Salvation of Merely Nominal Catholics
The twentieth-century Church council, Vatican II, in 1965 repeated what the Church has always stated regarding the salvation of Catholics who are Catholic only in name:
“He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity [“sanctifying grace”]. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 14.
The Church’s words are merely a restatement of those of Our Lord Jesus Christ himself:
Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ 26 then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ 27 But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. 29 They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God.30 And indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and there are those who are first who will be last.” Luke 13: 23-30
The first pope echoed the warning of the Savior: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ ” (1 Peter 4:17-18)
Salvation of non-Catholics
As regards non-Christians, Vatican Council II, in continuity with the unbroken bi-millennial Tradition of the Catholic Church, after listing the conditions under which it might be possible for those who have not been sacramentally baptized to be saved, affirms that “very often [“saepius”] these conditions are lacking. Although the Council recognized the possibility of salvation for those outside the visible boundaries of the Church under extremely arduous conditions (“Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” ) went on to repeat the two-thousand-year-old consensus, affirming that outside the visible ranks of the Church “very often” men have walked on the roads leading to damnation.
“But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become futile in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie serving the creature more than the Creator (see Rom 1: 21, 25), so that living and dying without God in this world they are exposed to the ultimate despair”.
Thus, the “Evil One”, who with all his satanic power seeks the soul’s destruction, by magnifying the evil brought about by man’s own tendency toward egotism allied to the cumulative force of sin in his social surroundings, “very often” drags men into the “lie”. Consequently, the traditional Catholic consensus is that even that minority of those utterly sincere, religious men and women outside of the visible ranks of the Church who are implicitly Catholic by desire and have the supernatural life of sanctifying grace may find it too difficult to persevere unto death in their uprightness. Another papal document explains why this lack of perseverance can occur:
“Those who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church….cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps which can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church”.
The Great Risk
Thus, Catholics understand that although achieving salvation is an uphill struggle even for believers who have the sacraments, doctrine, and discipline of the Church, it is incomparably more difficult for those outside the Church’s visible ranks! In the face of Christ’s words “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:16), his other words about the “many” and the “few”, and indeed the dramatic tone and tenor of the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation, as well as the common sense human experience of the pervasive influence of sin, saints, popes and councils have simply faced the tremendously real risk of damnation for all people but most especially for non-Catholics. The Council of Trent summed up the Catholic position by stating that “though He died for all, yet all do not receive the benefit of His death, but those only unto whom the merit of His passion is communicated.”.
“For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.” (St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 1: 21-25)
The “Wrath of God”
The context of Romans 1: 21-25 is St. Paul’s description of the “wrath of God” caused by sin which is the necessary logical prelude to his description of the salvation offered by God in Jesus Christ: “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1: 18)
“[The ‘wrath of God] is evidently a metaphor, as is jealousy, hatred, etc. and it is not a changeable emotion in God himself, as St. Thomas often comments, as if God first of all is irritated and then appeased; the change, says St. Thomas, is only in the effect, that is to say, in man himself. In fact, this metaphor aims to illustrate the effect produced in the sinner, first of all of the absolute incompatibility which exists between God and sin, and similarly, between God and the sinner, in so far as he is separated from God by his sin.” (S. Lyonnet, Études sur l’Épître aux Romains (1989, p. 45, quoted in R. Martin, Will Many Be Saved?, p. 62-63.)
Only by understanding this “wrath of God” and its ultimate consequence, eternal damnation, can we value what we are saved from; only in this way can we appreciate the mercy of God, indeed Christianity itself. As Pope Benedict XVI stated:
“From this one can understand what the ‘wrath of God’ and the anger of the Lord are all about: necessary expressions of his love that is always identical with the truth. A Jesus who is in agreement with everybody and anybody, a Jesus without his holy wrath, without the toughness of the truth and of true love, is not the true Jesus as Scripture shows him but a miserable caricature. A presentation of the ‘gospel’ in which the seriousness of God’s wrath no longer exists has nothing to do with the biblical gospel. True forgiveness is something quite other than weakly letting things be.
“Forgiveness is exacting and makes demands on both the person who forgives and the person who receives forgiveness in that person’s whole being. A Jesus who approves of everything is a Jesus without the cross, because the tribulation of the cross would not then be needed to bring men and women salvation. In fact to a noticeable extent the cross is being interpreted out of theology and its meaning changed so as to become merely an unpleasant accident or a purely political affair. The cross as atonement, the cross as a way of forgiving and redeeming, does not fit into a certain modern pattern of thought.
“It is only when the connection of truth and love is seen properly that the cross becomes understandable in its true theological depth. Forgiveness has to do with truth, and for that reason it requires the cross of the Son and it requires our conversion. Forgiveness is indeed the restoration of truth, the renewal of being, and the overcoming of the lie that lurks in every sin: of its nature sin is always a departure from the truth of one’s own being and thus from the truth of the creator, God.
“A pastoral practice of appeasement, of ‘understanding everything and forgiving everything’ (in the superficial sense of this phrase) stands in glaring contrast to the biblical evidence. The correct pastoral practice leads to the truth, arouses love for the truth, and helps people to accept the pain of the truth. It must itself be a form of accompanying people on the difficult but beautiful way into new life that is also the way to true and lasting joy.” (J. Ratzinger, The Yes of Jesus Christ, 1991, pp. 94-97)
The Choice: Salvation or Damnation?
