If you have been following these articles on Vatican II's Constitution on the Church, you will likely have realized that the core message of the document is that God's plan of salvation is to offer eternal life to humanity through his Church.
It is clear from the opening paragraphs of Lumen Gentium that the only way we can come to share in God's divine life is through participation in the one, true Church, which subsists in the Catholic Church, although "many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible confines" (LG 8).
This conclusion has been phrased, since the earliest days of Christianity, in this way: "No salvation outside the Church." Vatican II labelled this positively, calling the Church "the universal sacrament of salvation."
But no matter how it is couched, this notion that only Catholics, or only Christians, can be saved is offensive to many today. What of those millions of people who were raised in other faiths or in no faith at all and who lived good lives? What of those who have never even heard of the Gospel? How can the Catholic Church say that they are excluded from the salvation offered by a loving and merciful God?
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not say these people are excluded from salvation. In fact, it goes to great lengths to say something different. Further, it is unlikely that the Catholic Church ever meant to say that those who, through no fault of their own, did not accept the Gospel would be left outside God's eternal kingdom.
The council fathers begin this somewhat extended discussion by saying, "The one Christ is mediator of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church, which people enter through Baptism as through a door.
"Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it" (LG 14).
The qualifying clause in the last sentence is important. If one is unaware that the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation, then perhaps there are other ways that a person might enjoy eternal life with Christ than through full incorporation into the Catholic Church.
The next article in Lumen Gentium lists several ways that other Christians "are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit" – holding the Bible as the rule of faith and life, Baptism, belief in the Trinity and receiving other sacraments.
The council goes even further. Even "those who have not received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways" (LG 16). The Jewish people received God's covenants; Muslims believe in one God and hold the faith of Abraham.
There are those "who in shadows and images seek the unknown God," those who seek God with a sincere heart and those who have no explicit knowledge of God, but strive to live a good life.
The question thus arises, if the Church is the sole means of salvation, how can people who do not know God or even think about God receive eternal life through the Church?
Further, if people can be saved without explicit Church membership, why does the Church continue its missionary efforts, which involve such hardship and persecution?
The council does not give anything close to a full answer to the first question. But the Jesuit theologian, Francis Sullivan, does offer an answer – the Eucharist. "We have good reason to conclude that all the grace which the Holy Spirit distributes throughout the world is in some way mediated through the Church's offering of the Eucharist. . . .
"The new Eucharistic Prayers, which are a fruit of the council's renewal of the liturgy, express in various ways the Church's understanding that this sacrifice is offered not just for those present at it, not only for the Christian faithful, but for the salvation of all people, both Christian and non-Christian, both living and dead" (The Church We Believe In, p. 127, emphasis added).
Lumen Gentium does answer the second question about the value of the Church's missionary activity. The Church, it says, must carry out Christ's command to preach the Gospel to all nations. Christ is the source of salvation for all the world. The catholic nature of the true Church involves making the Gospel known to all.
While people may be saved without knowing Christ, our love for God and for other people should impel us to try to bring them to faith and to help that faith grow to the fullest maturity (LG 17).
The Church is the universal sacrament of salvation. Salvation cannot be taken for granted. The People of God must strive to spread God's word throughout the world.