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Salvation in the Roman Catholic Church
Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla

What does the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) really teach about salvation? There seems to be much confusion in this regard. Does the RCC teach salvation by grace or salvation by works? This article will seek to answer these questions and to evaluate the RCC’s teachings.

For this article I will be quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I will be doing so as it is an authoritative statement of the RCC. 

Pope John Paul II writes in the preface:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved June 25th last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illuminated by the Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument of ecclesial communion….

Therefore, I ask the Church’s Pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a sprit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is given that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8) (P 3). 

Note: Throughout this article, the P refers to the bold numbered paragraphs in the Catechism, which I assume would be the same in any edition of the Catechism. Also, all italics in quotations are in the Catechism itself.


Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation [fn, Cf. Mark 16:16; John 3:36; 6:40, et al.]. “Since ‘without faith it is impossible to please [God]’ and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life ‘but he who endures to the end’ (P 161). 

Note: The brackets and the notation “fn” indicate where there are footnotes in the Catechism. These generally refer to the Scripture references the RCC uses to support its claims, along with various official RCC documents. 

So the RCC does teach that faith is necessary for salvation, and with this point Protestants would agree. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is by faith. But note the qualifier about “he who endures.” This point is discussed further in the next paragraph, “Faith is an entirely free gift that God makes to man. We can lose this priceless gift … “ (P 162).

Teaching that one can lose saving faith shows that the RCC is Arminian in its theology, or more correctly in Catholicism, semi-Pelagianism. A detailed discussion of the differences between these viewpoints is outside of the scope of this article, but this point will come up several times in this article. Whether one takes an Arminian/ semi-Pelagian vs. a Calvinism perspective affects how one views various aspects of salvation.

But getting back to the main point of this article, it must be asked if faith is the only thing the RCC teaches is necessary for salvation as Protestants do? Additional Catholic requirements for salvation will now be looked at. 


The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation [fn, John 3:5]. He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them [fn, Matthew 28:19-20; cf. Council of Trent (1547) DS 1618; LG 14; AG 5]. Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament [fn, Mark 16:16]. The church does not know of any other means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the sprit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments (P 1257). 

Fist, it should be noted that the Catechism capitalizes "baptism," as it does the names for the rest of the RCC sacraments. This practice probably indicates the importance the RCC places on its sacraments, while considering them to be proper names.

That said, this quote clearly shows that the RCC teaches that along with faith, baptism is necessary for salvation. To simply have faith does not suffice, one also has to be baptized. But do the verses which the Catechism reference really teach the necessity of baptism for salvation? 

The first referenced verse is John 3:5:

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

  The RCC is assuming that "water" refers to baptism. However, "water" could be referring to many other things: the cleansing properties of the Word of God (John 15:3; Eph 5:26; 1Pet 1:23); "the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5; see also Ezek 36:25); suffering (Matt 10:38).

  Most likely it refers to the waters of natural birth. Notice the parallel between "born of water" with "born of the flesh" in the next verse (and compare John 1:12f). Note also that in John 3:6-8 only the Spirit is mentioned as being involved in regeneration.

The second passage is Matthew 28:19-20:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. 

So yes, in this passage Jesus is telling the apostles to baptize disciples. But note, it is just that, the baptism of disciples. The word "make disciples" is the only imperative (command) in this passage. The words "baptizing" and "teaching" are participles. As such, it is these two items that are grouped together, not "make disciples" and "baptize."

In other words, if baptism was a part of the "make disciples" command then it would also be an imperative. But instead, baptism is grouped with "teaching," so unless the RCC claims that one must be taught "all things" that Jesus commanded before one is actually saved, then it is hard for it to claim that this verse teaches baptism is necessary for salvation. 

The final verse in this passage is Mark 16:16:

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned." 

It is interesting that the RCC should reference this verse as the Bible versions quoted in the Catechism are the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Both of these versions are based on the Critical Text (CT). But CT scholars clearly believe that Mark 16:9-20 is not considered to be genuine.

For instance, Bruce Metzger, who is on the committee that develops the CT, writes, “… on the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16:8” (Metzger, p. 126).

