Early bishop Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107) writes that “if any follow a schismatic [that is, the founder of a religious group outside of the bishop-ruled catholic mainstream] they will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Letter of Ignatius to the Philadelphians 3:3) Leading catholic theologian Origen of Alexandria (c. 186-255) wrote: “outside the Church no one is saved.” (Dupuis 2001, 86-7) Yet Origen also held, at least tentatively, that eventually all rational beings will be saved.
Thus, the slogan that there is no salvation outside the church (Latin: Extra ecclesiam nulla salus) was meant to communicate at bare minimum the uniqueness of the Christian church as God’s instrument of salvation since the resurrection of Jesus. The slogan was nearly always, in the first three Christian centuries, wielded in the context of disputes with “heretical” Christian groups, the point being that one can’t be saved through membership in such groups. (Dupuis 2001, 86-9)
However, what about Jews, pagans, unbaptized babies, or people who never have a chance to hear the Christian message? After catholic Christianity became the official religion of the empire (c. 381), it was usually assumed that the message had been preached throughout the world, leaving all adult non-Christians without excuse. Thus, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Fulgentius of Ruspe (468-533) interpreted the slogan as implying that all non-Christians are damned, because they bear the guilt of “original sin” stemming from the sin of Adam, which has not been as it were washed away by baptism. (Dupuis 2000, 91-2)
Water baptism, from the beginning, had been the initiation rite into Christianity, but it was still unclear what church membership strictly required. Some theorized, for instance, that a “baptism of blood,” that is, martyrdom, would be enough to save unbaptized catechumens. Later theologians added a “baptism of desire,” which was either a desire to be baptized or the inclination to form such a desire, either way enough to secure saving membership in the church. In the first case, a person who is killed in an accident on her way to be baptized would nonetheless be in the church. In the second, even a virtuous pagan might be a church member. This “baptism of desire” was officially affirmed by the Roman Catholic Council of Trent in 1547.
With the split of the catholic movement into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches, “the church” was understood in Western contexts to be specifically the Roman Catholic church. Thus, famously, in a papal bull of 1302, called by its first words Unam Sanctam (that is, “One Holy”), Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) declared that outside the Roman Catholic church, “there is neither salvation nor remission of sins,” and “it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to” the pope. (Plantinga 1999, 124-5; Neuner and Dupuis 2001, 305) Note that this might still be interpreted with or without the various non-standard ways to obtain church membership mentioned above. The context of this statement was not a discussion of the fate of non-Christians, but rather a political struggle between the pope and the king of France.
In the Decree for the Copts of the General Council of Florence (1442), a papal bull issued by pope Eugene IV (r. 1431-47), for the first time in an official Roman Catholic doctrinal document the slogan was asserted not only with respect to heretics and schismatics, but also concerning Jews and pagans. (Neuner and Dupuis 2001, 309-10) It also seems to close the door to non-standard routes to church membership, saying that “never was anyone, conceived by a man and a woman, liberated from the devil’s dominion except by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Tanner 1990, 575) Non-Catholics will “go into the everlasting fire…unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives…nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.” (Tanner 1990, 578)
This exclusivistic or “rigorist” way of understanding the slogan, on which only the Roman Catholic church could provide the “cure” needed by all humans, was the most common Catholic stance on religious diversity until mid-nineteenth century. But some had always held on to theories about ways into the church other than water baptism, and since the European discovery of the New World it had become clear that the gospel had not been preached to the whole world, and many held that such pagans were non-culpably ignorant of the gospel. This view was affirmed by Pope Pius X (r. 1846-78) in his Singulari Quadam (1854): “outside the Apostolic Roman Church no one can be saved…On the other hand…those who live in ignorance of the true religion, if such ignorance be invincible, are not subject to any guilt in this matter before the eyes of the Lord.” (Neuner and Dupuis 2001, 311)
Nineteenth century popes condemned Enlightenment-inspired theories of religion pluralism about truth and salvation, then called “indifferentism,” it being, allegedly, indifferent which major religion one chose, since all were of equal value. At the same time, they argued that many people who are outside the one church cannot be blamed for this, and so will not be condemned by God.
Such views are consistent with exclusivism in the sense that Roman Catholic Christianity is the one divinely provided and so most effective instrument of salvation, as well as the most true religion, and the “true religion” in the sense that any claim which contradicts it official teaching is false. Letters by Pius XII (r. 1939-58) declared that a “by an unconscious desire and longing” non-Catholics may enjoy a saving relationship with the church. (Dupuis 2001, 127-9) Whether these non-Catholics are thought to be in the church by a non-standard means, or whether they are said to be not in the church “in reality” but only “in desire,” it was held that they were saved by God’s grace. (Neuner and Dupuis 2001, 329)
Since the Vatican II council (1962-5), many Catholic theologians have embraced what most philosophers will consider some form of inclusivism rather than a suitably qualified exclusivism, with a minority opting for some sort of pluralism. (On the majority inclusivism, see section 4b below.) The impetus for this change was fueled by statements from that council (their Latin titles:Lumen Gentium, Ad Gentes, Nostra Aetate, Gaudium et Spes, Heilsoptimismus), which are in various ways positive towards non-Catholics. One asserts not merely the possibility, but the actuality of salvation for those who are inculpably ignorant of the gospel but who seek God and try to follow his will as expressed through their own conscience. Another, without saying that people may be saved through membership in them, affirms various positive values in other religions, including true teachings, which serve as divinely ordained preparations for reception the gospel. Catholics are exhorted to patient, friendly dialogue with members of other religions. (Dupuis 2000, 161-5) Some Catholic theologians have seen the seeds or even the basic elements of inclusivism in these statements, while others view them as within the orbit of a suitably articulated exclusivism. (Dupuis 2000, 165-170) A key area of disagreement is whether or not these imply that a person may be saved by means of their participation in some other religion. Still other Catholic theologians have found these moves to be positive but not nearly different enough from the more pessimistic sort of exclusivism. Such theologians, prominently Hans Küng (b. 1928) and Paul Knitter (b. 1939), have formulated various pluralist theories. (Kärkkäinen 2003, 197-204, 309-17)
Since the latter twentieth century many Roman Catholic theologians have explored non-exclusivist options. As explained above (section 3c) a major impetus for this has been statements issued by the latest official council (Vatican II, 1962-5). One goes so far as to say that “the Holy Spirit offers to all [humans] the possibility of being associated, in a way known to God, with the Paschal Mystery [that is, the saving death and resurrection of Jesus].” (Gaudium et Spes 22, quoted in Dupuis 2001, 162) Some Catholic theologians see the groundwork or beginning in these documents for an inclusivist theory, on which other religions have saving value.
Influential German theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84), in his essay “Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions,” argues that before people encounter Christianity, other religions may be the divinely appointed means of their salvation. Insofar as they in good conscience practice what is good in their religion, people in other religions receive God’s grace and are “anonymous Christians,” people who are being saved through Christ, though they do not realize it. All Christians believe that some were saved before Christianity, through Judaism. So too at least some other religions must still be means for salvation, though not necessarily to the same degree, for God wills the salvation of all humankind. But these lesser ways should and eventually will give way to Christianity, the truest religion, intended for all humankind. (Plantinga 1999, 288-303)
Subsequent papal statements have moved cautiously in Rahner’s direction, affirming the work of the Holy Spirit not only in the people in other religions, but also in those religions themselves, so that in the practice of what is good in those religions, people may respond to God’s grace and be saved, unbeknownst to them, by Christ. Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic church remains the unique divine instrument; no one is saved without some positive relation to it. (Dupuis 2001, 170-9; Neuner and Dupuis 2001, 350-1)