The Church’s teaching on the necessity of baptism and membership in the Church raises the question of the status of those who blamelessly do not hear the gospel. The Church teaches that such persons can be saved, but not without somehow being led to faith (see AG 7). It seems that as the Church extends her effort to bring the gospel and baptism to those who have not yet had an opportunity to believe explicitly, such persons with God’s grace can also stretch out their hearts gropingly to receive the word of God and consciously cling to Jesus (see LG 16).
The preceding consideration raises a question about the unity of the Church: In what sense are all people of good will, including those who have never heard the gospel, members of the Catholic Church? To answer this question, one must consider that the unity of the Church is complex, somewhat as the unity of the United States is.
The United States is many states which enjoy a certain independence relative to one another, but it also is one nation. People who are not citizens live in the United States; some have permanent status as residents and some do not. Some American citizens live abroad and perhaps never have lived in the United States. Some people think they are citizens but are not; others are citizens without knowing it. All this complexity does not mean that the United States is not really one nation, nor does it mean that everyone who somehow “belongs” to the United States enjoys all the privileges and immunities of American citizens residing in the United States and conscious of their status.
Since the unity of the Church is complex, the truth that there is no salvation apart from the Church is a subtle one (see DS 802/430, 1351/714). Trent teaches that one can be saved by baptism of desire (see DS 1524/796, 1604/847). In 1949 the Holy See teaches, and backs its teaching with an excommunication of those who obstinately reject it, that the saving desire can be merely implicit, but that it must be informed by perfect charity and have with it supernatural faith (see DS 3866–73). Vatican II teaches that God welcomes all who fear him and do what is right (see LG 9). To be saved one must be converted to the Lord Jesus, for there is no salvation except in him. Nevertheless, “God in ways known to himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him” (AG 7). No one can be saved outside the Church, but obviously some can be saved who are ignorant of the gospel and so who would not consider themselves Christians or be counted as such (see LG 16).
The universal salvific power of Jesus corresponds to the all-embracing salvific will of the Father, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tm 2.4–5). God wants everyone to know Jesus, but his redemptive love comes to some even before they enjoy this great blessing, if they do what is right as God enlightens them to know what is right.
The whole human race from the beginning has been given helps sufficient for salvation (see LG 2). Historically, the roots of the Church reach back to the beginnings of revelation recorded in the Old Testament (see DV 3). Yet the whole of human history centers upon Jesus, for fulfillment in him is the destiny toward which all creation is directed. In becoming Incarnate, the Word gathers all history to himself and provides within history the central reference point to which everything else is relative (see GS 10, 38). In its all-embracing unity, the gathering together of humankind in the Lord Jesus is the work of the Holy Spirit, who was at work from the beginning, throughout the Old Testament, and who now dwells on earth permanently in Jesus’ Church and impels her to her full expansion and ultimate, perfect, heavenly unity (see LG 4, 6; DV 2; AG 2, 4, 5, 7, 15; GS 10, 22; and so on).
Obviously, those whose awareness of Jesus is conscious and explicit, who knowingly commit themselves to him in faith, and who receive the sacrament of baptism into Jesus and bear the name “Christian” live within the unity of the Church (see UR 22–23). “Nevertheless, our separated brethren, whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those whom he has regenerated . . .. For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of 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 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 should be fully incorporated who already belong in any way to God’s People” (UR 3). Yet the Spirit is at work amid our separated brothers and sisters (see UR 3); we are united with them in Jesus and the Holy Spirit (see LG 15). Thus, while the Church constituted and organized in the world as a society subsists in the Catholic Church (see LG 8), still those Christians separated from the Catholic Church are not wholly separated from Jesus’ Church (see LG 15), because they live in a real, “though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (UR 3).
It follows that without excluding non-Christians and separated Christians from salvation in Jesus, we must find the oneness of the only Church of Jesus in the enduring unity of the Catholic Church (see LG 8). She alone recognizes the principle of unity and cooperation established by Jesus: the collegial episcopacy centered upon the successor of Peter, who is the vicar of the Lord Jesus and head of the whole Church (see LG 18). To put the matter bluntly: Christians who do not regard themselves as Catholics are so despite themselves, just insofar as they truly are Christians. (Although the purpose of this bluntness is clarity, not offensiveness, it obviously is not likely to be appreciated by our separated brothers and sisters.)
Once the preceding explanation is understood, one will realize that the possibility that people who have not heard the gospel can be saved in no way renders unnecessary the hearing of the gospel, explicit faith, baptism, and active membership in the Church. On the contrary, those who have not heard the gospel can be saved only because in some manner they are on their way to the baptismal font, so that their baptism already has begun.