I often encounter people who say that anyone who does not believe in Christ cannot get into heaven. Does the Catholic Church teach that?
It seems that many people have theories about just who gets to heaven. Unfortunately, some people spend more time concerned about others getting to heaven and less time on how they are going to do so.
The Second Vatican Council understood the human desire for eternal life when it “…acknowledged a solidarity with all those who strive variously to answer the restless searching of the human heart.”
Based on that principle, addressing non-Christians, it declared, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life, those rules and teachings which, though differing in many particulars from what she holds and sets forth, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”
The Council then spoke more specifically to the question of who gets to heaven. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council stated, “Those also can attain to everlasting 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.”
These teachings of the Catholic Church, then, do not reflect what we often hear in daily life even from Catholics. There are several reasons for this.
One is the tendency on the part of some Christians to narrowly define the qualifications for entrance into heaven. In doing so they limit admission to only those who have been “born again,” and believe in their hearts and confess with their lips that Jesus is Lord. While obviously the Lordship of Christ is central to Catholic belief, how one exhibits that belief can vary.
Not everyone articulates this in the same way. I personally have found Christ’s lordship lived and proclaimed beautifully by humble believers. However, some would question their salvation because they do not use the correct words or exhibit the correct manifestations to “prove” their salvation.
Another reason for the variance between the Catholic Church’s position and some other Christians is found in the contemporary approach of the Church not to make decisions which belong uniquely to God. Eternal salvation is one such decision.
All this, however, is not to say that the Catholic Church does not believe in the centrality of the salvation found in Jesus Christ and the importance of the sacramental grace flowing from Christ through the community of faith He founded.
The Catholic Church believes that in the normal course of events the Church exists as the means by which salvation is conveyed. However, the Church also acknowledges the lesson learned long ago in the Book of Job—it is God who saves, and not human beings.
Photo by Dena Koenig Photography