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The Catholic theology of religions: a survey of pre-Vatican II and Conciliar attitudes towards other religions

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 June 2014

Loe-Joo Tan*
Trinity Theological College, 490 Upper Bukit Timah Road,


This article analyses the Catholic view of religions by examining its beginnings as a theology of salvation for non-believers summarised by the aphorism extra ecclesiam nulla salus. It notes that Catholic attempts to examine the capacity of religions per se in attaining salvation for their followers took place in the period before and during Vatican II when the church began assessing the non-Christian person not just as an isolated individual but also by taking into account her wider affiliations to a religious community. This analysis has revealed there were hermeneutical tensions within the church about whether the Council signified greater continuity or discontinuity with tradition, and consequently, similarly contrasting views about the extent to which it was willing to see other religions as holding salvific function to any extent. The survey has concluded that ultimately the Council chose to leave this question of the salvific function of other faiths open for further investigation, even though it displayed an unprecedented positive appreciation of them, contra some observers who have argued the church recognised the possibility of salvation for non-Christians through their own faiths. Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council did affirm the significance of other religions as a preparation for the Gospel, as well as showed a movement beyond the pre-Conciliar notion of extra ecclesiam by granting the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, particularly those who are invincibly ignorant and who had striven to live an upright life by observing natural law. This implies that the next theological question on the agenda could be on the role and functions of these religions; i.e. are those people who are reckoned to be saved, saved through or despite their religions, and how is this salvation related to the church or to the work of Christ or both? Thus, the analysis provided in this theological-historical survey will serve to provide the backdrop for further discussions on post Conciliar developments within the Catholic theology of religions. Finally, an understanding of Catholic views towards other religions will also be illuminative for Protestantism as it seeks to advance its own theological understanding of world religions.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2014 

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1 The ‘theology of religions’ is the usual designation for this field. However, Dupuis titles his book, ‘Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism’ (emphasis added) rather than ‘Religions’ to affirm a raison d’être for pluralism. Dupuis, J., Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), p. 11Google Scholar. Kärkkäinen argues that the previous term is already established. Kärkkäinen, V.-M., An Introduction to the Theology of Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003), pp. 20–1Google Scholar. A follow-up survey of post Conciliar developments is planned next.

2 In this article I will employ the abbreviation ‘RCC’ for the Roman Catholic Church, because its catholicity is not universally accepted beyond its ecclesial boundaries, though, for convenience, I will also employ the phrase ‘Catholic Church’.

3 Note that, even if one takes the position that non-Christians cannot be saved, whether apart from Christ or the church, which may lead to the conclusion that their religions are devoid of salvific value, this does not eliminate their theological significance, e.g. religions as praeparatio evangelica.

4 Kärkkäinen, Introduction, p. 22. E.g. Pinnock has acknowledged the influence of the Council in his understanding of other faiths. Pinnock, C. H., ‘Toward an Evangelical Theology of Religions’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990), p. 368Google Scholar.

5 Barnes, M., Theology and the Dialogue of Religions (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), p. 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 As an indication of the lingering influence of extra ecclesiam, Branick has termed it an ‘albatross bequeathed to the Catholic Church’. Branick, V. P., ‘Dominus Iesus” and the Ecumenical Dialogue with Catholics’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies 38 (2001), p. 416 n. 13Google Scholar.

7 Irenaeus of Lyons, ‘Against Heresies’, in Anti Nicene Fathers (ANF), vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. P. Schaff (Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 2001), 4.6.7.

8 Cyprian of Carthage, ‘On the Unity of the Church’, in ANF, vol. 5, Fathers of the Third Century, ed. P. Schaff (Peabody, MA: Henrickson, 1995), p. 6.

9 Sullivan, F. A., Salvation Outside the Church? (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), pp. 22–3Google Scholar.

10 Frazier, W. B., ‘Nine Breakthroughs in Catholic Missiology, 1965–2000’,International Bulletin of Missionary Research 25 (2001), p. 9CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Frazier states that, before the Middle Ages, ‘it was assumed that all people had been given a chance to hear and respond to the Gospel’.

11 Fulgentius of Ruspe, ‘Letter to Peter on the Faith’, in Fulgentius: Selected Works (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 38.81; emphasis added.

12 Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros, 1947), p. iiiGoogle Scholar, q. 68, a. 2. This in re–voto distinction will become highly significant for Vatican II.

13 Flanagin, D. Z., ‘Extra Ecclesiam Salus Non Est – Sed Quae Ecclesia?’, in Rollo-Koster, J. and Izbicki, T. M. (eds), A Companion to the Great Western Schism (1378–1417) (Leiden: Brill, 2009), p. 336Google Scholar.

14 Dupuis, J. and Neuner, J., The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th rev. and enl. edn (New York: Alba House, 2001), p. 804Google Scholar.

15 Ibid., p. 1005.

16 Frazier delineates how the RCC went through a difficult time after the discovery of vast populations who have not known of the Gospel, before its understanding of salvation ‘reached the point of accommodating men and women beyond the Church's current influence’. Frazier, ‘Nine Breakthroughs’, p. 9.

17 The Catholic understanding of ignorance is described as invincible ‘when it cannot be dispelled by the reasonable diligence a prudent man would be expected to exercise in a given situation’. Nealy, F. D., ‘Ignorance’, in New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2003)Google Scholar.

18 Dupuis and Neuner, Christian Faith, p. 1010. Singulari Quadam was the first Catholic document to utilise the concept of invincible ignorance.

19 The complete text of Mystici Corporis Christi is available on (accessed April 2014), hereafter as MC followed by article number.

