That was so only before Vatican II, which took it out of the footnotes, as it were, and put it in the main text in bold print. There was no change in doctrine, however; only in emphasis. As noted earlier, it stated that “those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”34 This includes Jews, Muslims, and even sincere atheists. So, what was previously whispered before was said here in a clear voice.

What the Claim to Being the True Church Does Mean

Clearly, there has been a continual claim of some in the church, at least from the time of Cyprian and later by Augustine that “there is no salvation outside the Church.” This claim was later made dogma by ecumenical councils beginning with the Fourth Lateran Council on through Vatican II.

In addition, their claim to being the only true church was granted by divine right, given to Peter by Christ and passed on by apostolic succession to the present pope. So it should come as no surprise that the reigning pope declares, “This Church, constituted and organized in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” The rest of professing Christianity is, at best, not a true church in “the proper sense.” There are many “ecclesial communities”35 but not true churches. Such communities are in fact gravely “defective” churches since they cannot trace their lineage to Saint Peter, the first pope. So says Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Benedict’s claims are not new. The Fourth Lateran Council accepted these claims as ecumenical, as did Trent and Vatican I and II. Also, in 1302 Pope Boniface VIII made a similar pronouncement: “We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Rome’s Claim Means That in the Roman Church Alone, Christian Truth Abides in Its Full and Proper Expression

While Rome admits that some truth can be found outside the Roman Church,36 the fullness of truth is only found within it and by “full communion” with it.37 According to Roman Catholicism, “The fullness of grace and truth . . . Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church.”38

Rome’s Claim Means the Roman Catholic Church Alone Contains the Fullness of Salvation

The claim that salvation is found only in the Roman Catholic Church means that “where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church. In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him ‘the fullness of the means of salvation.’”39 Again, “the church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation.”40 Since salvation is mediated through the sacraments, it means that only the Roman Catholic Church is the repository for all the sacraments handed down by Christ to Peter and on to the present pope by apostolic succession.

Rome’s Claim Means Non-Catholic Churches Are Not True Churches

With the exception of Eastern Orthodox churches, both Vatican II and the recent Catechism reserve the word church for the true church whose visible head is in Rome. The other Christian groups are called “separated churches”41 and “ecclesial communities.”42 Indeed, it is the church at Rome alone to which Christ referred when he said “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18 ESV). The Catechism of the Catholic Church says clearly that “all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior’s promise, the gates of hell have never prevailed against her.”43 Thus, all non-Catholic Christians who have been properly baptized by water in the name of the Trinity, “although imperfect, [are in] communion with the Catholic Church.” But “with the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound ‘that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist.’”44