The phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus roughly means “outside the Church (there is) no salvation”. This is the dogma of the Catholic Church which has been repeatedly defined by several popes and Ecumenical Councils. It was declared dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council which said, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.” The phrase itself comes from Saint Cyprian of Carthage, who in the 3rd century wrote that “there is no salvation out of the Church” (cf. Epistle 72:21).
There was a controversy in the mid 20th century when Fr. Leonard Feeney interpreted this as meaning absolutely nobody a full member of the Catholic Church could be saved; in 1949, the Vatican released a document condemning Fr. Feeney’s doctrine called Feeneyism as a false interpretation. The Church has traditionally taught that catechumenates who died a Baptism of blood or desire were to be counted among the elect. Fr. Feeney was eventually excommunicated after several warnings but was later reconciled to the Church in 1972. Saint John Paul II wrote, “The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ” and the “Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1258). Many Church Doctors and other theologians held this view before the Second Vatican Council such as Saint Alphonsus Liguori who said this (rf. Moral Theology 6:95-97).
“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.'”
“Baptism of blood is the shedding of one’s blood, i.e. death, suffered for the Faith or for some other Christian virtue. Now this baptism is comparable to true Baptism because, like true Baptism, it remits both guilt and punishment as it were ex opere operato.”
The Baltimore Catechism upheld that unity with the Church in some way is necessary for salvation either by Baptism of water or of blood or by desire when it said, “When we say, ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation,’ we mean that Christ made the Catholic Church a necessary means of salvation and commanded all to enter it, so that a person must be connected with the Church in some way to be saved” (no. 167). Contrary to popular opinion the Second Vatican Council did not reverse this as it stated, “Therefore those men cannot be saved, who though aware that God, through Jesus Christ founded the Church as something necessary, still do not wish to enter into it, or to persevere in it” (Ad Gentes, no. 7; rf. Lumen Gentium, no. 14; Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 846). So, why are the incredulous not saved? Jesus Christ made membership in His Church necessary for salvation; the Church is the body and spouse of Christ (rf. 1 Corinthians 10:17, Ephesians 5:21-33). If not a member of His Church one has been cut off from the body and withers.
Of Baptism Jesus says, “Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Of Eucharist Jesus says, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:51-55).
Of Confession Jesus says, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:23).
Jesus spoke even more on these subjects, but note how Jesus mentions the necessity of Baptism, Eucharist and Confession to have eternal life in the kingdom of God. These are three Sacraments, visible signs of God’s invisible grace. The Church has these Sacraments which contain sufficient grace needed for salvation. You cannot find sufficient grace outside of the Church as the Church alone was founded by Christ and contains the graces necessary for salvation which He established. Therefore, anybody who consciously rejects joining the Church as a member or refuses to remain a member, thus leaving the Church, unless of course they repent and convert or revert, shall not be saved.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “If anyone follows a maker of schism [i.e., is a schismatic], he does not inherit the kingdom of God; if anyone walks in strange doctrine [i.e., is a heretic], he has no part in the passion [of Christ]” and “Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3:3-4:1).
Saint Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “In the ark of Noah a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water. . . In that baptism of the world in which its ancient wickedness was washed away, he who was not in the ark of Noah could not be saved by water” and so “neither can he be saved by baptism who has not been baptized in the Church which is established in the unity of the Lord according to the sacrament of the one ark” (Epistle 73:11). The ark of Noah is an early Christian allegory to the Church and has been used by many theologians through the ages to refer to the Church. Scripture itself uses the ark of Noah and the flood in reference to Baptism in the Church as it says “in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water” and thus “baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also” (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).
Fr. Leonard Feeney, M.I.C.M.
For the official letter of Fr. Feeney’s rejection, click here: http://www.dailycatholic.org/issue/08Jul/jul10rea.htm