Eternal salvation and damnation are the ultimate outcome of man’s free decision to remain under the “wrath of God” or to accept His salvation. The man who is unwilling to reject sin and accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior makes himself incapable of entering God’s Presence and enters the eternal outer darkness. As C. S. Lewis wrote:
“It has been admitted throughout that man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two‑edged. From these premises it follows directly that the divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul. Some will not be redeemed.
“There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self‑surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse.
“I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully “All will be saved.” But my reason retorts, “Without their will, or with it?” If I say “Without their will” I at once perceive a contradiction. How can the supreme voluntary act of self‑surrender be involuntary? If I say “With their will,” my reason replies “How if they will not give in?” (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 118-119 check reference)
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
God wills Man’s Salvation but Man must Obey God
This does not contradict God’s love for “By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” God “shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church) Nor does it contradict God’s love for each and every human being, without exception:
“At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”410 He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 605)
However, as St. Augustine remarked, the God who created us without our consent will not save us without our consent. To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of “predestination”, he includes in it each person’s free response to his grace.
The Catholic Faith is Necessary
Catholics who know the truths of the Faith and receive the sacraments in the state of sanctifying grace have their intelligence and wills enlightened and strengthened for spiritual warfare. Non-Catholic Christians lack the fullness of the means of salvation found in the Catholic Church whether in the dimension of doctrine, sacraments or discipline. Merely nominal Christians and non-Christians are especially vulnerable in the confrontation with the Triple Axis of Evil: within themselves, in the world around them and from the Evil One: “living in darkness without the truths about ultimate questions is an evil… (Dominus Iesus) Their sincerity in seeking God and their effort to live according to the light of the Natural Law which is available to them through conscience, can swiftly be destroyed and they can become what St. Paul calls “idolaters” (those who worship any reality that is not the true God: money, power, false deities etc).
This is why Vatican II states that “very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.(Lumen Gentium, 16). Such “vain reasoning” includes the rather simplistic optimism that everyone will ultimately be saved, an assertion that flies in the face of the entire Old and New Testament which time and again insists that there are two very different destinations to man’s journeying through life:
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision.” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)
“[As there is one] face above all worlds merely to see which is irrevocable joy, so at the bottom of all worlds that face is waiting whose sight alone is the misery from which none who beholds it can recover. And though there seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision.” (C. S. Lewis, Perelandra) .
The Many and the Few
And as Lewis reminded us elsewhere: “All the most terrifying passages in the New Testament come from the mouth of Our Lord.” It is not St. Paul but the emphatic words of Our Lord Jesus Christ which do not allow us to accept that all will be saved:“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.(Matthew 7: 13-14)
“Of course,” as John Henry Newman remarked, “we must not press the words of Scripture; we do not know the exact meaning of the word ‘chosen’; we do not know what is meant by being saved ‘so as by fire’; we do not know what is meant by ‘few’. But still the few can never mean the many; and to be called without being chosen cannot but be a misery.” (“Many Called, Few Chosen”, in Parochial and Plain Sermons)
Or when Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the Final Judgment and uses not the hypothetical conditional tense but the matter-of-fact future tense:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-34; 41, 46)
As Ralph Martin states:
“In other words, even though it is possible under certain very specific conditions for people who have never heard the Gospel to be saved, the environment in which such people live is not a neutral environment. It is the environment of original and actual sin, personal and social, that is so tellingly described in Romans 1 – the whole chapter needs to be considered when understanding what the Council [Vatican II] intends by the short citation given – and which more and more is coming to characterize even the environments of previously Christian cultures and civilizations. It is an environment of hostility to God, culpable suppression of the truth, rationalization and justification of abominable behaviors, and the disintegration of personal identity and relational cohesion. It is an environment in which as the societal supports for respect for God and his Law are stripped away it becomes more and more an environment in which demonic lies can be infiltrated into the lives of many, even many within the Church, through plausible liars, and the destruction of human lives and relationships becomes manifest in an unrestrained lawlessness (1 Tim 4:1-2).” (Ralph Martin, “Doctrinal Clarity for the New Evangelization: The Importance of Lumen Gentium 16″ in Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Fall 2011).
In conclusion, the Church’s constant doctrine, taught from Jerusalem in the first century to Rome’s Vatican Council II in the twentieth, is that the salvation of unbelievers and those who are merely Christian or Catholic in name is in serious jeopardy: this, under the sign of God’s Honor, is the impelling motive for the Ignatian’s lifelong commitment.
 Lumen Gentium no. 16, the key document of the twentieth-century council, Vatican II, 1964.
 By Catholic consensus is meant the conclusion held by the vast majority of the Fathers of the Church, saints, orthodox theologians, and official papal and council statements.
 Lumen Gentium no. 16, Vatican Council II, 1964. My translation from the official Latin text on the Vatican website: “At saepius homines, a Maligno decepti, evanuerunt in cogitationibus suis, et commutaverunt veritatem Dei in mendacium servientes creaturae magis quam Creatori (cf. Rom. 1, 21, 25), vel sine Deo viventes ac morientes in hoc mundo, extremae desperationi exponuntur.” This document in its footnotes refers to the Vatican document, Suprema haec sacra of August 8, 1949.
 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, no. 103.
 On August 6, 2000, the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger repeated its unchangeable doctrine about the situation of non-Catholics: “It is also certain that, objectively speaking, they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation”. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus, no. 22.
 Council of Trent, Decree concerning Justification, chapter 3, at
http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/trent6.htm , accessed on March 8, 2016. See also The Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1022, 1035.