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The Roman Catholic Church's views of other faith groups

Recent documents: 1964 to 2000 CE

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The Roman Catholic Church softened its previous stance of "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus." 1 That is, those persons who are outside of the Catholic church are destined to spend eternity being tortured in Hell because they cannot possible be saved.

Statements by Catholic leaders from the 6th to 15th century CE) had confirmed this belief, and even named specific religious groups who were excluded from salvation. For example, in 1442 CE, Pope Eugene IV issued "Cantate Domino" which stated:

"The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her.

Many people can recall statements made in the 1950s and earlier by Catholics stating that all Protestants will go to Hell. These were reciprocated by statements by Protestants that all Catholics will go to Hell.

As a result of the Second Vatican Council (a.k.a. Vatican II), the Roman Catholic Church experienced a paradigm shift. Although the Catholic church retains the belief that they alone represent the fullness of Christian truth, they now teach that there are elements of truth in other Christian faith groups and even in other religions. Further, they teach that theists in other faith group have a chance at salvation and might attain Heaven after death.

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Vatican II Document (1964):

From the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution "Lumen Gentium" (Light of the Nations):

14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. ..."

"16. ... those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. 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." [Footnote references were deleted.] 1

One implication of section 14 is that a person who is ignorant of what the Roman Catholic church considers its unique status might possibly be saved. However, everyone who is are aware of the Church's status and has rejected it will remain unsaved and will spend eternity in Hell.

Section 16 extends the possibility of salvation to Jews, Muslims, and those who are still seeking God. Strong Atheists -- those who actively deny the existence of God -- apparently are to have no hope of salvation.

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Vatican II Document (1976):

"Nostra Aetate," the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions reaffirmed that there is only one Church of Christ that is fully in possession of the truth of the Gospel; that is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Although other religions and denominations differ considerably from the RCC, their teachings are often seen as containing elements of truth in their beliefs and practices.

In an often quoted passage, the Declaration states, in part:

"2. ... The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men." 2

In sections 3 and 4, the document "regards with esteem" Muslims and Jews. In particular, the document repudiates earlier Church teaching that Jews -- from the first century CE to the present time -- are all responsible for the execution of Jesus circa 30 CE. The document also decries "... hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

Finally, the statement concludes:

"The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion." 2

Notably missing from that list are discrimination or harassment of persons based on their:

bulletGender: Along with many other conservative faith groups, the Roman Catholic Church continues to discriminate against women by denying them access to positions of authority.
bulletSexual orientation: The Church continues to teach that certain forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians are legitimate. They remain in strong opposition to allowing same-sex couples to marry, or adopt children.

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Dominus Iesus document (2000): 3

Dominus Iesus was published internally on 2000-AUG-6 by Cardinal Ratzinger who was at the time the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was released to the public on 2000-SEP-5. The document had been ratified and confirmed by the Pope John Paul II on 2000-JUN-16 "with sure knowledge and by his apostolic authority." The document appears to have been triggered by the growth in acceptance of "relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism." 4 Some within the RCC, and many more without, had been suggesting that:

bulletAt least some religious truth is subjective and relative: valid for some but not for others;
bulletConcepts from other spiritual sources can be absorbed into Christianity "without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth;"
bulletScripture can be read and interpreted independently of church tradition.

Cardinal Ratzinger quotes a variety of documents to reemphasize that:

bullet"The full revelation of divine truth is given" in the "mystery of Jesus Christ."
bulletThe Church does not expect any additional, future, public revelation.
bulletNothing needs to be taken from other religions and added to Jesus' message in order to make it complete.
bulletOnly the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are without error.
bulletIt is the Holy Spirit who has sown the "seeds of the word" in diverse customs, cultures and religions around the world, preparing them for future "full maturity in Christ.
bulletJesus is the only savior of mankind.

He divides Christian denominations into three groups:

bulletThe Roman Catholic Church, the only faith group established by Jesus Christ: "he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him...."
bulletEastern Orthodox Churches which are united with the RCC by the:
bullet"Apostolic succession..." (Christ's disciples consecrated the first bishops of the Church, who subsequently consecrated other bishops down to the present day), and
bullet"a valid Eucharist" (a valid celebration of the Mass). 

These are "true particular Churches."  The Church of Christ is "present and operative" in these churches even though they do not, at this time, accept the primacy of the pope.

bulletThe remaining Christian denominations which have not preserved the Apostolic succession. They are not "churches in the proper sense." However, their members are "incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church."

Members of the RCC are told to not look upon Christianity as a collection of Christian denominations. The Church of Christ does exist today in the form of the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches. It is not to be considered a some type of future goal to which all denominations "must strive to reach."

Cardinal Ratzinger describes the status of non-Christian religions:

bulletThe Church of Christ is the instrument by which all humans are saved.
bulletSalvation is accessible to some people who are not members of the "Church" -- (i.e. not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox Christians). It comes through grace which originates with Christ and "enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation."
bulletThe prayers and rituals of other religions may help or hinder their believers. Some practices may prepare their membership to absorb the Gospel. However, those rituals which "depend on superstitions or other errors... constitute an obstacle to salvation."
bulletMembers of other religions are "gravely deficient" relative to members of the Church of Christ who already have "the fullness of the means of salvation.

He discusses inter-religious dialog:

bulletDialog with other branches of Christianity and with other religions is part of the RCC's mission of evangelizing the world.
bulletDialog implies the equality of the dignity of the individuals taking part -- not the equality of their various beliefs and practices.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Pericle Felici, "Lumen Gentium." 1964-NOV-21, at: http://www.vatican.va/
  2. "Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate," Page 2.  Proclaimed by Pope Paul VI, 1965-OCT-28. See: http://www.vatican.va/
  3. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Dominus Iesus on the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and the church," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. See: http://www.vatican.va/
  4. The term "pluralism" is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to refer to religious diversity. Other times, it refers to the belief that all religions are true. It appears to have been used in its latter sense here.

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Copyright © 2000 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-SEP-12
Latest update: 2015-JUL-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

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