People still tell me that the Catholic church teaches that all outside the Church are going to hell, even though Fr. Feeney's position was corrected in 1949 by Pope Pius XII. Cardinal Dulles in First Things summarizes the thorny question of salvation for those outside the Church as seen by theologians through the centuries and offers a way to reconcile the structure of every person designed with a heart meant for God and our need for the saving grace of the Catholic Church.
Scripture itself assures us that God has never left himself without a witness to any nation (Acts 14:17). His testimonies are marks of his saving dispensations toward all. The inner testimony of every human conscience bears witness to God as lawgiver, judge, and vindicator. In ancient times, the Jewish Scriptures drew on literature that came from Babylon, Egypt, and Greece. The Book of Wisdom and Paul’s Letter to the Romans speak of God manifesting his power and divinity through his works in nature. The religions generally promote prayer and sacrifice as ways of winning God’s favor. The traditions of all peoples contain elements of truth imbedded in their cultures, myths, and religious practices. These sound elements derive from God, who speaks to all his children through inward testimony and outward signs.
The universal evidences of the divine, under the leading of grace, can give rise to a rudimentary faith that leans forward in hope and expectation to further manifestations of God’s merciful love and of his guidance for our lives. By welcoming the signs already given and placing their hope in God’s redeeming love, persons who have not heard the tidings of the gospel may nevertheless be on the road to salvation. If they are faithful to the grace given them, they may have good hope of receiving the truth and blessedness for which they yearn.
The search, however, is no substitute for finding. To be blessed in this life, one must find the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, which is worth buying at the cost of everything one possesses. To Christians has been revealed the mystery hidden from past ages, which the patriarchs and prophets longed to know. By entering through baptism into the mystery of the cross and the Resurrection, Christians undergo a radical transformation that sets them unequivocally on the road to salvation. Only after conversion to explicit faith can one join the community that is nourished by the Word of God and the sacraments. These gifts of God, prayerfully received, enable the faithful to grow into ever greater union with Christ.
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