It has been observed that the majority of people, even in the West, still believe in God (or at least "some God"). Declared atheism has always been-and seems to continue to be-confined to the elite and intellectuals. The belief that God "became incarnate" Himself-or at least uniquely "manifested" Himself-in Jesus is still held by many.
But the Church? The Catholic Church, in particular? Today many people seem to rebel against the claim that salvation can be found only in the Church. Many Christians-and even some Catholics-ask themselves: Why, among all the Christian Churches, should the Catholic Church alone possess and teach the fullness of the Gospel?
Here, before all else, we need to explain the Christian doctrine of salvation and of the mediation of salvation, which always originates in God. "For there is one God. / There is also one mediator between God and the human race, / Christ Jesus, himself human" (1 Tm 2:5). "There is no salvation through any other name" (Acts 4:12).
It is therefore a revealed truth that there is salvation only and exclusively in Christ. The Church, inasmuch as it is the Body of Christ, is simply an instrument of this salvation. In the first words of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, we read: "The Church is in Christ as a sacrament, or a sign and instrument, of intimate union with God and of the unity of the entire human race" (Lumen Gentium 1). As the people of God the Church is thus, at the same time, the Body of Christ.
The Council explained in great depth the mystery of the Church: "The Son of God, uniting Himself to human nature and conquering death with His Death and Resurrection, redeemed man and transformed him into a new creation (cf. Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17). By sending forth His Spirit Christ calls together His brothers from among all peoples to form His mystical body" (Lumen Gentium 7). For this reason, as Saint Cyprian says, the universal Church appears as "a people gathered together by the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" (De Oratione Dominica 23). This life, which is life from God and in God, is the actualization of salvation. Man is saved in the Church by being brought into the Mystery of the Divine Trinity, into the mystery of the intimate life of God.
This cannot be understood by looking exclusively at the visible aspect of the Church. The Church is a living body. Saint Paul expressed this in his brilliant insights about the Body of Christ (cf. Col 1:18).
"In this way we all become members of that Body
(cf. 1 Cor 12:27), and 'individually members of one another' (Rm 12:5)....There is also a diversity of parts and functions in the structure of the mystical Body. One is the Spirit, who for the good of the Church distributes His various gifts with a magnificence equal to His richness and to the needs of the ministries" (Lumen Gentium 7).
Thus, the Council is far from proclaiming any kind of ecclesiocentrism. Its teaching is Christocentric in all of its aspects, and therefore it is profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Trinity. At the heart of the Church is Christ and His Sacrifice, a Sacrifice celebrated in a certain sense on the altar of all creation, on the altar of the world. Christ "is.../ the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15); through His Resurrection He is also "the firstborn from the dead" (Col 1:18). Around His redemptive sacrifice is gathered all creation, which is working out its eternal destiny in God. If this process causes pain, it is, however, full of hope, as Saint Paul teaches in the Letter to the Romans (cf. Rom 8:23-24).
"The one People of God is present among all nations on earth, since he takes its citizens from every race, citizens of a Kingdom that by its nature is not of this world but from heaven. In fact all of the faithful spread throughout the world are in communion with one another through the Holy Spirit, and so 'he who is in Rome knows that those on the far side of the earth are his members.' " In the same document, one of the most important of the Second Vatican Council, we read: "In virtue of this catholicity, each individual part brings its gifts to the other parts and to the entire Church, and thus the whole and individual parts are reinforced by communicating with each other, working together to attain fulfillment in unity" (Lumen Gentium 13).
In Christ the Church is a communion in many dif-
ferent ways. Its character as a communion renders
the Church similar to the communion of the
Divine Trinity of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Thanks to this communion, the Church is the instrument of man's salvation. It both contains and continually draws upon the mystery of Christ's redemptive sacrifice. Through the shedding of His own blood, Jesus Christ constantly "enters into God's sanctuary thus obtaining eternal redemption" (cf. Heb 9:12).
