What follows is a (very) casual reflection on my view, as a Catholic, of the appropriate ecumenical apologetic Catholics should offer to evangelicals/protestants when asked what we believe about whether they can be saved despite rejecting the Catholic Church’s teachings.
I was recently asked by some very sharp non-Catholic colleagues and friends what Catholics make of the situation in which evangelicals find themselves with respect to salvation. It is well known, of course, that the Catholic Church affirms that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, (i.e., beyond/outside the Church there is no salvation), but it is also well known that Catholics generally take a more optimistic attitude towards evangelicals and the project of ecumenism. I spouted off the usual apologetic mantra; evangelicals who are baptized are already Catholic, technically (and, perhaps, ‘ontologically’) speaking, even if they aren’t coming to Mass (because they are unaware of any obligation to do so) and that most evangelicals who reject the Catholic Church are actually rejecting a mere caricature of her. When pressed, I detailed the conditions under which an evangelical’s rejection of the Catholic Church would be taken as a bona fide example of rejection, and what that kind of rejection would mean for a person’s salvation from a Catholic point of view. I answered roughly along the following lines: that if one genuinely rejects the Catholic Church then they have, in so doing, rejected Christ himself, for the Catholic Church is his mystical body, her teachings his, her authority inherited or extended from him. If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, there can no more be salvation outside of her than there can be salvation apart from Christ, for those two things are one and the same.
I was quick to add some necessary caveats, including that a damning rejection of the Catholic Church would have to involve, at least, an intimate knowledge of what the Church actually teaches and why. Some present seemed concerned that in rejecting the teachings of the Catholic Church, to the extent that they were familiar with them, they were putting themselves in the near occasion of damnation from a Catholic perspective. I tried to insist that it would be better to frame such a rejection in terms of sin, rather than in terms of justification/damnation. It was only afterwards, in retrospect, that I felt I could have given a more satisfying response, and I regretted not doing so. Since this issue is of general interest, and since (evidently) even the most intelligent of evangelicals are often unclear what Catholics like me make of their ‘soteriological situation,’ I thought perhaps I’d try my hand offering a brief reflection on it here.
Is there salvation beyond the Catholic Church? The Catechism has a wonderful passage dealing with this question:
“Outside the Church there is no salvation”
846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches 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. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
847 This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church:
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.
To my way of thinking, there is a theologically perfect analogy between the questions “is there salvation outside the Catholic Church” and “is there salvation apart from Christ” in that, for both questions, the answer will be a (similarly) qualified ‘no.’ Clearly, there can be no salvation apart from Christ (on this, evangelicals will generally agree with Catholics). However, it is not out of the question to think that Christ, by unknown and ‘extra-ordinary’ means, saves those who, through no fault of their own, remain invincibly ignorant of him, but who seek God sincerely and, through grace, have been drawn to God by Christ himself. Karl Rahner S.J., introduced the idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ (i.e., people who were unconsciously Christian) into Catholic theology in the early 1960’s. The same idea was echoed at a much more popular level by C.S. Lewis, who wrote:
“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him…”
These ideas are substantially the same, and they have always seemed right-headed to me, especially given passages such as John 15:22, Acts 10:34-35, Acts 14:17, John 9:41, Numbers 22:9-38, et cetera. The motivations for believing that those who never accept the Gospel through some inability might still be saved are many. One might wonder, for instance, what to make of the mentally disabled who are cognitively unable to accept any theological propositions, or the person who has never been reached with the Gospel, or even the person who has only ever encountered some parody of the real Gospel. Surely a person can only be morally responsible for accepting, failing to accept, rejecting, or failing to reject something if they were acquainted with it, or could easily have been were it not for some fault of their own.
