Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus

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Cyprian of Carthage

The Latin phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means "outside the Church there is no salvation".[1][2] The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church explained this as "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His Body."[3]

This expression comes from the writings of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, a bishop of the third century. The axiom is often used as shorthand for the doctrine that the Church is necessary for salvation. It is a dogma in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in reference to their own communions. It is also held by many historic Protestant churches. However, Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox each have a unique ecclesiological understanding of what constitutes the Church. For some the church is defined as "all those who will be saved", with no emphasis on the visible church.[1] For others the theological basis for this doctrine is founded on the beliefs that (1) Jesus Christ personally established the one Church; and (2) the Church serves as the means by which the graces won by Christ are communicated to believers.

Kallistos Ware, a Greek Orthodox bishop, has expressed this doctrine as follows:

"Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church" (G. Florovsky, "Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church", in The Church of God, p. 53). Does it therefore follow that anyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned? Of course not; still less does it follow that everyone who is visibly within the Church is necessarily saved. As Augustine wisely remarked: "How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!" (Homilies on John, 45, 12) While there is no division between a "visible" and an "invisible Church", yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone. If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.[4]

The Catholic Church also teaches that the doctrine does not mean that everyone who is not visibly within the Church is necessarily damned in case of inculpable ignorance.

Some of the most extreme Catholic expressions of this doctrine are: the profession of faith of Pope Innocent III (1208), the profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bull Unam sanctam of Pope Boniface VIII (1302), and the profession of faith of the Council of Florence (1442). The axiom "No salvation outside the Church" has been frequently repeated over the centuries in different terms by the ordinary magisterium, with the inclusive understanding of the church being restored by the Second Vatican Council.

Scriptural foundation

The doctrine is based largely on Mark 16: 15-16: "He said to them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned."[5]


Pope Clement I (Bishop of Rome from 88-99 AD) teaches that the grace of salvation has been made available to the whole world by Christ's death, and proves this by the examples of those before Christ who were saved through their faith in God. Many after Christ's coming, who have faith in God, but cannot have explicit faith in Christ, fit Clement's description of justified persons, and therefore would seem to be included in those whom he teaches are saved through Christ.

The original phrase, "Salus extra ecclesiam non est" ("there is no salvation out of the Church"), comes from Letter LXXII of Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258). The letter was written in reference to a particular controversy as to whether it was necessary to baptize applicants who had been previously baptized by heretics. In Ad Jubajanum de haereticis baptizandis, Cyprian tells Jubaianus of his conviction that baptism conferred by heretics is not valid.[6] Firmilian (died c. 269) agreed with Cyprian, reasoning that those who are outside the Church and do not have the Holy Spirit cannot admit others to the Church or give what they do not possess.[7] Cyprian was not expressing a theory on the eternal fate of all baptized and non-baptized persons.[8]

Early Church Fathers

Justin Martyr

The concept was also referred to by Origen in his Homilies on Joshua, but neither he nor Cyprian were addressing non-Christians, but those already baptized and in danger of leaving the faith,[9] as that would involve apostasy. Earlier, Justin Martyr had indicated that the righteous Jews who lived before Christ would be saved. He later expressed a similar opinion concerning Gentiles. Those who act pleasing to God, while not "being" Christian are yet in some sense "in" Christ the Logos.[10]:10

...Each one, ... shall be saved by his own righteousness, ... those who regulated their lives by the law of Moses would in like manner be saved. ...Since those who did that which is universally, naturally, and eternally good are pleasing to God, they shall be saved through this Christ in the resurrection equally with those righteous men who were before them, namely Noah, and Enoch, and Jacob, and whoever else there be, along with those who have known this Christ."[11]

Irenaeus (died A.D. 202) wrote: "One should not seek among others the truth that can be easily gotten from the Church. For in her, as in a rich treasury, the apostles have placed all that pertains to truth, so that everyone can drink this beverage of life. She is the door of life" (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, III.4).[12] But he also said, "Christ came not only for those who believed from the time of Tiberius Caesar, nor did the Father provide only for those who are now, 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.[13] Irenaeus recognized that all who feared and loved God, practiced justice and piety toward their neighbors, and desired to see Christ, insofar as they were able to do so, will be saved. Since many were not able to have an explicit desire to see Christ, but only an implicit one, it is clear that for Irenaeus, this is enough.