Now this writer disagrees with CT scholars like Metzger and instead believes the Majority Text (MT) better represents the original autographs, and this passage is included in the MT. However, the RCC cannot have it both ways. It cannot use versions based on the CT and then quote a verse is not considered genuine in the CT. Either change Bible versions or cease to quote this verse.

  That said, accepting the passage as genuine, two kinds of people are mentioned, "He who believes and is baptized" and "he who does not believe." The third possibility, "He who believes but is not baptized" is not mentioned. So this passage proves nothing in this regard.

Now there are other verses that are often referenced by those who believe baptism is necessary for salvation. These are discussed at Questions on Baptism. But the discussion on these three passages will suffice here to show that there are legitimate ways to take these passages that wouldn't make baptism a requirement for salvation. 

But it should be mentioned that the RCC does place some qualifiers on this point:

The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without it being a sacrament (P 1258).

For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament (P 1259). 

So if someone dies after they have believed but before they were baptized, they RCC considers their faith sufficient for salvation. And this qualifier does answer a common objection raised again the teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation, namely “What about people who die before they are able to be baptized.” However, it's still seems somewhat strange that faith is considered sufficient for some but not for others. But this is a recurrent theme in the Catechism. The RCC places a lot of emphasis on one's "opportunity" in setting requirements for salvation.

The next qualifier address a difficult question:

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do no hinder them,” [fn, Mark 10:14; cf. 1Tim 2:4] allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism (P 1261]. 

What happens to people dying in infancy has always been a difficult point. Protestants are also generally hesitant to give a definite answer in this regard. If one claims that infants who die are automatically saved, it could lead parents to believe that the most loving thing they could do would be to murder their babies. But to say they are damned would be rather harsh to parents who have lost a baby.

So it is understandable that the RCC does not come out and make a definite statement about a dying infant's salvation either way. 

However, the last qualifier is very controversial:

“Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Sprit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known only to God, of the Paschal mystery” [fn, GS 22, S 5; cf. LG 16; AG 7]. Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such person would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity (P 1260). 

First should be noted that the statement "Christ died for all" again shows that the RCC is Arminian/ semi-Pelagian in its theology. Again, a detailed discussion of the differences between these viewpoints is outside of the scope of this article, but there are practical implications to them that bear on this subject.

It is because the RCC believes that "Christ died for all" that it holds out the "wider hope" that those who are "ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church" can be saved. 

One last point about Baptism needs to be noted:

By Baptism all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as punishment for sin [fn, Cf. Council of Florence (1439): DS 1316]. In those who have been reborn nothing remains that would impede their entry into the Kingdom of God, neither Adam’s sin, nor personal sin nor the consequences of sin, the gravest of which is separation from God (P 1263]. 

So the RCC teaches that at the moment after people are baptized they are definitely saved. If they were to die right at that moment they would be going to heaven. However, what about those who do not die at that moment? Will their baptism save them years later when they do die? 

The answer is, it depends on what they do after that moment:

Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sins prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation [Cf. Rom 8:29; council of Trent (1547): DS 1609-1619]. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated (P 1272)….

The faithful Christian who has “kept the seal” until the end, remaining faithful to the demands of his Baptism, will be able to depart this life marked with the sign of “faith,” [Roman Missal, EP I (Roman Canon) 97) with his baptismal faith, in expectation of the blessed vision of God-the consummation of faith-and in the hope of resurrection (P 1274). 

So only if those who have been baptized and have "kept the seal" and "remained faithful" will actually go to heaven. But if "sins prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation" then the logical implications is that they have lost their salvation.

This again shows the Arminian/ semi-Pelagianism of the RCC. And there are many Arminian Protestants who would agree that people can lose their salvation. A full discussion on this subject would again be out of the scope of this article. But as with any viewpoint that says one can lose their salvation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that "something" must be added to the initial salvation experience for one to remain saved.

And it is definitely clear that in the RCC perspective, one would be better off if they died right after being baptized rather than living for a period of time afterward and risking losing their salvation. It for this reason that some have actually delayed getting baptized until they are on their deathbed, such as the Roman Emperor Constantine.

This article is concluded at Salvation in the Roman Catholic Church - Part Two.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article was posted on this Web site February 24, 2001.


Catholicism: Salvation

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