In offering a few thoughts on this well-known dogma, I will be drawing extensively on material from Fr Brian Harrison OS, both published (Living Tradition nos 149 and 150) and unpublished. Apart from the Magisterial data and classical authors, of all I can remember reading, the work of Fr Harrison has been far and away the most illuminating. No surprise there, since I know of no finer theologian active in the Church today.
Though we do have our differences. For example, of catechumens Fr Harrison says they are in porticu Ecclesiae; neither inside nor outside the Church. I believe Fr Harrison and I are in agreement about the underlying reality here, which of course is far more important than the actual terms we use. Nevertheless I find his terminology infelicitous. To the best of my knowledge it has not been employed by any Magisterial document, Doctor or Father of the Church.
To justify what, as I say, appears to be novel terminology, Fr Harrison asks ‘When you are in the portico of St Peter’s, are you inside or outside the Basilica?’ – to which he replies Neither, for the boundaries have not been defined with sufficient exactitude for either answer to be accurate. My reply: you can be said to be inside or outside, depending on what is meant by St Peter’s Basilica. One person may take the term as meaning what might be called the greater Basilica, in which case you are inside, whereas for someone else, the Basilica proper does not begin until the doors, in which case you are outside.
Fr Harrison however may press the point by saying What if you have one foot inside the building and one foot outside? – then, surely, you cannot be said to be either inside or outside. I agree, in the sense that you are not completely inside or outside. Or to put it another way, you are partially inside and partially outside. That is because a body has extension. But you cannot extend this to set-membership, on pain of infringing the Law of the Excluded Middle. For example, you cannot be partly a member of a chess-club, or neither inside nor outside the club. Now the language of Tradition about membership of the Church is surely much more akin to being in a club than to being partly inside a building. No one ever speaks of being partially Catholic.
How then does the Tradition deal with the case of catechumens?
For eg St Robert Bellarmine and Pope Pius XII, they are outside the Church (though not in the sense excluding from salvation) whereas in Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 14) they seem to be already inside. The apparent contradiction is resolved by the definition of Church being broader in one case than in the other. (One traditional formulation is that certain people may belong to the soul of the Church while not belonging to her body.)
Indeed, much of the confusion surrounding the dictum Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – no salvation outside the Church – would appear to be terminological. Take the case of someone validly baptized as an adult into a virulently anti-Catholic sect; let us suppose that, whatever other mortal sins he has committed, his heresy, at least, is material rather than formal. In the more common acceptation of the word, he would not be called a Catholic, and yet, since there is only one true Church, if he has indeed been validly baptized, he must have been baptized into that Church, and so it must be correct, in a sense, to describe him at that moment as a Catholic, albeit one who is badly-instructed and possibly even ill-disposed.
It is clear from the work of Fr Harrison that in the phrase ‘no salvation outside the Church’ the sense of ‘Church’ needs to be quite broad. Nevertheless, from his writings we can glean cogent reasons for not making the term so broad as to include adults who die without ever explicitly professing faith in Christ. The reward for obeying the grace to follow one’s conscience is that God will provide, if need be in a miraculous way, the opportunity to make an act of explicit faith in Christ before dying.
Not that this should slacken our resolve to share the Catholic Faith. As Fr Harrison and Dr Ralph Martin agree, we need to be far more active here, knowing that although salvation is just as possible for an adult who dies without ever being consciously Catholic, ceteris paribus it is far more improbable (1 Pet. 4:18). Someone unaware that the Catholic Church is the One True Church will obviously not be able to access all the aids to salvation that are to be found only in her. It is for this reason that Vatican II promotes the missions with ‘sedulous care’ (Lumen Gentium 16).