Gregory of Nazianzus took a rather broad view in his understanding of membership in the body of Christ. In the funeral oration for his father's death in 374, Gregory stated, "He was ours even before he was of our fold. His manner of life made him one of us. Just as there are many of our own who are not with us, whose lives alienate them from the common body, so too there are many of those outside who belong really to us, men whose devout conduct anticipates their faith. They lack only the name of that which in fact they possess. My father was one of these, an alien shoot but inclined to us in his manner of life."[14] In other words, by their charity of life, they are united to Christians in Christ, even before they explicitly believe in Christ.[14] Fulgentius of Ruspe took a much stricter view: "Most firmly hold and never doubt that not only pagans, but also all Jews, all heretics, and all schismatics who finish this life outside of the Catholic Church, will go into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."[15]

Jerome wrote "This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails."[16] Bede continues this theme: "And according to this sense the ark is manifestly the Church, Noah the Lord who builds the Church."[17] Thomas Aquinas[18] Peter Canisius, and Robert Bellarmine (De Sacramento Baptismi) also used the image of the life-saving ark as a representation of the Church.

Augustine of Hippo made numerus remarks in response to adversaries, often on opposite sides of this issue, once saying: "Whoever is without the Church will not be reckoned among the sons, and whoever does not want to have the Church as mother will not have God as father."[19] He could also pick up on the sayings of the Fathers, and be completely inclusive in his assessment: "All together we are members of Christ and are his body ... throughout the world ... from Abel the just until the end of time ... whoever among the just made his passage throughout this life, whether now ... or in the generations to come, all the just are this one body of Christ, and individually his members."[10]:30

Episcopal teaching



Pope Boniface VIII's bull Unam sanctam of 1302 was promulgated during an ongoing dispute between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair, King of France.[29] In it, Boniface declared, "We are compelled in virtue of our faith to believe and maintain that there is only one holy Catholic Church, and that one is apostolic. This we firmly believe and profess without qualification. Outside this Church there is no salvation and no remission of sins." The bull notably extends what had been ecclesiastical dictum into relations with temporal powers. According to Robert W. Dyson, there are some who hold that Giles of Rome might have been the actual writer of the bull.[30] It is notable for the claim, "We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."[31]

Pope Leo XII in his 1824 encyclical Ubi primum in discussing religious indifferentism, said: "A certain sect, which you surely know, has unjustly arrogated to itself the name of philosophy, and has aroused from the ashes the disorderly ranks of practically every error. Under the gentle appearance of piety and liberality this sect professes what they call tolerance or indifferentism. It preaches that not only in civil affairs, which is not Our concern here, but also in religion, God has given every individual a wide freedom to embrace and adopt without danger to his salvation whatever sect or opinion appeals to him on the basis of his private judgment."[32]

Pius IX

Pope Pius IX wrote a number of times against religious indifferentism. In the 1863 encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore he said, "And here, beloved Sons and Venerable Brothers, We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life. Indeed, this is certainly quite contrary to Catholic teaching. It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin. But, the Catholic dogma that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church is well-known; and also that those who are obstinate toward the authority and definitions of the same Church, and who persistently separate themselves from the unity of the Church, and from the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, to whom 'the guardianship of the vine has been entrusted by the Savior' (Council of Chalcedon, Letter to Pope Leo I) cannot obtain eternal salvation.."[33][34]

Pope Pius XI saw the ecumenical movement of the early twentieth century "as nothing else than a Federation, composed of various communities of Christians, even though they adhere to different doctrines, which may even be incompatible one with another."[35] In his 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos, he quotes from Lactantius: "The Catholic Church alone is keeping the true worship. This is the font of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. …Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ, no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors."[36]

Second Vatican Council

Pope John XXIII - Time Magazine Cover - January 4, 1963

In calling the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII noted a distinction between the truths of faith and how those truths are conveyed. In the 1973 declaration Mystertium Ecclesiae, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recognized that the articulation of revealed truth will necessarily be influenced by historical factors.[10]:10

