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No Salvation Outside Ascension Thursday

“Forty Days” After His Resurrection

Falling as it does between the great feasts of Easter and Pentecost, Ascension Thursday gets short shrift from modern Christians. Although it remains an unmoved (usually) Holy Day of Obligation for Roman Catholics (and, to state the obvious, the only one of such days that can never fall on a Sunday), Mass attendance for the feast is pretty dismal, at least in this writer’s experience. And the feast-day homilies can be pretty dismal, too.

This neglect is most unfortunate, to say the least, inasmuch as the Ascension of Jesus Christ is the very “engine of the economy” of salvation, if one may appropriate an overused metaphor from the world of economics.[1]

Here is why the Ascension is so important. Since the Ascension of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Gates of Heaven, closed to humanity at the Fall, have been open to receive the souls of those who have been summoned by the Gospel, experienced the grace of baptism, and have persisted in faith and friendship with God until the end.[2] These are the souls that have been conformed to Christ crucified and participate in His Mystical Body. It is in the capacity of a member of the Body of Christ—and in that capacity only—that one may enter into the court of Heaven.[3] Be one with the murdered Messiah when God takes you from this life, and you are all set!

This doctrine is a perennial teaching of the Church, one that is aptly summarized by the Latin phrase “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” and sometimes referred to by the acronym “EENS.” My purpose in this essay is to unpack this quintessential Catholic doctrine and to offer some thoughts, speculations, and educated guesses of my own regarding its implications.

Basic Catholic Doctrine

Before I undertake the main discussion, it would be useful to review a few basic concepts. First, it must be remembered that the Sacraments of the new dispensation bring about their effects ex opere operato and that the primary Sacrament of initiation, baptism, confers on all who receive it the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.[4] Since all the faithful by definition must have “heard” the Gospel, one should have no difficulty in affirming that all the baptized, even infants and those without the use of reason, have been evangelized.[5]

EENS is a dogma to which all Catholics in good conscience must assent. It makes a cameo appearance in the 1992 Catechism (paragraphs 846-848) and is reinforced at key moments in the 2005 Catechism Compendium (paragraph 261, for example). If you hear a priest, bishop, or other cleric deny the dogma, implicitly or explicitly (and mortifying examples of each are easy to find), stop your ears and head for the exit. Go someplace where you will hear the Gospel preached.

The “hearing of the Gospel” cannot be over-emphasized. As St. Paul insists, faith comes by hearing.[6] It would be manifestly wrong to state that all who hear the Gospel have the Faith, but they all certainly do have the “faith problem”—the ineluctable dilemma regarding whether one will take the path to Calvary or not. And the path to Calvary is the only path to Heaven. Experiencing the “faith problem” with an open heart and an engaged mind may, in some mysterious way, magnetize the soul so that it attracts shards of grace.[7]

It must also be remembered that the faithful are not insulated from difficulties by entry into the Church. Some facile scoffers say that the faith is a device by which the weak and fearful may avoid or deny the difficulties of human existence, such as human suffering or mortality—not so, at least not so for the orthodox Christian. The opposite is in fact the case.

For the faithful in this world (generally speaking), the practical and intellectual difficulties of the human condition are actually enhanced by joining the Christian ranks—every newly inducted soldier has a tough time adjusting—even though the heart should be eased at the same time. Try saying grace in a New York City restaurant or taking issue with the secular biases of your professors. The way of the Cross is hard and requires courage and fortitude. The faith particularly challenges the squeamish and the sentimental, and this is particularly true of many articles of the faith, such as EENS. In sum, the true faith is heroic. It is both an expedition into parts unknown and a quest that takes us home.

Baptism of Desire

Yet EENS need not lead one to view the economy of salvation as some sinister guillotine of souls. What about “baptism of desire?” Does it accommodate the unevangelized? EENS does not require that a “pagan” person dying after the Ascension must miss Heaven.[8] Incidentally, this was the conclusion of the Jesuit Suárez and a number of theologians who grappled with the very troubling spiritual demographics presented to them by the Columbian discovery of America.[9]

Almost a millennium and a half passed before the Gospel reached the American shore. The theologians debated the question of whether it might or must be possible to form the link with Christ through grace and prayer,[10] the gift of reason, and resort to whatever rudiments of positive Divine revelation are available to those who have not heard the Gospel.[11]

Thus, the “attaining” of the status of a friend of God in the apparent absence of the Gospel is to be thought of as possible, although it would be the exception that proves the rule.[12] I imagine that, with respect to such exceptions, some sort of unproductive “deferral” of the actual entry into Heaven must be involved.[13] These exceptions are “dilati,” in my understanding. Perhaps the right term here is something akin to “Baptism of the Dilati” rather than “Baptism of Desire.”

