What does the Catholic Church teach about how a person gets to Heaven?
Faith alone will not save a person. To attain salvation, a person must, in response to God’s grace, fulfill the following: believe in God, put his faith in Jesus, repent of his sins, be baptized, remain within the fold of the Church, hope in God, persevere in charity, and finally, die in a state of grace.
In his new book, What Must I Do to Be Saved?, Marcus Grodi describes an increasingly common view of salvation among Christians – one that is largely individualistic: “They believe that all that is necessary for salvation is for any individual – apart from any connection to any institutional church – to… fall on his knees, pray some form of “sinner’s prayer,” and, by the work of grace on his heart and mind, accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. At that moment in eternity, the person is then saved. If the person never becomes a member of a church – if he is never baptized, never receives any sacraments, practices any form of liturgy, submits to any leadership, or believes any list of dogma – it doesn’t matter eternally: he has accepted Jesus, and is saved” (Grodi, 3-4).
However, according to Scripture, Jesus founded a Church (Matthew 16:18), instituted rituals (Matthew 28:19, Matthew 26:26-29, etc.), condemned false doctrines (Matthew 22:29), and included his Apostles in his work of applying grace to others (John 20:22-23, Matthew 16:19, etc.).
Grodi explains that the first Protestants didn’t have such an individualistic view of salvation: “Even though the sixteenth-century Reformers assumed that a person needed to belong to some church, hold to some creed, gather for worship, follow their leaders, celebrate at least two sacraments (Baptism and communion), and live by some set of rules, yet, the resultant divided denominational streams differ to such extent that the composite conclusion in this age of tolerance, at least among Evangelicals, is that all that is necessary for salvation is ‘Jesus and me’” (Grodi, 4). In the rest of What Must I Do to Be Saved?, Grodi – himself a former evangelical Protestant pastor and convert to Catholicism – explains how the individualistic view of salvation doesn’t square with Scripture. In particular, he points out how it requires one to see the New Testament as being in discontinuity with the Old Testament, rather than the New Testament as the fulfillment of what was foreshadowed in the Old Testament (Grodi, 46; Matthew 5:17).
Based on Scripture and Tradition, the Catholic Church teaches that in order to attain salvation, a person must, in response to God’s grace, fulfill the following: believe in God, put his faith in Jesus, repent of his sins, be baptized, remain within the fold of the Church, hope in God, persevere in charity, and finally, die in a state of grace.
In response to God’s grace
Due to original sin, humans are incapable of turning to God or attaining salvation without divine help. A person needs God’s grace, even for his initial turn to God in faith. In response to the heresy of Pelagianism (which claimed that grace was not necessary but only helpful in the Christian life), in the 6th century, the “Second Synod of Orange (can. v) decreed that prevenient grace is absolutely necessary to the infidel not only for faith itself, but also for the very beginning of faith” (Pohle).
One must believe in God
To be saved, a person must believe in God: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrew 11:6). If a person lacks an explicit belief in God without blame on their part, God will not deny them the necessary helps of salvation: “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” (LG, 16).
One must put his faith in Jesus
“Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:3). “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Faith in any other name is futile: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
What of those who have never heard out of no fault of their own? “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (LG 16).
One must repent of his sins
Sins are actions that are contrary to the very nature of God, who is love (1 John 4:8). If one wants to be friends with God and live in relationship with him for all eternity in heaven, one must turn away from his sins and seek to live a holy life in response to God’s grace. Scripture repeatedly call us to repentance (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 11:20; Mark 1:15, 6:12; Luke 5:32, 13:3; Acts 2:38, et al.).
One must be baptized
Jesus explicitly teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). That baptism is necessary for salvation is confirmed in other verses as well (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, et al.).
The reason for this is that whosoever dies in a state of original sin suffers condemnation (Florence, Session 6), and the only means for removing original sin is baptism, or having the desire for baptism (Trent, Session 6, Ch. 4).
One must remain within the fold of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church, which is the Body of Christ, is necessary for salvation, and a person becomes a member of the Catholic Church through baptism. To go to Heaven, a person must remain within the fold of the Catholic Church, or at least not intentionally separate oneself from her: “Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (LG, 14).
One must hope in God
In response to God’s grace, the Christian must place all his hope in God: “For in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8.24).
Why does the Christian need hope? “According to the Christian faith, ‘redemption’ – salvation – is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey” (SS, 1).
One must persevere in charity
A person must live a life of love for God and neighbor: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. 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” (LG 14).
Loving God means living a holy life: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3).
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us of the preeminence of love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.[…] So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13).
One must die in a ‘state of grace’
When a person doesn’t act out of love, he sins. There are two kinds of sin in terms of gravity, with two different effects: mortal sin and venial sin. A mortal sin is any sin that has three characteristics: it concerns a grave matter (something serious), the person had full intentionality (did it on purpose), and the person had full knowledge (knew it was wrong). A venial sin, on the other hand, is any sin that doesn’t meet all three of those criteria (CCC 1855, 1857).
While a venial sin weakens one’s relationship with God, a mortal sin cuts one off from God and his Church. Such a person is said to be in a ‘state of mortal sin’, lacking the grace of friendship with God. Any person who dies in such a state immediately descends to hell (CCC 1037).
To repair one’s relationship with God after committing a mortal sin, a person must repent of their sins and receive God’s grace of forgiveness sacramentally, or at least have the desire to do so. If a person has not been baptized, he must be baptized, as this is required for the removal of original sin. If a person has already been baptized, the person must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, in which they confess their sins to a priest and receive absolution in the name of Christ (John 20:22-23). Indeed, “this sacrament of Penance is, for those who have fallen after baptism, necessary unto salvation; as baptism itself is for those who have not as yet been regenerated” (Trent, Session 14, Ch. 2). The person is then returned to a ‘state of grace’. To go to heaven, a person must die in a ‘state of grace’ (CCC 1861).
Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm
Council of Trent (Trent), http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent.html Council of Florence (Florence) http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum17.htm
Grodi, Marcus. What Must I Do to be Saved? CHResources, Zanesville, OH: 2012.
Lumen Gentium (LG), Vatican II Council http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html
Pohle, Joseph. "Actual Grace." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 13 Dec. 2012 .
Spe Salvi (SS), Pope Benedict XVI http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV)