Just Exactly Where is the Church? Unam Sanctum, Vatican II, and Salvation for Non-Catholics

Unam Sanctum is the sort of document that gives our Protestant brothers and sisters a real jolt, primarily because it looks at first blush as though it teaches that Catholics cannot have Protestant brothers and sisters. Written by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302, this papal bull concludes with a shocking dogmatic definition:

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.

The average modern reader concludes that these words mean: “We know exactly where the Church both is and is not. It’s in the visible Catholic communion and only members of the visible Catholic Church go to heaven.”

After this basic assumption has been made, most people go on to assume it is simply a matter of deciding what you think about that proposition. Generally, people fall into one of the following groups:

  1. Those nice people who say hopefully, “That statement was not dogma, but just Boniface’s opinion.”
  2. Those progressive dissenting Catholics who say, “That statement used to be narrow-minded Catholic dogma, but Vatican II thankfully contradicts all that. How the Church has grown!”
  3. Those anti-Catholics who say derisively, “That statement used to be unbiblical Catholic dogma but Vatican II reversed all that. Now the supposedly infallible Church has flatly contradicted the Bible and itself!”
  4. Those reactionary dissenting Catholics who say, “That statement used to be glorious Catholic dogma, but Vatican II betrayed all that. How the Second Vatican Council has corrupted the One True Faith!”
  5. Those orthodox Catholics who say, “Unam Sanctam‘s definition is still dogma, and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council does not contradict it or the Bible. Rather, the council develops the Faith of the Church in-fallibly taught since the apostles, a faith that has never demanded we believe that the Church is found solely in the visible Catholic communion, nor that only members of the visible Catholic Church can go to heaven.”

Let’s look at these five views of Unam Sanctam.

First things first: I must disappoint group one by making clear that the Faith does not allow us the easy out of denying the dogmatic nature of Unam Sanctam any more than it allowed Arius to fudge the difficult and seemingly contradictory proposition that God is One, yet Three. As John Hardon, S.J., points out in his Catholic Catechism, the passage cited above was “solemnly defined and represents traditional Catholic dogma on the Church’s necessity for salvation.” When a pope declares, says, pronounces, and defines, he is using the formula to make crystal-clear that he is delivering not his personal opinion but the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church. The fact is, then, Boniface VIII committed the Church to this proposition for the rest of her history. We cannot dodge this with a convenient “that was then, this is now.” If it was dogma once, it still is.

However, neither can we dodge another fact of Catholic history: the Second Vatican Council. At that council, 660 years after Unam Sanctam, the Church formulated Lumen Gentium, in which she declared, “The Church knows 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.”

To groups two, three, and four, this sounds like a flat contradiction. For all these folk make the fatal error of placing one or another of the Church’s teachings in opposition to (and superiority over) the other. Thus, progressive dissenting Catholics, anti-Catholics, and reactionary dissenting Catholics all assume that Unam Sanctam was simply vetoed by a newly coined doctrine in Lumen Gentium that essentially declares that our relationship to the successor of Peter doesn’t matter one iota. If we agree about this, all that remains for us to do is to decide whether to cheer along with progressive dissenters (for the Church’s “deepened maturity”), to gloat along with anti-Catholics (over the alleged collapse of the Church’s infallibility), or to grumble along with reactionary dissenters (about those damned modernists who hijacked the Church at Vatican II).

But there is one simple problem with this assumption: It’s not true. First, the Church, centuries before Vatican II, regarded Orthodox sacraments as valid, which is awfully hard to do if you don’t think Christ can be found anywhere but in the Catholic Church. Similarly, it has always regarded the baptism of non-Catholics as valid—and a valid baptism means you are, in some sense, in union with Christ. Still more recently and most plainly (but still well before the council), Rev. Leonard Feeney was excommunicated for insisting that only people in visible communion with the Catholic Church could be saved. So this simplistic “We’re in, you’re out” reading of Unam Sanctam (and the corollary that Lumen Gentium “cancelled” it) doesn’t fly.

