Getting back to my series on soteriology (it's been a long week), one of the major theories in Christian soteriology, or how God's saving action works to save us, is the doctrine that goes back to the early centuries of the notion of "There is no salvation outside the Church." The Latin phrase, if what to get all really fancy, is Extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
Needless to say, much ink and blood has been spilled over the centuries parsing this little number.
As always, one has to look at the historical context of any catch phrase or theological doctrine to make heads or tails of it. To try to divorce any distilled doctrine in isolation is a hazardous undertaking because nothing in theology exists in isolation to other theological or philosophical concepts. It's like a big tapestry. If you try to pull one of the threads and examine it apart from the over-arching tapestry, you are not going to get very far and might end up unraveling the whole thing and ruining it.
One of the points I made in my previous post about understanding soteriology is that the Church is always having to re-orient itself as time and culture change. This is not a complete break from the past and creating something new out of whole cloth. Some Protestants have tried this and it never works particularly well, as they end up creating their own orthodoxies, and once the pattern of breaking is established, there is nothing to prevent future breaks and re-reformings into smaller and smaller sects by following the same pattern until you literally end up with little groups of 5 people spitting at the other group of 5 people on the opposite side of the street because of a break from break from a break ad nauseum of the Body of Christ.
Going to what the Catechism currently teaches is a good way of making sense of "There is no salvation outside the Church." It touches on this idea of re-orienting the Church's message. It reads as follows:
"How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Reformulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body" (CCC 846).
In other words, to be saved, you do have to go through Jesus. How that works and what exactly "The Church" is is open for debate. In years past, particularly in the height of Christendom in the High Middle Ages, "The Church" was the Catholic Church headed by the Pope in Rome and only that. If you were not in the good graces of the Catholic Church of Rome, the Church's message was...well,...hellfire for you.
This evolved for several historical reasons, some of which stemmed from the fall of the Roman Empire and hurtling Europe into "the Dark ages." With the breakdown of the Empire, at least in the West, the Catholic Church gradually entered to fill to gaps to prevent anarchy. The clergy were educated (at least to some degree), and were natural administrators. Power just grew. Thus, but the time of the Crusades, the Church was very, very powerful indeed in both politics and spiritual realms.
Now, I am not going to go into all that. You can read history books on the reasons (some more legitimate than others) for the Reformation as they built over the centuries. One of the major battles was over this very issue of "what is the Church"? Because of the adversarial nature of the Reformation and the political forces involved, the whole affair because an exercise is "Our church is the True Church and yours is corrupt/heretical!"
What all sides lost sight of was God's grace: that Jesus was the Head. We made our own leaders the head, be it Pope, Reformer theologian, King, Consistory court, Presbytery, or realm. In the vitriolic theological pie fight, we tended to lose sight of the fact that Jesus said, "Follow me."
The Church in our ongoing call to follow Jesus, which requires occasionally re-orienting our views, recognizes that God does not condemn those who are innocently ignorant of the truth about his offer of salvation. Regarding this question, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, 16) states:
This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation. (CCC 847)
In other words, Aslan is on the move. God is not a tame lion that we can keep in a nice, neat theological cage. God is everywhere, trying to bring all things back unto Himself. This is the major goal God will eventually reach. If you read the Book of Revelation, you see that in the end, God vanquishes all the effects of the Fall of Adam and sin, and recreated Eden in the end of time when He has accomplished all his goals and re-tied all the threads together again in the final tapestry of salvation.
God's primary means of doing this is the Church, but when the Church chooses not to co-operate, God can and does speak to people in ways we do not understand. This is part of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. We will no doubt be surprised who ends up at God's table at the end of the time, people we thought would never have made it because Jesus found a way.
The Church is not good at recognizing that those in the Church still sin, and that sin sometimes mars our message. We must always be mindful that God does the saving. We are a vehicle of that, but we must always be mindful of "There, but for the grace of God, go I." We point the way to salvation, we are an icon, a signpost. Sometimes we have to dust off our sign so people can read it. If we don't, something is wrong.
CS Lewis once wrote that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is to convince people he doesn't exist. Those of us in the Church have to make sure that we don't inadvertently pull the same trick and by our actions convince people we do not exist. Once that happens, we end up with no message of hope. We just become a country club with lodge meetings on Sunday mornings. It that's all we're doing, we are wasting our time because we are no longer the vehicle of salvation.
I don't know about you, but I don't want to have to explain that to God when I go to meet my maker and He asks, "What did you do to follow me?"