Scripture, Church Fathers, and Medieval Doctors on the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics

This is a compilation of quotes from important Church figures before Vatican 2 on the topic of salvation for non-Catholics. I wanted to make this compilation because I often hear that the Church changed its teaching on "no salvation outside the Church" at the Second Vatican Council, and I think that's bogus. Hopefully, this post will help people see that our doctrine of invincible ignorance is an ancient part of the faith, along with the possibility of being united to the Church without being baptized in the normal sense of the word.

The Bible on Invincible Ignorance

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34

“The times of ignorance God overlooked.” Acts 17:30

“Sin is not counted where there is no law.” Romans 5:13

"If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains." John 9:41

“If I had not come among them, they would have no sin.” John 15:22

“If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin.” John 15:24

“I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” 1 Timothy 1:14

“I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled.” Acts 3:17-18

“[E]very high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God... He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness.” Hebrews 5:1-2

“In truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him.” Acts 10:34-35

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Romans 2:14-16

“How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? … However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Romans 10:14-17

[[Note: in verses 18-21 Paul says he is talking about Jews who have heard (verse 18) and understood (verses 19-21) the Gospel, but rejected the Gospel obstinately (verse 21). This supports the possibility of invincible ignorance because it bases the responsibility of the Jews on their hearing and understanding the Gospel. Therefore, not hearing the Gospel or not understanding it would have excused them.]]

“And the priest shall pray for all the multitude of the children of Israel: and it shall be forgiven them, because they sinned ignorantly, offering notwithstanding a burnt offering to the Lord for themselves and for their sin and their ignorance.” Numbers 15:25

Church Fathers and Doctors

97 A.D. - Pope St. Clement I - "Let us go through all generations, and learn that in generation and generation the Master has given a place of repentance to those willing to turn to Him. Noah preached repentance, and those who heard him were saved. Jonah preached repentance to the Ninivites; those who repented for their sins appeased God in praying, and received salvation, even though they were aliens of God." (1 Clement 7:5-7)

157 A.D. - St. Justin Martyr - "Christ is the Logos [Divine Word] of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived according to Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists, such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus." (First Apology 46)

And: "those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, [and] shall be saved through this Christ in the resurrection equally with...Noah, and Enoch, and Jacob, and whoever else there be, along with those who have known this Christ, [the] Son of God." (Dialogue with Trypho 45)

160 A.D. - The Acts of Paul and Thecla reports that St. Thecla prayed for a dead non-Catholic girl named Falconilla after the girl's mother had a vision of her in Purgatory. There is evidence that the mother had not heard of Christianity prior to meeting St. Thecla, so her daughter could be covered by invincible ignorance. Shortly after seeing her daughter in purgatory, the mother prays to the Christian God, crying out, "God of Thecla, help her!" Eventually she receives the Gospel and becomes a Catholic. The fact that Falconilla (the daughter) was a non-Catholic and was viewed in Purgatory, and that St. Thecla prayed for her to be taken into heaven, shows that she thought it was possible for a non-Catholic to be saved if they were ignorant of the true Church in this life. (Acts of Paul and Thecla Chapters 8-9)

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - "Christ came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who [are currently alive], but for absolutely all men from the beginning, who according to their ability, feared and loved God and lived justly...and desired to see Christ and to hear His voice." (Against Heresies Book IV Chapter 22 Paragraph 2)

~335 A.D. - Hegemonius of Chalcedon - "From the creation of the world [God] has always been with just men. ... Were they not made just from the fact that they kept the law, 'Each one of them showing the work of the law on their hearts...?' For when someone who does not have the law does by nature the things of the law, this one, not having the law, is a law for himself. ... For if we judge that a man is made just without the works of the law...how much more will they attain justice who fulfilled the law containing those things which are expedient for men?" (Acts of Archelaus with Manes)

~340 A.D. - Eusebius of Caesarea - "But even if we [Christians] are certainly new...yet our life and mode of conduct, in accord with the precepts of religion, has not been recently invented by us; but from the first creation of man, so to speak, it is upheld by natural inborn concepts of the ancient men who loved God... But if someone would describe as Christians those who are testified to as having been righteous [going back] from Abraham to the first man, he would not hit wide of the truth." (Church History Book I Chapter 1 Paragraph 4)

