On August 10 1863 Pope Pius IX issued an encyclical Quanto conficiamur in which he expressed the possibility that non-Catholics and non-Christians may be saved. This was noteworthy, as it was the first time this nuance had been expressed in soteriology, the theology of Salvation, by a pontiff in this way.
A widespread understanding of "No salvation outside the church " extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was common at the time, and probably made sharper in the light of the reformation and the wars of religion. However, theologians had always understood this statement to not be as black and white as it may seem at first glance. It all depended on your understanding of what the Church is, i.e what constitutes the Church, which was a live debate in the branch of theology called ecclesiology. For instance, for some the church is defined as "all those who will be saved", with no emphasis on the visible church, or the invisible church. There was often a discussion on the status of the just who had lived before Christ, Moses, Abraham, Elijah etc, this pointed towards the possibility that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned in case of inculpable ignorance.
Pius was Pope for 31 years and thus is notable for serving the longest verified period as Pope. St. Peter himself, was pope for an unverified c. 34 –38 years. John Paul II comes in third at 26 years. Pius XI was to release a record 38 encyclicals and today released one called Quanto conficiamur which addressed, amongst other things, salvation outside of the Church. He sets out the possibility that non-Catholics may be saved by saying “We and you know, that those who lie under invincible ignorance as regards our most Holy Religion, and who, diligently observing the natural law and its precepts, which are engraven by God on the hearts of all, and prepared to obey God, lead a good and upright life, are able, by the operation of the power of divine light and grace, to obtain eternal life.”
In plain speaking- this meant that God will not condemn those who have not committed a deliberate sin (referred to in moral theology as Vincible Ignorance) and thus people outside of the Church could also achieve salvation. These nuances of moral theology had to be carefully expressed to avoid slipping into indifferentism, i.e. why bother? Why does Christ matter? The Pope felt it was important that this didn’t mean that the church should stop all its work though, in fact he felt that it implied that the Church’s mission to educate others about Christ is more important. There is a subtle shift in theological emphasis here, a bit like moving your weight from your back foot to your front foot - as the Augustinian tradition, which has dominated Western Theology had advocated the harsh view that the vast majority of the human race—the massa damnata—will find their way to Hell. However, this teaching had been countered in the Christian East, by Origen of Alexandria.
Hans Urs Von Balthazar (see pod of Jun 26) in his book Dare we Hope that all men will be saved, insists that all Christians have a duty to hope that Hell might be empty of human beings. He criticises Thomas Aquinas’s view—shared widely in the classical tradition—that part of the joy of heaven was to witness the sufferings of the damned. Von Balthazar reminds us of a surprising number of saints and mystics, Therese of Lisieux, and Catherine of Siena among many who declared a willingness to suffer on behalf of a denizen of Hell or even, at the limit, to take his or her place as a gesture of love. This less dogmatic and more mystical tradition in the church can trace itself back to Paul himself, who had written in his letter to the Romans: “I wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh”
The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium picks this important debate up. It was one of the four most significant documents to come out of the council – classified as Constitutions, basically sayings something important about the nature of the church. The first was Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, then two Dogmatic Constitutions followed - Lumen Gentium, on the Church, and Dei Verbum, on Divine Revelation and finally Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern. Lumen Gentium ‘A light to the Gentiles’ tries to answer the question - why do we need the Church’s teaching after the teachings of Christ? It attempts to relate the role of Scripture and tradition, that is the postbiblical teaching of the church. It also develops Pius’ bold statement about salvation. Lumen gentium, 16: "Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life."
Most recently, Pope Benedict’s encyclical Spe Salvi, "Saved in Hope” develops the theme even further and reflects on the theological virtue of hope. Looking at Jesus’s time, and the expectation of liberation from a foreign coloniser, the Romans, Benedict draws a clear distinction between the failed socio-political revolutions or liberations of Spartacus, Barabbas, and Bar-Kochba with "the new (non-political) hope" of Jesus. Concluding that Jesus brought "an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which transformed life and the world from within", something that these revolutionaries could not. Explaining that there is something unique in what Jesus offers as eternal life. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. However, Benedict shows the true shape of Christian hope, and how hope faith and love are intertwined.
This echoes an important point that von Balathazar makes which he illustrates with a fascinating story from the life of the mystic Catherine of Siena. She reported a conversation with Christ to her spiritual director Raymond of Capua. Catherine said to Jesus, “How could I ever reconcile myself, Lord, to the prospect that a single one of those whom you have created in your image and likeness should become lost and slip from your hands?” Christs answer to Catherine, confided to her spiritual director is powerful: “Love cannot be contained in Hell; it would totally annihilate Hell.” In other words, the love that Catherine is exhibiting, precisely through her hope that all be saved, functions as an antidote to the poison, or an obstacle to the entrance of Hell.
In the Protestant tradition too, there have been some interesting insights into this, C.S. Lewis, famously argued that the door to Hell is locked from the inside by those who, from the bottom of their hearts, want to be left alone. In 2007, American Evangelical Rob Bell, wrote the New York Times bestseller Love Wins. In the book, Bell states that "It's been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as eternal, conscious torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear." Echoing Von Balthazar he goes on to say "Whatever objections a person may have of [the universalist view], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it." In the book, Bell also questions "evacuation theology" which has Christians focused on getting to heaven, instead of focusing on God's renewal and transformation of this world. Bell argues that Jesus (and the wider Jewish tradition of which he was a part) focused on God's ongoing restoration of this world, not getting individuals to heaven. Their was a fierce backlash to his book from conservative evangelicals, or what Bell described as "a very narrow, politically intertwined, culturally ghettoized Evangelical subculture." He continued to say that Evangelicals have "turned away lots of people" from the church by talking about God in ways that "don't actually shape people into more loving, compassionate people and we need to repent.