I didn’t grow up a Catholic. Like many 20 th and 21 st century converts before me, I was raised in an Evangelical Protestant home, receiving the gift of baptism around the age of five. Some of my earliest memories are of flannel graph Sunday School lessons, 40 minute sermons (sometimes, twice in one day!), and a slow, drifting away from traditional hymnody in favor of the emerging “Praise and Worship” music. Youth group taught us how to “be on fire for Christ.” When I graduated from high school, I had every intention of becoming a pastor or teacher for the faith of my youth. It was my sworn duty to bring as many lost souls into the fold of what I believed to be the fullness of the Gospel.
Now that I’m safely within the bosom of the one and only Church founded by Christ, it’s difficult for me to not feel a sense of sadness that we’re going in the wrong direction when it comes to how we relate to our separated brethren. I suppose this revelation was never lost on me; after all, I grew up around Catholics and had Catholic friends, not a one who explained to me that I needed to belong to their Church and practice their faith if I wanted to save my soul. To be even more frank: I never once heard the expression “Outside the Church there is no salvation” until I was already in the Church. Even much of the great, Catholic apologetics work that I read while on my journey towards the Church often seemed to be devoted entirely to showing why Catholics and Protestants are “not all that different after all.” And yet, it is this very dogma, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, that has been defined on three separate occasions in the Church’s history by both Her councils and supreme pontiffs:
“There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.” (Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215)
“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.” (Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, 1302)
“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; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Pope Eugene IV, Cantate Domino, 1441)
To put it another way: If Christ is indeed the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and if He really cannot be severed or understood apart from His Mystical Body (the Catholic Church), then it must, by logical necessity, mean that the Church, His Mystical Body, is also the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man, woman, or child comes to the Father but by Her. The Apostles, Fathers, Doctors, martyrs, and great missionaries of the Church believed this, and they risked their property, families, and lives to accomplish the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28: To go out into all the world and make disciples of every nation, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, teaching them to obey everything commanded by Christ. How can I count myself numbered among them if I’m not even willing to risk a friendship by telling them the truth in love?
We can chalk the mass exodus of baptized Catholics out of the Church and into Protestant communities to the banality of modern liturgy, the sexual revolution, and the lack of dynamic preaching. But at the end of the day, if we really don’t believe or teach that She is the new ark, outside of which we will all perish in the deluge, what will bring others to Her. Even more so, what is keeping us?