Do all non-Catholics go to Hell? It's a question that has been the subject of many heated conversations.
But there is a deeper question here, because there is a deeper principle involved. The deeper principle beyond being a “card-carrying, on the parish rolls” Catholic is: How does one actually attain salvation? What is necessary for salvation? What is necessary to get to Heaven? That is the more fundamental question here, the foundation from which springs the further question about being in the Catholic Church.
The Church teaches that one must be in a state of grace upon death to achieve salvation. And a person can only be in either a state of grace or a state of mortal sin. If a person dies in a state of unrepented mortal sin, he descends immediately and directly into Hell for all eternity, where he suffers the tortures of his demonic masters — but is most tortured from his everlasting separation from God, whom he knows he was created to be with and yet detests at the same time.
So the primary question is: How does a person achieve a state of grace? A state of grace is the state where the life of the Blessed Trinity is present in the soul. Sanctifying grace comes to the soul for the first moment in baptism and helps to sustain the supernatural virtues: the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. A man dying without these virtues dies without God. He is owned by Hell.
It is impossible to possess supernatural hope and supernatural charity in combination with supernatural faith without sanctifying grace. Mortal sin (mortal coming from the Latin morte, “death”) means the supernatural life of the soul is now gone. The soul is dead spiritually. It still for a while possesses its natural aspect of giving life to the body, animating the flesh—but when the end comes, not only is the body dead, but the soul remains in a perpetual state of death: the Second Death of which the Scriptures speak. Its now everlasting pain is to have to endure death when it was created for divine life.
How to avoid this worst of all realities is to die not in a state of deadly sin, but in a state of life—divine life. Our Blessed Lord points out the way most vividly and lovingly: “If you love Me you will keep My commandments, and My Father and I will come to you and We will make Our home in you” (John 14:15). This is the most direct way to understand what is meant by a state of grace — that the Holy Trinity takes up residence in our souls. God lives in us; we are in a perpetual state of possessing divine grace — divine life.
The only thing that can alter this most precious of all realities is to commit mortal sin. When that happens, God immediately flees, for He cannot abide sin. It is an abomination to Him. Purity cannot abide that which is impure.
So the key to the question “Is there salvation outside the Church?” is to first understand that the Church’s role is to assist souls in attaining and maintaining a state of grace. This is the sole purpose for the sacraments: to infuse supernatural grace into the soul, visible signs instituted by Our Lord for the imparting of grace.
Now true, God’s grace is not bound by the sacraments. He can certainly operate outside of them. He did in such manifest cases as the conversion of St. Paul, for example. Saul received a singular grace of conversion. And while that grace was not mediated through a formal sacrament, it nevertheless did come through the Church—as all graces do. It was after all the Church that was praying non-stop for relief from the murderous Saul. In answer to the prayer of the Church about Saul, God sent them Paul.
The purpose of the Church in the grand scheme is to create saints, to make us holy. As St. Peter tells us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of His own” (1 Peter 2:9). When he wrote his first letter, the first Pope was speaking to the first Catholics. We Catholics sometimes forget this truth, owing to the Protestant co-opting of the Scriptures as though they belonged to them. They most certainly do not. They never have.
The Bible, the canon of Scripture is Catholic, period. So the formula laid out for us in Scripture has specific and singular reference to those souls who are alive within the body of Christ—His Catholic Church. When Catholic souls plunge into spiritual death through committing mortal sin, they have a sacramental remedy to be resurrected: the sacrament of confession.
But when a non-Catholic soul, even one baptized in some Protestant denomination, falls into mortal sin, what remedy does it possess? Short of an act of perfect contrition prior to death, nothing. Such a man dies in his mortal sin.
The debate over salvation outside the church is kind of a moot question then, as it’s generally argued. The example case is always brought up: Does the “good” Protestant husband and father go to Hell because he wasn’t Catholic?
That question is framed totally incorrectly. It should not be asked, “Will he go to Heaven if he wasn’t Catholic?” but, “Was he in a state of grace—and if he wasn’t Catholic, how was it possible for him to be in a state of grace?” Now, we can never know with any certitude, of course, the disposition of any particular soul; that is completely in the realm of Our Lord as Judge. But in the hypothetical discussions people engage in, we can ask these questions. We speak in hypotheticals because principles of understanding fall from them.
And the singular principle that falls from all of this is: It is much more difficult to be saved if you are not a Catholic with access to the sacraments to restore you to and keep you in a state of grace. Faithful sacrament-frequenting Catholics are much more likely to be saved than anyone else because such a man is much more likely to die in a state of grace—which is necessary to be saved.
This is the whole point of evangelizing: to help people understand the perilous risk to which they are exposing their souls if they do not become Catholic and faithfully receive the sacraments given to us by Our Lord Himself for our salvation.
All salvation comes through the Catholic Church, and outside of Her there is no salvation.