In articulating my view, which takes its cue from Rahner and Lewis (though, I think that you can find early intimations of it in the Ante-Nicene fathers as well), I have made a habit of falling back on one particularly good example from early Church history. Consider Marcus Aurelius, whose virtue and intelligence are virtually unquestioned by Christian historians, but who, in the face of Christianity, not only remained devoutly pagan but made himself a violent enemy of the early Church. Many Christians look back on Marcus Aurelius with a surprisingly warm affection and admiration for him. In the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Marcus Aurelius we read:
“Marcus Aurelius was one of the best men of heathen antiquity. Apropos of the Antonines the judicious Montesquieu says that, if we set aside for a moment the contemplation of the Christian verities, we can not read the life of this emperor without a softening feeling of emotion. Niebuhr calls him the noblest character of his time, and M. Martha, the historian of the Roman moralists, says that in Marcus Aurelius “the philosophy of Heathendom grows less proud, draws nearer to a Christianity which it ignored or which it despised, and is ready to fling itself into the arms of the Unknown God.””
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that this fondness is not mutual.
“In his dealings with the Christians Marcus Aurelius went a step farther than any of his predecessors. Throughout the reigns of Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius, the procedure followed by Roman authorities in their treatment of the Christians was that outlined in Trajan’s rescript to Pliny, by which it was ordered that the Christians should not be sought out; if brought before the courts, legal proof of their guilt should be forthcoming. [For the much-disputed rescript “Ad conventum Asiae” (Eusebius, Church History IV.13), see ANTONINUS PIUS]. It is clear that during the reign of Aurelius the comparative leniency of the legislation of Trajan gave way to a more severe temper. In Southern Gaul, at least, an imperial rescript inaugurated an entirely new and much more violent era of persecution (Eusebius, Church History V.1.45). In Asia Minor and in Syria the blood of Christians flowed in torrents (Allard, op. cit. infra. pp. 375, 376, 388, 389). In general the recrudescence of persecution seems to have come immediately through the local action of the provincial governors impelled by the insane outcries of terrified and demoralized city mobs. If any general imperial edict was issued, it has not survived.”
Is it to be concluded, therefore, that Marcus Aurelius rejected Christ, and so was damned? It isn’t clear that that’s a foregone conclusion. Catholics, in general, do well to heed the example of the Catholic Church, which at no time has proclaimed anyone definitively reprobate. For a Catholic to claim that anyone in particular is damned is for them to go far beyond anything the Catholic Church teaches, and that presumption seems in equal parts unwholesome and inappropriate for any faithful Catholic. Beyond prudential reasons for being slow to pass judgment as though In Persona Dei, there may be reason to believe that figures like Marcus Aurelius, in rejecting Christianity, rejected a mere caricature of the faith, while simultaneously drawing nearer to the unknown God (Acts 17:23).
Consider what we read of a presumably popular objection to Christianity, roughly contemporaneous with Marcus Aurelius, in a provocative passage from Minucius Felix’ Octavius:
“And now, as wickeder things advance more fruitfully, and abandoned manners creep on day by day, those abominable shrines of an impious assembly are maturing themselves throughout the whole world. Assuredly this confederacy ought to be rooted out and execrated. They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another. Everywhere also there is mingled among them a certain religion of lust, and they call one another promiscuously brothers and sisters, that even a not unusual debauchery may by the intervention of that sacred name become incestuous: it is thus that their vain and senseless superstition glories in crimes. Nor, concerning these things, would intelligent report speak of things so great and various, and requiring to be prefaced by an apology, unless truth were at the bottom of it. I hear that they adore the head of an ass, that basest of creatures, consecrated by I know not what silly persuasion,–a worthy and appropriate religion for such manners. Some say that they worship the virilia of their pontiff and priest, and adore the nature, as it were, of their common parent. I know not whether these things are false; certainly suspicion is applicable to secret and nocturnal rites; and he who explains their ceremonies by reference to a man punished by extreme suffering for his wickedness, and to the deadly wood of the cross, appropriates fitting altars for reprobate and wicked men, that they may worship what they deserve. Now the story about the initiation of young novices is as much to be detested as it is well known. An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds.