20 Butler describes MC as posing serious problems for ecumenism by establishing a dichotomy between those who do and do not belong to the Catholic communion. Butler, B. C., The Theology of Vatican II, rev. and enl. edn (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1981), pp. 54–5Google Scholar.

21 Among these, Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit priest in Boston, stood out for his condemnation of his Archbishop, Richard Cushing, for suggesting that non-Catholics may be saved.

22 Holy Office, ‘Letter to Cardinal Cushing’, American Ecclesiastical Review 127 (1952), pp. 312–13Google Scholar. The letter concluded with a warning that those who resist the Pope's clear teaching might ironically find their own salvation in doubt as they ‘cannot be excused from culpable ignorance’.

23 Küng has suggested that it could be better rendered as ‘(s)alvation inside the Church!’ such that the positive aspects of the axiom are accentuated. Küng, H., The Church (London: Burns & Oates, 1968), p. 318Google Scholar.

24 Knitter, P. F., ‘Roman Catholic Approaches to Other Religions’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 8 (1984), p. 54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Various factors brought about this shift, including the development of a global church, the contemporary turn to the subject, and the rebuilding of ties with non-Catholic Christians leading to development of ties with non-Christians. Fletcher, J. H., ‘Responding to Religious Differences’, in Bulman, R. F. and Parrella, F. J. (eds), From Trent to Vatican II (Oxford: OUP, 2006), pp. 271–81Google Scholar.

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27 John XXIII passed away on 3 June 1963 and this automatically suspended the Council. The next Pope swiftly decided to continue it along the same spirit. VI, Paul, ‘Opening Address of the Second Session’, in Congar, Y., Küng, H., and O’Hanlon, D. J. (eds), Council Speeches of Vatican II (London: Sheed & Ward, 1964), p. 10Google Scholar.

28 The texts of Conciliar documents can be found in Abbott and Gallagher, Documents of Vatican II. In this article, all Conciliar documents are taken from the official Vatican English website, see (accessed April 2014).

29 Alberigo, G., ‘Vatican II and its History’, Concilium 4 (2005), p. 10Google Scholar.

30 Dadosky summarises that the interpretative work of Vatican II needs both ‘micro-hermeneutics’ and ‘macro-hermeneutics’, the former referring to the analysis of authorship and historical context of the documents, and the latter to the RCC's ecclesiological self-understanding. Dadosky, J. D., ‘Towards a Fundamental Theological Re-Interpretation of Vatican II’, Heythrop Journal 49 (2008), p. 744CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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38 E.g. Sweeney continues to argue that the continuity hermeneutic is fundamentally ahistorical in character because of its failure to grant adequate attention to intra and extra church developments. Sweeney, J., ‘How should we Remember Vatican II?’, New Blackfriars 90 (2009), p. 259CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology, p. 162. The particular articles mentioned are Lumen Gentium, 16–17, Nostra Aetate, 2, and Ad Gentes, 3, 9, 11.

40 The complete text of Ecclesiam Suam can be found on (accessed April 2014), quoted as ES and article number hereafter.

41 Vilanova, E., ‘The Intersession (1963–1964)’, in Alberigo, G. and Komonchak, J. A. (eds), History of Vatican II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), vol. 3, p. 452Google Scholar.

42 Abbott and Gallagher, Documents of Vatican II, p. 660, n. 1. Subsequently renamed by John Paul II as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) in July 1988.

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47 H. de Lubac, ‘Lumen Gentium and the Fathers’, in Miller, Vatican II, pp. 157–8.

48 Y. Congar, ‘The People of God’, in Miller, Vatican II, pp. 203–4.

49 Komonchak, J. A., ‘Towards an Ecclesiology of Communion’, in Alberigo, G. and Komonchak, J. A. (eds), History of Vatican II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), vol. 4, p. 42Google Scholar; Grillmeier, A., ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’, in Vorgrimler, H. (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), vol.1, p. 150Google Scholar.

50 Becker, K. J., ‘The Church and Vatican II's “Subsistit in” Terminology’, Origins 35 (2006), p. 518Google Scholar. Sullivan concedes it was unlikely Fr Tromp had changed his mind, but argues there is ‘good evidence that it [the Doctrinal Commission] did not agree with his understanding of it’. Sullivan, F. A., ‘Quaestio Disputata’, Theological Studies 67 (2006), p. 400Google Scholar.

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53 Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology, p. 162.

54 The complete text of Gaudium et Spes can be found in (accessed April 2014), hereafter as GS and followed by article number.

55 Ratzinger has been a notable critic of GS 17 for lapsing into ‘downright Pelagian terminology’. Ratzinger, J., ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: Part I, Chapter I’, in Vorgrimler, H. (ed.), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969), vol. 5, pp. 136–8Google Scholar.

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57 The full text of Nostra Aetate is found in, (accessed 8 April 2014), hereafter, NA and article number.

58 Nicholl argues that NA could only be read in the light of LG and GS. D. Nicholl, ‘Other Religions’, in Hastings, Modern Catholicism, p. 126.

59 The SPCU was created as a Conciliar preparatory organ by John XXIII to strive for unity with non-Catholic Christians. Later, John Paul II elevated it to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity (PCPCU) in Pastor Bonus in 1988. T. F. Stransky, ‘The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity’, in Hastings, Modern Catholicism, pp. 182–3.

60 T. F. Stransky, ‘The Declaration on Non-Christian Religions’, in Miller, Vatican II, p. 337.

61 Fisher calls NA, ‘the most heatedly contested document issued by Vatican Council II’. Fisher, E. J., ‘Interpreting Nostra Aetate through Postconciliar Teaching’, International Bulletin of Missionary Research 9 (1985), p. 158CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Much of this controversy had to do with its treatment of the Jewish relationship rather than the non-Christian religions.

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