Anticipatory Dispensations

This concept has a precedent. The inhabitants of the limbus patrum were liberated at Christ’s descent into Hell, but they were not admitted to Heaven until just over forty (earthly) days had passed, at the Ascension. Furthermore, no less of an authority than Dante in the Paradiso advises that the Emperor Trajan, who had been briefed at some level about Christianity, spent about 450 years in post-Ascension limbo, being released only after the prayers of Gregory the Great reanimated him so that he could receive formal baptism at the hands of the Pope himself.[14]

I should note that I do not include catechumens or the illuminandi within this category of dilati. From the earliest times, the Church has deemed these believers to be recipients of a baptism of desire akin to that of the Centurion Cornelius and his family, who were indeed baptized with water but after the confirmation of the Spirit.[15] Nor would I include any current members of an anticipatory dispensation (if any there be) among the dilati.[16] That’s the “good news,” so to speak. On the other hand, I also imagine and fear that, if one truly has heard the Gospel but has not been moved towards the baptismal font, one’s soul remains in deadly jeopardy.[17] Lastly, I cannot imagine how a person who fully and finally abandons the Gospel after baptism can sustain any hope of Heaven.[18] Stalin the former seminarian comes to mind.

There is a strain of Christian thought that deems any anticipatory dispensation irrelevant or annulled as of some critical moment in salvation history (e.g., Pentecost, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, the close of the Apostolic Age, etc.).[19] While I would assert and agree that the hearing of the Gospel essentially launches the hearer forward and beyond “membership” in any anticipatory dispensation,[20] it is not so clear to me that this dislocating feature of the Gospel has succeeded in reducing these dispensations to null sets. For example, if the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel were to be found, completely unevangelized, in a remote valley in Tibet, I would surmise that circumcision (for males) would still function as an effective “ceremony of innocence.”[21] Residual members of such a dispensation probably would not be dilati, although the question is a difficult one.[22]

Multiple Covenants

It is this “launching forward” feature that distinguishes the new, perfect, and permanent covenant from the covenant of circumcision. The compact with the Jewish people was not universal in the way that the antique covenant with the Patriarchs Adam and Noah was and it had a special purpose—it was an antidote to the introduction into the world of the idolatry represented by the idol-maker Terah, who was the great great grandson of Peleg, who was the world divider and, in my estimation, the chief architect of the Babel project. The circumcision of the House of Jacob called into service from among the nations an army that would bear the battle against the enemy until the Messiah was to come.

While this battle proceeded, with frequent betrayals and subsequent returns to duty, many universally true things of God were revealed to the Jewish people—the Ten Commandments, for example. And while the battle against idolatry continued, we may assume that the universal covenant of Noah persisted.[23] A member of that antique dispensation could read the Torah of Moses, decline for whatever reason to seek adoption into the Jewish family, take the name of the Lord God in vain, and yet break no law applicable to him or her. He or she would be an ingrate and possibly a sinner, but not a culpable violator of the Law. Nothing about the reading the Torah of Moses dislodged his or her relationship with God. But when the same member of the antique dispensation hears the Gospel, that is another matter entirely.[24]

Putting this Doctrine into Practice

Now that we have reviewed the doctrine, it might be useful to turn to praxis. As Lenin famously said, what is to be done?

For the man or woman who has received baptism, the main object of human life must be the attaining, maintaining, nurturing, and strengthening of friendship with God and, if you are a family man or woman, doing all you can to bring the members of the family to do the same in their own lives and families. How does one foster this friendship? The usual ways work just fine in this regard. When an old friend invites you to His house, where you will find a banquet prepared for you, you ought not to send regrets.

When that friend offers you remarkable gifts, you should humbly accept them and attempt to reciprocate with whatever you can offer of your miserable self. Good manners if nothing more would require this. And what are these gifts your friend offers? They are the Sacraments, most especially the Mass, but also the entire sacramental framework. And the gifts are to be found in God’s house, which is the Church built on the rock of Peter by Christ himself. It should trouble us when rightly respected but misguided communities, such as the Quakers and the Salvation Army, positively refuse the foundational Sacrament of baptism into the Body of Christ. Why stand aloof? No sacramental grace, no glory.

And what is the Church’s duty? To proclaim to the world that the promised Messiah has come in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, and Son of Mary, that He will come in person and in regal state to us again, and that it is the duty of every human being to enlist in the Church Militant and be nourished by the Sacraments entrusted to Peter and his successors and to announce all the truths of the Faith, including the dogmatic fact that outside the Church there is no salvation.[25] This is the whole duty of the entire Church, from the Vicar of Christ down to the least of the laity. Of course, for the laity, the most common form of preaching is by example of life.

