Are Only Catholics Going to Heaven?

Answering a most common question

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Extraordinary Means

From these teachings, it might appear that only Catholics may go to heaven. However, we must distinguish between the ordinary means of salvation and possible extraordinary means. Throughout her history, the Church has always understood that there can be exceptions to the standard. This does not mean exceptions to the exclusivity of Christ as Savior or the Church as the instrument of his salvation. No, it means exception to the ways in which Christ's salvation through the Church occurs in the life of the individual. We see this most clearly in the Church's teaching on baptism.

Baptism is the means by which one is brought into the Catholic Church, and thus baptism is tied directly to salvation: "baptism is necessary for salvation" (CCC 1257, cf. John 3:5). But the Church has always recognized that there are three types of baptism: (1) regular, sacramental water baptism; (2) baptism by blood, meaning martyrdom for Christ; and (3) baptism of desire, which means that one desires to be baptized but is unable to do so (cf. CCC 1258-1260).

What this means is that there may have been some throughout history and today that have desired, either explicitly or implicitly, to be baptized. For example, if an adult convert dies driving to the Easter Vigil to be baptized, would he be eligible for salvation? Of course: his explicit desire to be baptized is honored by God. What if someone does not know about Catholicism - or is not properly formed in that knowledge - but sincerely desires to follow God as best he or she knows how? It is possible that this constitutes an implicit desire for baptism, and thus is a means to salvation. "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" (CCC 1260, emphasis in original).

As the Catechism states, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." (CCC 1257). Thus although we are bound to follow the commands of Christ to be baptized if we know and understand these commands, God is not bound to damn those who, through no fault of their own, do not know and understand these commands.
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