374 A.D. - St. Gregory Nazianzus - "[A certain pagan] was ours even before he was of our fold. His way of living made him such. For...many of those outside [the Church] belong to us, who by their way of life anticipate the faith, and need [only] the name, having the reality." (Oration 18:6)

384 A.D. - St. John Chrysostom - "And Peter," it says, "opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons." (Acts 10:34.) ... Was He "a respecter of persons" beforetime? God forbid! For beforetime likewise it was just the same: "Every one," as he saith, "that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, would be acceptable to Him." As when Paul saith, "For when the Gentiles which have not the Law, do by nature the things of the Law." (Rom. ii. 14.) "That feareth God and worketh righteousness:" he assumes both doctrine and manner of life: is "accepted with Him;" for, if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook. "What say you then to this, that there are likely persons, men of mild disposition, and yet they will not believe?" Lo, you have yourself named the cause: they will not. But besides the likely person he here speaks of is not this sort of man, but the man "that worketh righteousness:" that is, the man who in all points is virtuous and irreproachable, when he has the fear of God as he ought to have it. But whether a person be such, God only knows. See how this man was acceptable: see how, as soon as he heard, he was persuaded." (Homily 23 on the Acts of the Apostles)

And: "Paul [also] declaring, saith, "For there is no respect of persons with God." (Rom. ii. 11.) What then? (it may be asked) is the man yonder in Persia acceptable to Him? If he be worthy, in this regard he is acceptable, that it should be granted him to be brought unto faith. The Eunuch from Ethiopia He overlooked not. "What shall one say then of the religious men who have been overlooked?" It is not the case, that any (such) ever was overlooked. But what he says is to this effect, that God rejects no man. "In every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness:" (by righteousness) he means, all virtue. Mark, how he subdues all elation of mind in him." (ibid.)

395 A.D. - St. Augustine - "[Y]ou are not considered at fault if you, against your will, are ignorant; however, if you are ignorant because you fail to ask, you are at fault. ... So even now, if ignorance of the truth and difficulty in behaving rightly are [natural]...no one properly condemns the soul because of its natural origin. But if a man refuses to strive for excellence, or wills to step back from where he set out, he justly and properly suffers punishment." (On Free Choice of the Will Volume III Chapter 19)

And: “[N]ot only martyrdom for the sake of Christ may supply what was wanting of Baptism, but also faith and conversion of heart, if recourse can not be had to the celebration of the mystery of Baptism for want of time.” (De Bapt. c. Donat., IV, 22, 29)

And: “[Men who hold to] doctrine[s] which [are] false and perverse, if they do not maintain [them] with passionate obstinacy...but have accepted [heresies] from [their] parents...if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics.” (Letter 43 Chapter 1)

And: 400 A.D. - “When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within in heart are saved in the unity of the ark.” (Baptism Book 5 Chapter 28 Paragraph 39)

~440 A.D. - St. Cyril of Alexandria - “[The Lord] is also the God of the gentiles, and has fully satisfied by laws implanted in their hearts, which the Maker has engraved in the hearts of all. For when the gentiles, [Paul] says, not having the law, do by nature the things of the law, they show the work of the law written on their hearts. But since He is not only the Maker and God of the Jews, but also of the gentiles...He sees fit by His providence to care not only for those who are of the blood of Israel, but also for all those upon the earth.” (Against Julian 3)

593 A.D. - Pope St. Gregory the Great - “The passion of the Church began already with Abel, and there is one Church of the elect, of those who precede, and of those who follow. ... They were, then, outside, but yet not divided from the holy Church, because in mind, in work, in preaching, they already held the sacraments of faith, and saw that loftiness of Holy Church.” (Homilies on Ezekiel Book II Chapter 3 Paragraph 16)

~853 A.D. - Haymo of Halberstadt - “[Some pagans] show surely that they have the natural law written on their hearts, and they are the law for themselves: because they do the things that the law teaches, even though it was not given to them. For example, the Saracens who have neither the law of Moses nor of the Gospel, while by nature they keep the law, do not commit murder, or commit adultery, or other things, which the law written within them contains; they are a law to themselves. ... In the second way: When the gentiles...naturally do the things...because they have the same law of Moses written on their hearts by the inspiration of Almighty God...'their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts in turn accusing or even defending.' And when will this be? 'On the day when the Lord will judge the hidden things of men' according to my Gospel.” (Exposition on Romans 2:14-16)