Enter the Real Conflict

The world is a battleground between two armies, the defending srmy of the usurper, the prince of this world—the legions of “OS,” standing for “Original Sin” and “Old Scratch,” and the invading royal army of the baptized. When you encounter an unbaptized person, it is well to recall that such a person is in the other military camp, albeit perhaps as a prisoner of war. All of us are born in the enemy camp. Somewhere, Chesterton remarks that, in the upper realm, Hell rebelled against Heaven while, in our realm, Heaven rebels against Hell. As usual, he has it exactly right.

One must also consider the duty of the state. That duty is to radically distinguish between civil intolerance and religious intolerance. The state may oblige all citizens to tolerate the opinions of some or all others, to whatever degree it deems the same to be desirable.[26] But it must never oblige the one true faith to forego its claim to exclusive divine approbation or assume that it should forego that claim as a condition to social or legal acceptability.[27] It must never suppress the preaching of EENS or seek to expel, stigmatize, or punish those who preach it.

It is a common error of the moderns to think that all “unbad” persons make it into the court of Heaven, assuming, of course, that such persons more or less exert themselves to be polite and pleasant, observe basic etiquette and hygiene, and lead relatively quiet lives. Yet this is clearly just mental laziness and sentimentality, if not outright Pelagianism. The indifferent Aztec dies unregenerate, and the same is true for the conscientious Quaker. As far as human understanding can reach, these stereotypes seem to be bound for the infernal regions, and, in charity, they ought immediately to be so informed.[28]

Clarence Day, Sr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi were faced with the identical problem. Broadway and Hollywood advise us that Mr. Day’s problem was resolved thanks to his resolute Episcopalian wife.[29] As to Gandhi, we can only hope that he turned to the Gospel when the Hindu fanatic’s bullets bit into his emaciated body.

I might add a personal note at this point. I usually find my cultural and political sympathies (admittedly, these are biases) are more in line with earnest pagans than they are with fervent Protestants. I am inclined to take tea with the Ba’hai before the Baptist. In addition, I have been duly impressed with the undaunted spirit of most Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the spiritual situation of the poor misguided Baptist is wholly different from, and infinitely better than, that of the unbaptized. On the other hand, the Baptist can be seen as a spiritual soldier that has gone AWOL.

The main point is that, while the Feast of the Ascension looks upward, it also reminds us that we must stay anchored in the ancient apostolic faith, which surveys the field of battle with a cool eye and a burning heart. It may well be acceptable to pursue a wary ecumenism and hope that everything that converges will somehow, someday, rise. But a global spiritual convergence marked by tolerance of error and abolition of criteria is not what Jesus spoke about as He departed. Rather, he charged: “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Whyso? Because outside the Church there is no salvation.


It may be noted that God’s arrangement with Adam and Eve was in one sense quite narrow—a party of perhaps seven or eight persons, assuming Abel also had a sister-wife. The arrangement with Noah was quite broad. Noah and his descendants (again, eight humans in the first generation) were included in the arrangement, as were all the creatures that came out of the ark. This is the antique Patriarchal dispensation.

During the life of Abraham, the covenant is refined, excluding the Ishmaelites and Keturahites by the time of Jacob and his twelve sons. Thereafter, the reaffirmation through Moses effected and brought into existence the chastened nation that God chose as His weapon against idolatry. The divine “deals” with David and Phineas were limited to those figures and their descendants. They were aspects of the Judaic dispensation. At the end of the old pre-Christian world, this remnant self-identified as the tribe of Judah.

The two genealogies of Jesus Christ sometimes puzzle even the scholars, but the answer is quite simple. By the Matthean list, Christ establishes His dominion over the Judaic anticipatory dispensation (from Abraham forward). By the Lucan list, Christ establishes His dominion over the patriarchal anticipatory dispensation (from Adam forward). He is “Alpha” that precedes Adam and Abraham as well as the Omega that follows you and me.

For me, the resounding echoes in the Old Testament and even at the Nativity make this quite clear. The quasi-patriarchal Magi from the east (Matthew) versus the shepherds from the Judean hills to the west (Luke), both at the manger; the priest Melchizedeck and patriarch Enoch versus the priest Aaron and the tishbite Elijah; the Ark of Noah versus the Ark of the Covenant, etc.


[1] Mechanical metaphors seem to appeal to theologians writing about the Ascension. For instance, in the article “The Ascension of Christ” in volume I of A Catholic Dictionary of Theology, one finds the following sentence at page 165: “Thus while the passion of Christ merited our salvation, the Ascension sets going the machinery that is to bring this about.” It may also be noted that, while the Koran repudiates the Resurrection of Christ, it celebrates His Ascension.

