Father Leonard Feeney, S.J. knew there is no salvation outside the Church. He knew and taught that only members of the Catholic Church could be saved. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – “outside The Church there is no salvation.” That is Catholic doctrine and that is what he quiet literally taught.
There was one problem. Father Feeney interpreted the doctrine incorrectly. The Magisterium does not teach that only Catholics can go to heaven. Ironically, the good Father made the Protestant error of making a personal interpretation. He meant well, but his insistent disobedience to the authority of the Church unfortunately resulted in his excommunication. By God’s mercy he was reconciled many years later before his death in 1978.
Catholics do NOT believe that formal membership in the Catholic Church is an absolute requirement for salvation. If you are Protestant (for example), we do NOT believe that you are necessarily condemned to hell.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
That said, we DO believe that there is no salvation outside the one and only Church instituted directly by Christ. Jesus is the universal Savior, working through his Church and indivisible from it. The living and historical Church works in a wider sphere than its direct members. I can say with complete confidence that while non-Catholics can go to heaven, there are only Catholics in it! At that point we are all fully united in the Body of Christ.
It is a sad fact that there are Christian communities separated from the Church. In their memberships are large numbers of people who seek God with a sincere heart and truly desire to follow His will. Through no fault of their own, they do not know or accept Christ’s Church. They may be aware of the Catholic Church, but through misinformation, conditioning and circumstance, are closed to it. While they know Christ, if not His Church, they are not cut off from God’s mercy.
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 Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.
Gaudium et Spes 22
Even non-Christians may be saved. The Catechism explains it as follows:
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 persons would have desired baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.
Brothers and sisters please take heed, this is not a “get out of jail free card” to simply find a church that fits your lifestyle. One is not free to ignore God’s will. To the degree that you or your denomination pervert God’s will to that of your own, you are at grave risk. If you are Catholic, being fully aware of the teaching of the Church and rejecting it – you are especially at risk.
None of us on earth today definitively knows our own fate. Our final judgment has not yet been determined. Through His Son Jesus Christ, God has given us His Church to feed and tend us. There are many independent churches that operate in His name with sincere and faithful members. Their hope is not unfounded, but their path is precarious. The surest path to salvation is through the Church Christ Himself created – the Catholic Church.