The Second Vatican Council declared that the Christian communities that are not in full communion, but only in "partial communion"[37] with the Catholic Church, "though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church." It explained that "some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ."[38]

These elements, it said, "as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward Catholic unity." The Council refrained from identifying the visible church on earth with the Catholic Church, saying rather: "This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church."[39] And "it is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one body of Christ into which all those must be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God."[38]

In its decree on missionary activity, the Council, quoting Lumen gentium, 14, said: "Christ Himself 'by stressing in express language the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:5), at the same time confirmed the necessity of the Church, into which men enter by baptism, as by a door....' Therefore though God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him, yet a necessity lies upon the Church, and at the same time a sacred duty, to preach the Gospel."[40]

The Council also warned that full incorporation in the Church does not ensure salvation: "They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a 'bodily' manner and not 'in his heart'. All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged."[41]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the phrase, "Outside the Church there is no salvation", means, if put in positive terms, that "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body", and it "is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church".[42]

At the same time, it adds: "Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."[43]

The Church has also declared that "she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter", and that "those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways."[44]

Dominus Iesus

The 2000 declaration Dominus Iesus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states that "it must be firmly believed that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door." It then adds that "for those who are not formally and visibly members of the Church, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church, but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is ... communicated by the Holy Spirit; it has a relationship with the Church, which, according to the plan of the Father, has her origin in the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit."[45]

Inculpable ignorance

In its statements regarding this doctrine, the Church expressly teaches that "it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, will not be held guilty of this in the eyes of God"; that "outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control"; and that "they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precepts engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life."[43][46][47]

Strict interpretation

Some conservative Catholics, traditionalist Catholics, sedevacantists, and others take a strictly literal point of view, holding that only baptized Catholics are saved. Among such groups are the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Richmond, New Hampshire[48] and Most Holy Family Monastery.[49] As they reject of concept of "baptism by desire", only a properly performed rite with the use of water and the requisite words is sufficient.[a][50]

Protestant interpretation

The doctrine is upheld by many in the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther, the foremost leader of the Protestant Reformation, spoke of the necessity of belonging to the church (in the sense of what he saw as the true church) in order to be saved:

Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.[51]

Modern Lutheran churches "do agree with the traditional statement that 'outside the catholic church there is no salvation', but this statement refers not to the Roman organization but to the Holy Christian Catholic and Apostolic Church, which consists of all who believe in Christ as their Savior."[52]

The Genevan reformer John Calvin, in his Reformation-era work Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote: "beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for".[53] Calvin wrote also that "those to whom He is a Father, the Church must also be a mother,"[54] echoing the words of the originator of the Latin phrase himself, Cyprian: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother."[55]

Reformed scholastics accepted the phrase so long as the church is recognized by the marks of the church, which they defined as proper administration of the Word and sacrament, rather than apostolic succession.[56]

The idea is further affirmed in the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 that "the visible Church ... is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."[57] Despite this, it is not necessarily a commonly held belief within modern Protestantism, especially within evangelicalism and those denominations that believe in the autonomy of the local church. The dogma is related to the universal Protestant dogma that the church is the body of all believers, and debates within Protestantism usually center on the meaning of "church" (ecclesiam) and "apart" (extra).

