Do Catholics think non-Christians can be saved?

Pope Francis made headlines (May 2013) with his non-scripted comments during his morning Mass (where he speaks without notes). He said:

"The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!" Source

Many are concerned that the Pope was saying that all people are saved and do not need Jesus. Although Pope Francis does not perhaps speak with the same level of precision that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had, he was actually theologically correct.

An important distinction is found between the words "redeemed" and "saved". Jesus redeemed all of humanity with his blood. It would be a heresy for any Christian to say otherwise. The Pope didn't say all are "saved". Catholics believe that someone is saved through baptism and by confessing that Jesus is Lord. It the activation of Jesus' redemption through belief that we are saved.

On a similar topic (some time ago), we got an email pointing to a website that said:

Many people think that Arinze, the Pope's Deputy for Outreach, is heir apparent to John Paul II. But even if he is not, his comments are chilling and revealing....An illustration of Roman Catholic ecumenism, which ices out the Gospel and makes mockery of the ministry of Jesus Christ, is found in Arinze's answer to the question, "Can you still get to heaven without accepting Jesus?" His answer, not surprising, but chilling and ominous, is: "Expressly, yes!"

The website quoted above pulls Catholic statements from their original context and hurts ecumenical dialogue.

Can non-Christians be saved?

The Catholic Church makes it absolutely clear that anyone who willfully turns his back on Christ will be denied salvation. So why does the Church say that some people who have not surrendered their life to Christ ("born again") might make it to heaven? To begin this conversation let us take a tour through the Old Testament.

What about non-Christians before Christ's time... can they be saved?

Let us look at King David,  Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. They never knew Christ. They never asked Jesus to be their personal Saviour. Some Evangelicals will say that these guys are not in heaven and never will be because they didn't make a "personal decision for Christ" during their life.

These Old Testament prophets cause some problems for many Evangelicals because the prophets did not meet the requirement of "making a personal decision for Jesus" while living. Some Evangelicals side step this issue and say, "I don't know where the Old Testament prophets are today, no one knows." But these same Evangelicals claim there are only two places for humans after they die, heaven or hell. They also claim that the only way into heaven is to claim Christ as your personal Saviour while you are living. That seems to leave only one place for the prophets, hell. It makes no sense to us that someone who wrote the Bible would be in hell. We must say that thankfully, not all Evangelicals follow this logic. Some Evangelicals follow the thinking of the Catholic Church on this matter.

Catholics believe on the day Jesus died, He descended to the realm of the dead (hell in English, Sheol in Hebrew, Hades in Greek). He descended there as Saviour, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there (1 Peter 3:18-19).

He did not do this to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him...And therefore Jesus' redemption extends to all men of all times and all places.  (Catechism 633,  Council of Rome 745AD)

Catholics think there is redemption for some faithful who seek God, but have never met Christ.

 "And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Heb 11:6)

The important word here is "seek." The Old Testament Prophets sought after God and were rewarded.

St. Paul then goes on walk us through the entire Old Testament. He speaks about

Noah... Abraham... Isaac...Jacob... Rehab the prostitute... Moses, Sarah... Gideon... Barak... Samson...Jephthah...David...Samuel and the prophets who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained, promised, shut the mouths of lions (Heb 11:7-12:1)

None of them knew Christ, none of them were "born again." Yet Paul does not at all suggest they are in hell. In speaking about them, he says "we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses." This does not sound like hell.

Christ made it clear that Moses and Elijah are doing fine and are not in hell (Mat 17:2) and that Abraham is doing fine also (Lk 16:22). None of these guys made a personal decision for Christ while they were alive. Obviously, these faithful souls pleased God. We think it was their honest search for truth and faith in God that saved them. We got an email that said:

the thing is,the old testament people  believed the gospel, they believed the prophecies so even before jesus was born, they had already believed ...that soon emmanuel will be real...and the book that they read was actually what we now have as the bible.

Yes that is true, but modern Jews believe in the OT prophets and are expecting the Messiah to come. They just don't think he's come yet. So they are not Christian, and that presents a logic puzzle for this well meaning person.

Of course we believe all those Old Testament prophets are in Heaven. Jesus descended to the dead to go get them out of Sheol, during the 3 days after the crucifixion. However, by nature of their own logic, those who claim that it is impossible to get to Heaven without confessing Jesus with the lips before dying, would have to conclude that the prophets of the Old Testament are not saved.  

What about non-Christians (after Christ's death)...can they be saved?

We work with people with disabilities. Some of them are so hit by cognitive disability that they are not capable of honestly surrendering to Jesus. They just don't have the mental capacity to consciously choose Christ. With all the compassion that Jesus showed to people with disabilities We don't think he will damn them to hell. He is a merciful God. That's the cool thing about Catholic baptism. We didn't choose to be born into a human life yet received the grace of life. Catholics believe a person can also receive the grace of eternal life before actually choosing it. The expectation of the Holy Spirit is that we will make a personal commitment to Christ if and when that is cognitively possible.

Jesus brought a girl back from the dead. It is doubtful that she had previously turned her life over to Jesus. (Mt 9:18) He is a God of mercy.

If someone has never been exposed to the Gospel message before he dies, yet believes in God and is searching for truth, Catholics believe the culpability falls on us as Christians for never having reached him.(1 Cor 9:16) That is why all Christians must evangelize. If an upright African guy believes in God and seeks him but never hears about the Gospel in an authentic way, you and me better get on our knees and ask for God's mercy. "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel" (1 Cor 9:16). We are responsible for getting the word out.

It is not because of his non-Christian religion that a person above could be saved. It would be because Catholics believe Jesus judges the heart of each individual. It would be cruel to believe that God would create this soul, and then condemn him to hell even though he believed and sought God. It would be through no fault of his own that he never heard the Gospel. It would be our fault. The Church teaches that it is by the mercy of Christ that people are saved, even if they may not realize it at the moment of death. Jesus is the only Saviour. The Catholic Church makes it clear that those who refuse Jesus, after having been presented the Gospel in an authentic way, will spend an eternity in hell. (Cat 846)

Part of the reason that Catholics have confidence that some honest seekers who never meet the Lord will be saved is because we believe in Purgatory. There is a similarity to what Jesus did when He went down to Sheol to preach to the Old Testament faithful there (1 Peter 3:18-19) and what he will do for honest seekers who were never evangelized in an authentic way here on earth. Catholics believe these people will go to Purgatory (a step before heaven). Jesus is present in Purgatory, and everyone there will accept Jesus as the Saviour before they enter into heaven.

It would be easy to say, "hey the Catholics think all non Christians are going to get evangelized and saved in purgatory." That is not so. The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is not for those who willfully reject Christ or never seek God in this life. Those who reject Christ will not enter Heaven or Purgatory, they will go to hell. If you have never made a personal decision for Christ, we beg you to do so now. It was the best thing we ever did. Here is an article that shows you how to do that.

More about Purgatory here
More on Hell, Sheol and Hades here

Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen