Can only Catholics go to heaven?

by Olivia Martin
olivia.martin@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One of the most misunderstood teachings of the Catholic Church concerns who can attain eternal life in heaven.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

If so, what does that mean for other Christians? Or what about non-Catholics or people who have never heard of Christ?

Father Joseph Arsenault, SSA, archdiocesan consultant for ecumenical & interreligious affairs, explains.

Q: Jesus taught that those who believed in him and followed him could attain eternal life. What did he mean by that?

A: Jesus meant those who follow him, do his will and believe in him will have eternal life in heaven available to them.

Q: Who did he mean it to apply to?

A: “To everyone,” said Father Joseph. “He came to call everyone to heaven.”

Q: Was belief in heaven part of Jewish tradition, or would this have been a teaching unique to Jesus?

A: There was a belief in a kind of afterlife in ancient Judaism. “However,” explained Father Joseph, “there were some of the Jewish people who did not believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Q: Did teaching on heaven develop in any way during Jesus’ years of ministry? For example, was it taught that Gentiles as well as Jews can enter the kingdom of God?

“The Jewish people believed that they were the ones that God revealed himself to and that he was theirs,” said Father Joseph.

The early Christians believed, however, because of Jesus’ teaching, that the kingdom of God was open to Gentiles (non-Jewish people) as well as Jews.

“The Gentiles helped to bring about the church [and show] that heaven was open to everyone,” said Father Joseph. “You didn’t have to be Jewish to believe in Jesus.”

Q: In the centuries that followed, was the teaching on heaven developed at all? Who was eligible for the afterlife? Those who came to Jesus through the Catholic Church but no one else?

A: This is where things get complicated. For centuries, it was believed that people had to come to know and follow Jesus in “real time,” so to speak, to have a chance at eternal life. 

And it is true, said Father Joseph, that if people are going to make it to heaven, it’s going to be through Jesus Christ.

“They can’t acquire it through anyone else,” he said. “He is the only way.”

But that does not mean that faithful Jews, or Buddhists or those who lived and died before Jesus had no chance at heaven if they did not come to know and follow Christ in their lifetime.

Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, explained Father Joseph. Even without knowing him, they could be redeemed through Jesus if they had lived lives in accord with Christian teachings. 

“Whether we acknowledge it or not,” he said, “deep within us is the reality of God.

“As we come in touch with who we really are, we come in touch with God — even if we can’t articulate that.”

Q: What happened after the Protestant Reformation? Were Protestants not eligible for eternal life according to Catholic Church teaching at that time?

A: The church teaches there is no salvation outside of the church. And for centuries of church history, that was interpreted very literally.

“The way that was interpreted at the time [of the Protestant Reformation] was that you had to be a Catholic in order to get into heaven,” said Father Joseph, “and if you weren’t a Catholic, it wasn’t possible.”

So, there was a period in the history of the church in which it was believed that you had to be a Catholic to go to heaven.

Q: Did the Second Vatican Council impact this teaching?

A: Yes, it made the proper interpretation of the church’s teaching clearer.

“Vatican II made it clear that there is the possibility of attaining heaven without being Catholic,” said Father Joseph.

“I think we would still say there is no salvation outside the church,” he continued, “but what we mean by that is that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, as he said.

“He’s it. So, if there’s salvation, it’s in him.

“If I am saved, I am saved by Jesus Christ and no one else.”

Q: What does the Catholic Church teach today about faithful Protestants, Jews or non-Christians entering the kingdom of heaven?

A: “We teach that it’s a possibility for everyone to enter heaven if their life conforms to the ways of the Lord,” said Father Joseph.

“They may not know or acknowledge Jesus,” he added, “but if they have an openness to striving to live a good and godly life, then, doing that, they are pleasing to the Lord.”

Q: How should we understand the clarification of this doctrine?

A: In simple terms, that which was assumed within doctrine was investigated and made explicit in Vatican II.

“[This clarification of teaching] is giving it a different interpretation because the doctrine hasn’t changed,” said Father Joseph. “There is no salvation outside of the church. That hasn’t changed. How we understand that has.”

Father Joseph gave the example of Jesus while on the cross offering eternal life in heaven to the repentant thief.

“Well, he wasn’t a Catholic!” said Father Joseph. “Hope of resurrection is open for all.”

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