Books written on the dogma

Further reading

See also


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  3. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church §§846-848, 851 Archived April 7, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Ware, Kallistos (1993). The Orthodox Church. Penguin. pp. 247–248. ISBN 9780140146561.
  5. ^ Martin, Ralph. "And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd." John 10:16 Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012 pp. 57 et seq. ISBN 978-0802868879
  6. ^ "CHURCH FATHERS: Epistle 72 (Cyprian of Carthage)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  7. ^ "Epistle 74", Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5., (Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds.) (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight
  8. ^ Ratzinger, "Ratzinger Speaks", The Catholic World Report, January 1994, p. 23
  9. ^ Kasper, Walter. The Catholic Church: Nature, Reality and Mission, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015 ISBN 9781441117540
  10. ^ a b c Sullivan SJ, Francis A. Salvation Outside the Church?: Tracing the History of the Catholic Response, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002 ISBN 9781592440085
  11. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Justin Martyr (1884). "Dialogue with Trypho, XLV". In Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James (eds.). Ante-Nicene Christian Library. II. Translated by Reith, George. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark..
  12. ^ ocqadmin. "St. Irenaeus of Lyon Archives". Orthodox Church Quotes. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
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  14. ^ a b Jurgens, William A., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 2, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1979, p. 29
  15. ^ Fulgentius of Ruspe, "De fide, ad Petrum" 38 (79) (Migne, Patrologia Latina (PL 65:704)
  16. ^ "CHURCH FATHERS: Letter 15 (Jerome)". www.newadvent.org. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  17. ^ Anlezark, Daniel. Water and fire: The myth of the flood in Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 75 ISBN 9781526129659
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  19. ^ Augustine of Hippo, De symbolo ad catechumenos (On the Creed: A Sermon to Catechumens), Book. 4, chap. 13
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  25. ^ "Library : The Leonard Feeney Quarrel and Pius IX on Invincible Ignorance". www.catholicculture.org. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  26. ^ Bourne, Francis. True Religious Unity, Catholic Truth Society, No. Pe1928a (1933)
  27. ^ Denzinger, no. 802
  28. ^ Denzinger, no. 1351
  29. ^ Kirsch, Johann Peter. "Unam Sanctam." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 5 March 2016
  30. ^ Giles of Rome (2004) [1986]. Giles of Rome's On ecclesiastical power: a medieval theory of world government. Records of Western civilization. Translated by Dyson, Robert W. New York: Columbia University Press. p. xx. ISBN 9780231128032.
  31. ^ "Unam Sanctam". Papal Encyclicals. November 18, 1302. Retrieved May 27, 2020.
  32. ^ "Ubi Primum". Papal Encyclicals. 1824-05-05. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  33. ^ "Singulari Quidem". Papal Encyclicals. 1856-03-17. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
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  35. ^ "Mortalium Animos (January 6, 1928) | PIUS XI". w2.vatican.va. Retrieved 2020-05-27.
  36. ^ Mortalium animos, §11.
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  38. ^ a b Unitatis redintegratio, 3 Archived March 6, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
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  43. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church, 848
  44. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 838-839
  45. ^ Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus Archived April 11, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  46. ^ "Inculpable or invincible ignorance has never been and will never be a means of salvation. To be saved, it is necessary to be justified, or to be in the state of sanctifying grace. To obtain sanctifying grace, it is necessary to have the proper dispositions for justification; that is, true divine faith in at least the necessary truths of salvation, confident hope in the divine Savior, sincere sorrow for sin, together with the firm purpose of doing all that God has commanded, etc. Now, these supernatural acts of faith, hope, charity, contrition, etc., which prepare the soul for receiving sanctifying grace, can never be supplied by invincible ignorance;... But if we say that inculpable ignorance cannot save a man, we thereby do not say that invincible ignorance damns a man. Far from it. To say, invincible ignorance is no means of salvation, is one thing; and to say, invincible ignorance is the cause of damnation, is another. To maintain the latter would be wrong, for inculpable ignorance of the fundamental principles of faith excuses a heathen from the sin of infidelity, and a Protestant from the sin of heresy; because such invincible ignorance, being only a simple involuntary privation, is no sin." (Michael Müller, Invincible or Inculpable Ignorance Neither Saves nor Damns a Person, Questions and Answers on Salvation by Rev. Michael Muller, C.SS.R)
  47. ^ Questiones Disputatae de Veritate: Question Fourteen: Faith Archived 2018-02-18 at the Wayback Machine. "Granted that everyone is bound to believe something explicitly, no untenable conclusion follows even if someone is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts. For it pertains to divine providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up 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)."
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  54. ^ Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, Chapter i, Section.i.
  55. ^ The Unity of the Catholic Church, ch. 6
  56. ^ Muller, Richard (2006). Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology. Baker Book House. p. 112. ISBN 978-0801020643.
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  1. ^ Neither group has any Catholic canonical status.