So is there a more balanced picture that reverences both Unam Sanctam and Lumen Gentium as authentic magisterial teaching? Yes. To find it, let’s begin with an imperfect analogy.

There is a priest I know (call him Father Smith) whom I have come to regard as a second father. I came to do so because, as an Evangelical, I first loved Christ and the things of Christ and did for years before I met this man. As I sought to draw closer to Christ, I then happened to meet Father Smith and to discover that he loved and understood far more deeply than I the things that I myself sought, for he was a disciple of our Lord, too. When I recognized this, I realized our Lord had put into my life a man who could disciple me and to whom my life was inextricably linked in Christ and by Christ. In short, I had been a disciple of Father Smith for years before I met him—because I was first a disciple of Jesus.

Thus, in spirit, Father Smith became my father and I am, so to speak, subject to him in Christ precisely because I desire what he desires—union with Christ.

If this seems difficult to grasp, it should be noted that it’s a concept as old as the New Testament. When we look there, we discover Jesus saying exactly the same thing:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not forbid him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:38-40, emphasis added).

Jesus’ point is that, in following Him, both the man casting out demons and the apostles—whether the man or the apostles realized it or not—were brought into some kind of union with one another through Him. It didn’t matter whether the apostles or the man were conscious of it. Their mutual obedience to Him put them in relationship to each other, just as the right alignment of spokes to a hub necessarily put the spokes in right alignment to one another. The fact is, it is His Spirit, not we, who is the principle of unity holding His Body together and drawing its members into ever more perfect union with each other. But that does not mean (as I had long believed as an Evangelical) that unity with the Body of Christ doesn’t matter so long as one is “spiritual.” For to be brought into union with the Body of Christ at all is to be brought into the order that Christ has established for that Body, since

His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:11-13).

Or, to put it into the simplest form, if A=B, then B=A. That is, if one is a Christian at all, one is, as Lumen Gentium says, in some kind of union with the Church, the Body of Christ. This is why the Church teaches and has always taught that “outside the Church, there is no salvation.” For the Church is the company of the saved. To talk about salvation “outside the Church” is like talking about swimming outside the water. It is the logical consequence of Jesus’ statement, “He who is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30).

It therefore follows that to be subject to the gospel to any degree is to be in union, to that degree, with the office of Peter, since the office of Peter was created by Christ for one purpose only: to help bring people into subjection to Christ. It is therefore impossible to accept Christ without accepting the authority of Peter’s office to some degree or other. If you say to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” you are submitting to the judgment of Peter, who said it first (Mt 16:16). If you declare that salvation is by grace through Christ, you are again subjecting yourself to Peter, who was the first to say that by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15: I 1). If you teach that Jesus is the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, you are simply agreeing with what the Church in council and in union with the office of Peter has always taught. If you acknowledge the canonicity of the New Testament books, you are likewise submitting to the judgment of the Petrine office, which made that call in the fourth century and ratified it in the 16th. In short, it is not possible to be a Christian at all without already submitting (whether you realize it or not and whether you like it or not) to Peter in precisely the sense that Unam Sanctam speaks of.

Naturally, it will be noted that such union with the Roman pontiff is, for Protestants and Orthodox, imperfect. Just so. But the point nonetheless holds that such union is real. And the reason it is real is precisely because the pope is not the principle of unity, but merely the sign of unity. The principle of unity is the Spirit of Christ Himself. It is He who binds together the apostolic Church with those who appear (like the exorcist in Mark) to be “outside” the Church yet who are, in a real but imperfect way, in communion with her. That’s because it is simply not possible for there to be more than one body. This is true, not because the power-hungry Roman pontiff must have absolute control over all Christians, but because Christ cannot ultimately be divided. What Paul said in Ephesians remains just as true today:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:4-6).

So it is simply impossible for there to be, in any ultimate sense, more than one body. And since that body is, by Christ’s solemn word, founded on Peter the Rock, it is not possible to belong to it without, in some way, being subject to the office of the one who was given the charge to “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15).

I say the office, mind you, not the person of the pope. As a person, a pope can be a perfect jerk, and some have been. In the same way, the office of the Davidic monarch (also founded by God) was often filled by extremely sub-optimal men. But the office never went away or lost its God- ordained authority.

