob: “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your descendants after you.” (Genesis 35:11-12)
If we compare these passages, we see three elements from God’s first words to mankind that pop up again and again in his promises to the patriarchs:
1) God blessed them.
2) God told them to “be fruitful and multiply.”
3) God gave them land to live in and dominion over its inhabitants.
However, these elements did not carry over from creation to the patriarchs in exactly the same form; there were some differences. In particular, God’s command to our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply” became a promise that he would multiply the patriarchs’ descendants for them, and the gift of the entire earth and dominion over its inhabitants became a promise that the patriarchs’ descendants would live in the Promised Land (the land that later becomes Israel) and rule over their enemies.
The New Humanity
Nevertheless, despite these differences, it is still clear that God was echoing his original purposes for the human race when he called the patriarchs. He wanted them to be a new beginning for mankind. With them, God was getting ready to restore humanity to what it was originally supposed to be so we could spend eternity with him in heavenly bliss.
More specifically, he was preparing to use their descendants, the nation of Israel, to restore the human race. At the end of the book of Genesis, when the people of Israel moved to Egypt, the text tells us that they “were fruitful and multiplied exceedingly” (Genesis 47:27), echoing the creation account again. This confirms for us that God didn’t call the patriarchs for their own sake. Rather, his rescue operation moved from them to the people of Israel. He called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so they could be the fathers of the nation of Israel, and that nation was then supposed to be his instrument to save the whole world.
The New Creation
We don’t have the space here to go through the rest of the history of Israel in the Old Testament, but it was basically all a preparation for the salvation won for us by Jesus. He was the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs, the definitive Israelite through whom God always planned to redeem mankind. St. Paul tells us, “If, because of one man’s [Adam’s] trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17). Simply put, Jesus’ death and resurrection reversed the curse of sin and death that our first parents brought on the human race. He was the beginning of the new creation, the start of the new, truly restored humanity, and anybody united to him shares in this restoration. As St. Paul says in another one of his letters, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
This is not to say, though, that we have had the consequences of original sin completely wiped out. No, we still sin, and we still have to die someday, but we have gotten the process started. Jesus’ saving actions have allowed God to begin to cut our sinfulness out of us, and the gates of heaven have now been reopened for us. This process of wiping out our sin will be completed at Jesus’ second coming when God creates “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) and all of creation is fully restored to what it was meant to be from the beginning.
Why We Need the Church
And that is the key to understanding the Church’s teaching about its own importance for salvation. Heaven isn’t where people just naturally go when they die. No, when Adam and Eve sinned, they closed heaven for themselves and their descendants, so salvation is possible only because Jesus came to reverse the effects of their sin and reopen the gates of heaven to us. Consequently, if we want to be saved from sin and death, if we want to reach the ultimate purpose that humanity was made for and get to heaven, we have to be united to Jesus (in St. Paul’s words, we have to be “in Christ”), and the community of those who are united to him is the Church.
Like I said before, this doesn’t mean that only Catholics can be saved. No, we believe that non-Catholics can be united to the Church in various ways (for example, non-Catholic Christians are united to the Church through baptism), and that partial and imperfect unity can be for them a source of salvation. However, even when non-Catholics do get to heaven, they are saved through their union with the Church, not simply because they are good people or because they follow their own religions well. In every case, the Church is always the source of salvation because she is the community of those who are united to Christ and who have had God begin to extract sin from their hearts and save them from death and eternal damnation.