~990 A.D. - Oecumenius - “[Some pagans] do the things of the law using the reasonings of nature for just actions. These are wonderful, not needing a teacher, being their own lawgivers and fulfillers of the legislation. ... 'Their conscience bearing witness to them,' for it is enough in place of the law to have their own conscience testifying for them. ... At that judgment we do not need external accusers or witnesses...but each one's own reasonings and conscience either accuses or defends.” (On Romans 2:14-16)

1130-1143 A.D. - Pope Innocent II - “Baptism is ministered invisibly to one whom not contempt of religion but death excludes. … [T]he book also of the blessed Ambrose concerning the death of Valentinian...says the same thing. Therefore, to questions concerning the dead, you should hold the opinions of the learned Fathers, and in your church you should join in prayers and you should have sacrifices offered to God for [a certain Jewish priest who died without baptism].”

~1134 A.D. - St. Bernard of Clairvaux - “How many are there, throughout the world, who die in complete ignorance of [the Gospel]. What then? The law [of the Gospel] has not yet been promulgated, and they are already held responsible for breaking it? … God forbid.” (Letter 77 On Baptism and Other Questions 1.2)

1248 A.D. - Pope Innocent IV - “[S]ince you have heard about the faith [you] cannot be excused before God on account of ignorance.” (Viam Agnoscere Veritatis)

Note: The above quote implies that if you hadn’t heard about the faith, you could be excused before God on account of ignorance.

Before 1254 A.D. - Pope Innocent IV - “In that case, the faith of the Church replaces his opinion, though his opinion is false, it is not his faith, but his faith is the faith of the Church.” (Commentaria in quinque libros decretalia, Ad liber I)

~1259 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “[E]ven if someone is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts...[God will] furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on [man's] part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone [who was] brought up [in the wild] followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the faith to him as he sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).” (De Veritate Question 14 Article 11 Answer to Objection 1)

1274 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “[It] is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin.” (Summa Theologica I-II Question 76 Article 2)

And: “[People] can...obtain salvation…[who either] sacramentally [or] mentally are...incorporated in Christ, through Whom alone can salvation be obtained… [F]or instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism...such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism… [For] God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies [such a] man inwardly.” (Summa Theologica III Question 68 Article 2)

And: “[Man] receives the forgiveness of sins before Baptism in so far as he has Baptism of desire, explicitly or implicitly... [Therefore even] before Baptism Cornelius and others like him receive grace and virtues through their faith in Christ and their desire for Baptism, implicit or explicit.” (Summa Theologica III Question 69 Article 4)

“[For] Cornelius...was not an unbeliever, else his works would not have been acceptable to God... [He] had implicit faith, as the truth of the Gospel was not yet made manifest: hence Peter was sent to him to give him fuller instruction in the faith.” (Summa Theologica II-II Question 10 Article 4)

1532 A.D. - Francisco de Vitoria - “For [those] to whom no preaching of the faith or Christian religion has come...if they do what in them lies, accompanied by a good life according to the law of nature, it is consistent with God's providence [that] He will illuminate them regarding the name of Christ [so that they may be saved]... [And] if before hearing anything of the Christian religion they were excused [from the sin of unbelief], they are put under no fresh obligation by a simple declaration and announcement of [the gospel], for such announcement is no proof or incentive to belief… Nay...it would be rash and imprudent for any one to believe anything, especially in matters which concern salvation, unless he knows that this is asserted by a man worthy of credence…[therefore] matters of faith are seen and become evident by reason of their credibility.” (On the Indians Lately Discovered Section 2 Chapter 10)

1547 A.D. - The Council of Trent defines that a non-Catholic who desires to be a Catholic can be saved in certain circumstances. Jimmy Akin points out the relevant passages in this article.

