But what about the salvation of non-Catholics? This is the question I think most people have in mind. For there are some who really do hold that all religions are equal. But most people simply worry about non-Catholics being saved. It is a legitimate concern. What is the Church’s answer to this?
The individual who is outside the visible confines of the Church cannot be saved if he knows that Christ founded the Church as necessary for salvation and yet refuses to enter her or remain in her, the individual cannot be saved. The very act of refusing to enter or of leaving would constitute grave sin.
Similarly, the individual who is vincibly ignorant of the truth of the Catholic faith cannot be saved. One is “vincibly” ignorant if one’s free acting is responsible for one’s ignorance. For instance, if I neglect to inform myself as to what the good and true way of life is, if I simply devote myself to myself and my immediate pragmatic needs, then my ignorance of things religious is culpable. Therefore, I am accountable for not being in the Church if I have not pursued the truth of God with sufficient interest and care.
However, if the individual is invincibly ignorant of the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation, then he will not be condemned for not entering her. For God holds us accountable for those things about which we have free action. To say “invincibly” ignorant is to say that his own free acting is not responsible for his ignorance, either by neglect or by something else. Someone condemned in this state would be condemned for some sin, but not for not entering the Church. It could be, for instance, that such a one is tempted to sin and sins, yet has precious few means of being restored to God’s grace. After all, the Catholic himself who is serious about the life of faith will acknowledge that he is beset by sin; he can fall into mortal sin. This serious Catholic will admit, in self-knowledge, that if he should fall into mortal sin and not have the opportunity to receive the Sacraments, how difficult it would be for him to lean on God and love God above all things, a necessary condition for final salvation.
How wide the road and how easy that leads to condemnation, and how many there are who take it.
But the person invicibly ignorant of the necessity of the Catholic Church might be saved. If so, he is not saved by his religion, which as a whole is false and thus evil, but rather by the grace of God that works in his circumstances, if he cooperates with this grace.