Thus, Christ is the true active subject of humanity's
salvation. The Church is as well, inasmuch as it acts on behalf of Christ and in Christ. As the Council teaches: "Christ, present among us in His Body which is the Church, is the one mediator and the way to salvation. Expressly asserting the need for faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), he asserted the need for the Church, which men enter through baptism as if through a door. For this reason men cannot be saved who do not want to enter or remain in the Church, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded by God through Christ as a necessity" (Lumen Gentium 14).
Here the Council sets forth its teaching on the Church as the active subject of salvation in Christ: "Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, having the Spirit of Christ, integrally accept its organization and all means of salvation instituted in it. In the Church's visible structure they are joined with Christ-who rules the Church through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops-by the bonds of the profession of the faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and Communion. Those who do not persist in charity, even if they remain in the Church in 'body' but not in 'heart,' cannot be saved. All of the Church's children must remember that their privileged condition is not the result of their own merits, but the result of the special grace of Christ. Therefore, if someone does not respond to this grace in thought, in word, and in deeds, not only will that person not be saved, he will be even more severely judged" (Lumen Gentium 14). I think that the Council's words fully respond to the difficulty raised by your question; they shed light on why the Church is necessary for salvation.
The Council speaks of membership in the Church for Christians and of being related to the Church for non-Christian believers in God, for people of goodwill (cf. Lumen Gentium 15-16). Both these dimensions are important for salvation, and each one possesses varying levels. People are saved through the Church, they are saved in the Church, but they always are saved by the grace of Christ. Besides formal membership in the Church, the sphere of salvation can also include other forms of relation to the Church. Paul VI expressed this same teaching in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, when he spoke of the various circles of the dialogue of salvation (cf. Ecclesiam Suam 101-117), which are the same as those indicated by the Council as the spheres of membership in and of relation to the Church. This is the authentic meaning of the well-known statement "Outside the Church there is no salvation."
It would be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open. It cannot be accused of an ecclesiological exclusivism. Those who rebel against claims allegedly made by the Catholic Church probably do not have an adequate understanding of this teaching.
Although the Catholic Church knows that it has received the fullness of the means of salvation, it rejoices when other Christian communities join her in preaching the Gospel. This is the proper context for understanding the Council's teaching that the Church of Christ "subsists" in the Catholic Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 8; Unitatis Redintegratio 4).
The Church, precisely because it is Catholic, is open to dialogue with all other Christians, with the followers of non-Christian religions, and also with all people of good will, as John XXIII and Paul VI frequently said. Lumen Gentium explains convincingly and in depth the meaning of "people of good will." The Church wants to preach the Gospel together with all who believe in Christ. It wants to point out to all the path to eternal salvation, the fundamental principles of life in the Spirit and in truth.
Permit me to recall the years of my early youth. I remember that one day my father gave me a prayerbook which contained the prayer to the Holy Spirit. He told me to recite it daily. So, from that day on, I have tried to. I understood for the first time the meaning of Christ's words to the Samaritan woman about the true worshipers of God, about those who worship Him in Spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4:23). There were to be many more steps in my journey. Before entering the seminary, I met a layman named Jan Tyranowski, who was a true mystic. This man, whom I consider a saint, introduced me to the great Spanish mystics and in particular to Saint John of the Cross. Even before entering the underground seminary, I read the works of that mystic, especially his poetry. In order to read it in the original, I studied Spanish. That was a very important stage in my life.
I think, however, that here my father's words played a very important role because they directed me toward becoming a true worshiper of God-they directed me toward trying to be one of His true worshipers, of those who worship Him in Spirit and truth. I discovered the Church to be a community of salvation. In this Church I found my place and my vocation. Gradually, I learned the meaning of the redemption accomplished in Christ and, as a result, the meaning of the sacraments, and of Holy Mass in particular. I learned at what price we have been redeemed. And all of this drew me even more profoundly into the mystery of the Church, which, precisely because it is a mystery, has an invisible dimension. The Council spoke of this as well. This mystery is larger than the visible structure and organization of the Church. Structure and organization are at the service of the mystery. The Church, as the mystical Body of Christ, penetrates and embraces all of us. The spiritual, mystical dimensions of the Church are much greater than any sociological statistics could ever possibly show.