1593 A.D. - St. Robert Bellarmine - “For the pagans to whom the Gospel has not yet been preached...[they] can know from [observing creation] that God exists; [after that] they can be stimulated by God, through His [enabling] grace, to believe in God, that He exists and that He is the rewarder of those who seek Him: and from such faith, they can be inspired, under the guidance and help of God, to pray and give alms and in this way obtain from God a still greater light of faith.” (On Grace and Free Will Book 2 Chapter 8)

1607 A.D. - Robert Persons - “[W]hosoever shall hold any [heresy], he shall not be a [Catholic]...which [is] sufficient to damnation, if ignorance excuse him not.” (A Treatise Tending to Mitigation Toward Catholic Subjects in England Page 65)

And: “[We] do not easily condemn or hold all and every sort of Protestants, Puritans, or the like...[as] absolute Heretics, but [we] excus[e] them [wherever] we may by...charitable interpretation[s]... St. Augustine...affirm[ed] to his friend Honoratus [who was] infected with the Manichean Heresy, that there is a great difference between an Heretic, and one that believeth Heretics, and is deceived by them... And hereby [he] openeth to us a door to think charitably of many Protestants, whom though we hold for deceived; yet not properly in St. Augustine’s meaning for Heretics. ... And all these limitations and charitable moderations we do willingly use to calm and mitigate matters [between Catholics and Protestants].” (A Treatise Tending to Mitigation Toward Catholic Subjects in England Pages 63-65)

1748 A.D. - St. Alphonsus Liguori - “[B]aptism of desire is perfect conversion to God by contrition or love of God above all things accompanied by an explicit or implicit desire for true Baptism of water, the place of which it takes as to the remission of guilt, but not as to the impression of the [baptismal] character or as to the removal of all debt of punishment. It is called 'of wind' because it takes place by the impulse of the Holy Ghost who is called a wind. Now it is de fide that men are also saved by Baptism of desire, by virtue of the Canon Apostolicam, 'de presbytero non baptizato' and of the Council of Trent, session 6, Chapter 4 where it is said that no one can be saved 'without the laver of regeneration or the desire for it.' ” (Moral Theology, Bk. 6, nn. 95-7)

1786 A.D. - Bishop George Hay of Edinburgh - “[If a non-Catholic] has actually died [separate] from the true Church of Christ and without the true faith of Christ, he cannot be saved. But if God, of His great mercy, has given him in his last moments light and grace to see and embrace the true faith, and he has corresponded with so great a favor as God requires, he will be saved.” (Sincere Christian, Vol. 2, pp. 322-323.)

1794 A.D. - Pope Pius VI - “[The opinion] that no one belongs to the body of the Church except the faithful, who are perfect adorers in spirit and in truth, [is] heretical.” (Auctorem Fidei 15)

1854 A.D. - Blessed Pope Pius IX - “For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things?” (Singulari Quadam)

1863 A.D. - Blessed Pope Pius IX - “There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.” (Quanto Conficiamur Moerore 7)

1875 A.D. - Bl. John Henry Newman - “the sacraments are necessary for dying in the grace of God and hope of heaven, yet, when they cannot be got, acts of faith, hope, and contrition, with the desire for those aids which the dying man has not, will convey in substance what those aids ordinarily convey. And so a Catechumen, not yet baptized, may be saved by his purpose and preparation to receive the rite. And so, again, though 'Out of the Church there is no salvation,' this does not hold in the case of good men who are in invincible ignorance.” (Letter to the Duke of Norfolk Chapter 4)

1908 A.D. - Pope St. Pius X - “A person outside the Church by his own fault, and who dies without perfect contrition, will not be saved. But he who finds himself outside without fault of his own, and who lives a good life, can be saved by the love called charity, which unites unto God, and in a spiritual way also to the Church, that is, to the soul of the Church.” (Catechism of Christian Doctrine)

And: “If [a man] is outside the Church through no fault of his [own], that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God's will as best he can[,] such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation.” (Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, the Ninth Article of the Creed, Question 29)

And: “The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.” (Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, On Baptism, Question 17)

1949 A.D. - Venerable Pope Pius XII - “[F]or a person to obtain his salvation, it is not always required that he be de facto incorporated into the Church as a member... When one is in a state of invincible ignorance, God accepts...the soul's good disposition, whereby it desires to conform its will to the will of God.” (Letter to the Archbishop of Boston from the Holy Office Concerning Fr. Leonard Feeney)