Dante, a contemporary of the man who wrote Unam Sanctam, makes precisely this point in his famous Divine Comedy. In an age of Da Vinci Code illiteracy and ignorance of the Catholic Faith, it comes as a surprise to many modern readers to discover that so far from running a police state, the medieval Church was, in fact, full of critics who had lots of tart things to say about, among other things, the pope and other clergy of the time. Dante was chief among these critics in his day and, in particular, was chief among the critics of Boniface VIII. Dante, in fact, places Boniface in his Inferno, damned forever. But note this: Dante does not damn him for the teaching of Unam Sanctam, which he takes for granted. He damns him for his moral corruption yet, like a typical Catholic, honors his office. That’s why Boniface is buried upside down in hell: As pope he is oriented toward heaven even when, as a sinner, he is worthy of hell, for the way out of Dante’s hell is not up but down, through the center of the earth, then up Mount Purgatory, and into paradise.

So is this partial and imperfect unity enough? Depends on what you mean by “enough.” If you mean “enough to be saved,” then I submit that this is Minimum Daily Adult Requirement thinking. No lover asks, “What’s the absolute bare minimum amount of contact with my beloved I can get away with?” Similarly, if, as the Church claims, the full-ness of revelation subsists in the Catholic communion, then “How little contact with the fullness of revelation can I get away with?” is the exact wrong question for somebody who is serious about discipleship to Christ. Our goal, according to Scripture, is not to achieve bare minimums of love, fellowship, and discipleship with Christ and His Bride, but to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. . . . We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4:13-16). When people tell us “I’ll be there in spirit!” we know they mean “I won’t be there.” Similarly, a merely partial spiritual unity, while a good start, is a bad finish. That is why we must all continue to work toward full unity in Christ, neither denying our commonalities nor papering over our differences.

At this point, members of groups three and four (who tend to take heaven more seriously as something that is there and not simply—as members of group two are wont to say—a “concept” or a “beautiful myth”) are likely to ask, “So does all this boil down to saying the Church thinks Catholics are going to heaven and non-Catholics aren’t? Or does it really mean the Church is now saying that everybody is saved?”

Again, both of these are the wrong questions, which is to say they are nonsense questions. The Church makes no comments on infernal population statistics. Rather, the Church teaches that because validly baptized non- Catholics are real members of the Body of Christ, they share in the life of the Blessed Trinity and therefore share with Catholics the hope of salvation.

That said, mark that it is hope, not certainty, they share with Catholics. For it is important to remember that Catholics don’t assume that even Catholics are automatically going to heaven. The whole point, as Paul says, is that hope means we have not, in this life, attained what we hope for yet.

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Rom 8:24-25).

Catholics don’t believe in “once saved, always saved” any more than in salvation by demographics. So the mere fact that somebody says he is a Christian, whether non-Catholic or Catholic, doesn’t mean we assume he is going to heaven. ‘Till we die, we retain the radical freedom to reject the grace of God and end up among the damned. Catholics leave God to judge all that.

But by the same token, Catholics also don’t assume that anybody (even a non-Christian and indeed even an atheist) is going to hell. The Church has always believed that those who do not know Christ by name may yet respond to the promptings of His Spirit and so ultimately be saved by Him. She believes this because it was taught by Jesus Christ in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which describes the judgment of people who had no idea they were serving (or rejecting) Jesus as they answered (or refused) the demands of conscience with respect to “the least of these.” That is why both the saved and the damned in the parable reply with astonishment to the King, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” (Mt 25:37-39).