Thirstily–O horror!–they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together; with this consciousness of wickedness they are covenanted to mutual silence. Such sacred rites as these are more foul than any sacrileges. And of their banqueting it is well known all men speak of it everywhere; even the speech of our Cirtensian testifies to it. On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervour of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound, to rush and spring; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate. Although not all in fact, yet in consciousness all are alike incestuous, since by the desire of all of them everything is sought for which can happen in the act of each individual.”
Unfortunately, this passage displays misunderstandings of Christianity which were basically representative of widely circulated misapprehensions at the time. Although riddled with obvious and colossal misrepresentations of Christian liturgy (it sounds almost as though infant baptism and the doctrine of the Eucharist have been conflated, resulting in a confusion which would have been laughable had it not been so serious), there’s no reason to think these were peculiar for the time.
Is it possible that Marcus Aurelius’ understanding of Christianity was filtered through these (or similar) unfair popular characterizations in his day? That is certainly not unlikely. What, then, can we make of his response to Christianity? Had he understood by Christianity something as perverse as what we read above, who could possibly blame him for reacting the way he did? Had he accepted Christianity under this appearance, he would have been thereby rejecting the essence of true Christianity. His attacks on Christianity, on this assumption, are the product not of vice, but of outstanding pagan virtue (indeed, proto-Christian virtue). If this truly was the case, then his apparent rejection of ‘Christianity’ was not a genuine rejection of Christianity at all. For all we know, Marcus Aurelius was unconsciously Christian; an anonymous Christian who, having been led into confusion about the Christian cult, acted against the Church out of love for the good, the true and the beautiful. In other words, out of love for God (the summum bonum), and even for Christ as λόγος, for, as the Shakespearean adage goes, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Marcus Aurelius persecuted the Church, but I think his actions were not motivated by an obstinate rejection of the person of Christ; rather, they were motivated by a rejection of a deplorable caricature which any sufficiently good pagan would surely have been inclined to snuff out for the good of the people. In a sense, his apparent rejection of Christianity may have been no more authentic than the atheism of a man who thought that God was supposed to be a big bearded tyrant walking on the clouds, or a flying spaghetti monster. Depending on what atheists understand to be signified by the term ‘God,’ and depending, more profoundly, upon their unarticulated attitude towards God, they may also qualify, in reality, as anonymous Christians in Rahner’s sense. For all we know, they are – at least, for all we know, they are.
The example of Marcus Aurelius (at least, as I have imagined it) helps to illustrate an important point; namely, that the apparent rejection of Christ is not always a genuine rejection of Christ. I want to suggest that the same holds true with respect to rejecting the Catholic faith. For all we know, the evangelical who rejects the Catholic Church rejects but a caricature of her and may remain, in some deep way, invincibly ignorant of what they appear to reject (presumably they remain ignorant, at least, that the Catholic Church is the true mystical body of Jesus Christ). What I think Catholics like me should say, therefore, is that those who reject the Catholic Church genuinely, and not merely in appearance, are surely rejecting Christ himself, and apart from Christ there is no salvation. However, we find ourselves in precisely the same epistemic quandary when attempting to make a judgment about either whether a person has genuinely rejected Christ, or whether a person has genuinely rejected the Catholic Church. The charitable presumption that Catholics should make in both instances, in my submission, is that people may reject Christ or the Church in appearance only, while being, in reality, anonymous Catholics, unconscious of their being united to the whole communion of saints through incorporation into the mystical body of Christ.
 Karl Rahner, S.J., “Membership of the Church According to the Teaching of Pius XII’s Encyclical “Mystici Corporis Christi”,” Theological Investigations 2 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1963): 1-88.
see also: Karl Rahner, S.J., “Salvation,” Sacramentum Mundu, V (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970): 405-409.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014), 38.
 Marcus Aurelius’ dates are c. 161-180 A.D., but the dates for Minucius Felix are uncertain, ranging from any times between c. 160-300 A.D.; still, the misunderstandings of Christianity evident in the dialogue published by Minucius Felix may have been in circulation in Marcus Aurelius’ time, and there may have been equally pernicious misunderstandings in circulation in Aurelius’ time regardless.
 Minucius Felix, Octavian, Ch. IX,