Some of the saved, says our Lord, are going to be astonished at their salvation. They just thought they were doing the right thing and had no idea they were, in fact, answering the prompting of the Holy Spirit to obey the will of Christ. As Paul says, “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:14-16). In short, what matters incomparably more than calling Jesus “Lord, Lord” is obeying Him. Or as St. John of the Cross put it more sweetly, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”

But again, that doesn’t mean, “It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic or not.” We live in a fallen world and are fallen creatures who need every bit of help we can get from the grace of God to become the glorious, love-filled creatures God calls us to be. And even with that help, history demonstrates our genius for being schleps and sinners. We are like patients in a hospital requiring intensive care, but with the hope and promise that the full panoply of modern medicine could give us back our life if we cooperate with the Divine Physician and let Him use all the treatments He has tucked away in His little black bag. That little black bag is called “the fullness of Christ’s revelation in the Catholic communion.” It includes the common life, common worship, and common teaching of the Church; as well as the seven sacraments, the accumulated wisdom of the Tradition both in Scripture and in the life of the Church, the Magis¬terium (including the papacy), and the “riches of his glori¬ous inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). Other churches and ecclesial bodies like to use various items out of that black bag (say, the Bible, or baptism, or the doctrine of the Trinity; or some particular moral teaching like the indissolu¬bility of marriage, or predestination, or free will) in vari¬ous combinations and to varying degrees, and believers do well to avail themselves of as much of God’s treasury in the Church’s Tradition as they can lay hold of.

But if you are mortally ill (and the whole human race is mortally ill with sin), it’s crazy to say, “I find that I’m most comfortable when the doctor prescribes aspirin, and I do like his penicillin now and then, but I don’t want his other prescriptions and treatments and I won’t allow him to send other hospital staff to treat me.” If we were mortally ill, we’d want whatever the doctor has available to heal us.

Likewise, though the Catholic Church rejoices that real elements of the saving gospel are present and work-ing in other churches and ecclesial bodies, and though she even rejoices that the semina verbi, -or “seeds of the Word,” can be found in the various non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions of the world, she nonetheless points out that the best thing of all is to lay hold of the fullness of His gifts. So the Church, of course, encourages anyone who can do so to become Catholic. It doesn’t presume to judge those who do not, for we mortals can¬not know the reasons why others make the choices they do. People may refuse the Church out of ignorance, or woundedness, or some other cause that renders them in¬culpable for rejecting her. However, it is only sensible to point out that, everything else being equal, if we say we want God, but refuse the fullness of His gifts, then it is worth asking ourselves if we really want God after all or are, in fact, seeking something else.

As an Evangelical who discovered how much truth was in the Catholic Faith and how much 1 agreed with it, I came to the realization that it was not enough for me to say “I share the same goals as Peter, so I am ‘spiritually subject’ to him already and do not need to be sacramentally and ecclesially subject as well.” I realized that the very essence of what Peter proclaims is that the Word became Flesh. Moreover, I came to realize that there was, in fact, nothing in the Church’s deposit of Faith that was either opposed to reason or anti-biblical. So I eventually concluded that it was therefore my duty, in obedience to Christ’s prayer for unity in John 17, to enflesh my faith by becoming really, tangibly, physically, sacramentally joined to the visible Church our Lord commended to Peter’s care and feeding. I could no longer say “I’ll be with you in spirit” to the pope if I were not also willing to really be with him in body as well.

Catholics do not say, and never have said, that they are the sole possessors of revelation. Indeed, the Church does not “possess” revelation at all. Revelation possesses her; and that revelation, who is Christ, has, she teaches, committed Himself fully to her. “God,” said the great Protestant writer George MacDonald, “is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” On the one hand, God is delighted when the most miser¬able sinner takes the smallest serious step toward the love of God and neighbor. On the other hand, He will not be completely happy until every last person He came to save is completely perfected in the image of Christ and overflow¬ing with perfect love for God and neighbor. This same pat¬tern is supremely evident in the Catholic Church’s under¬standing of her relationship with her members, whether in full or very imperfect communion. For the Church is happy to recognize even the smallest commonalities she may share, not only with other Christians, but even with non- Christian religious traditions and the great philosophical traditions of paganism. The Church can even find things to affirm in virtuous atheists. But at the same time, the Church is acutely aware that there is a real difference between im-perfect and perfect unity and so she, too—easy to please, but hard to satisfy—labors toward that day when all the members of the Body of Christ will be perfected in faith, hope, and love.

Till that day, we know where the Church is; we do not know where she is not.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...