[2] Scripture seems to confirm that two Old Testament figures, Enoch and Elijah, were admitted body and soul into “Heaven” by particular divine privilege. I would say they reached the gates, but did not proceed past until the Ascension. In addition, Scripture and Tradition would seem to be also clear that the souls of the Holy Innocents and the soul of the Good Thief likely were admitted to a “paradise” prior to the Ascension, probably as anticipatory forerunners and representatives of those who undergo the baptism of blood and the baptism of desire, respectively. Perhaps Dismas joined Christ on the great raid into the limbus patrum. And since Jesus himself while on earth taught that no human being had been to Heaven but Him, it seems that we may have to postulate a temporary “limbus” of Heaven (pending the Ascension). In addition, it would seem odd to admit the bodies of Enoch and Elijah to Heaven before that of Our Lord’s mother. In any event, these two patriarchs and, of course, our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother, now reside in Heaven body and soul. Among other things, the presence of four bodies in Heaven confirms that Heaven is not simply a “state of being,” but must also be a place in which the spatial extension of the body presents no contradiction.

[3] Of course, the “Ascension” in an important sense truly begins where and when its reciprocal counterpart, the Descent into Hell, concludes. After Jesus’s visit to the limbus patrum, the souls therein must have abided there for the brief period between Holy Saturday and the Ascension.

[4] Of course, the effects of a Sacrament can be influenced by the disposition of a recipient who places an obstacle in the channel of grace.

[5] Infants and those never having had the use of reason are incapable of “baptism of desire.” Recent theological suggestions to the contrary are misguided exercises in sentimentality. Editor’s note: see the review of M. Lofton, “Is My Baby in Hell?” for further investigations on this sententiam. See also the recent work of our contributing editor, Eric Sammons, for an analysis of this doctrine in Magisterial words and needs in the modern period.

[6] Romans, 10:17.

[7] Ignorance, of whatever sort, saves none since justification comes from presence of faith not the absence of knowledge (ignorance).

[8] My definition of “pagan” might be a little different than the traditional one. I would hesitate to include Zoroastrians in this category, for reasons explained infra. Somewhere, C.S. Lewis referred to Zoroastrianism as his favorite pagan religion. Of course, there are circumcised (Edom, Ishmaelites and the Keturahites, Ammon, Moab) and uncircumcised pagans. In the first volume of Warren Carroll’s excellent History of Christendom, the author indulges in some fascinating speculation about possible cross-pollination between Tobias and Zoroaster. Near to the mark but too late, I think. The cross-pollination likely happened earlier, with the descendants of Joktan engaging with the Iranian prophet’s circle. Or maybe both happened.

[9] I would assert that some primal rudiments of positive revelation potentially are made available to each and every human soul. Many theologians have come to the conclusion that some divine revelation is afforded to every soul (e.g., Bibliander). Certain types of paganism, such as that of classical Greece or Rome, seem to be predisposed to embrace positive divine revelation, which probably accounts for the vigor with which a number of the “divine” Caesars attempted to suppress the Faith. Heresies such as Islam probably do not qualify as pure paganism, although certain clear pagan elements remain (e.g., the Kaaba). Idolatry is contrary to the natural law, although God first “legislated” against idolatry in the Decalogue.

[10] God gives to all the grace sufficient for prayer, as St. Alphonsus Ligouri reminds us. It has occurred to me that an unbaptized person who blamelessly encounters a Sacrament, such as consumption of the consecrated species must be especially inclined to this grace.

[11] This is what Bl. Piux IX was getting at in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore when he implied that an unevangelized person could, through grace, be conformed to Christ without formally joining the Church, such a person living an honest life and having committed no “deliberate” sin. I would quibble with Pio Nono by saying that commission of the sort of sin he is referring to would disqualify only if unrepented, and, of course, I postulate in this essay that some sort of “deferral” of access to the Heavenly Court must be involved. Note that the Pontiff never states that the souls of these fortunate few are entitled to immediately enter the court of Heaven at death. Finally, idolatry is always and everywhere a sin.

[12] Candidates for friendship with God from the classical world who suggest themselves would be Akenhaten, Cyrus the Great (called “Messiah” in Isaiah and who may, in any event, have followed the precepts of Zoroaster), Socrates (the condemned “atheist”), and Heraclitus (the “weeping philosopher”). None of these seem to have been pagan idolaters and yet they could be seen as friends of God in the absence of the Gospel. Many, if not all, were accused of “atheism.” Justin Martyr identifies Socrates and Heraclitus, both of whom were at least partially responsible for their own deaths, as “Christians before Christ.”

[13] Cardinal Billot speculated along these lines. It is interesting to note that Pope John XXII apparently thought that even Christians dying in a state of grace would experience some sort of deferral of the entry into Heaven. In moving from purgatory to the limbus patrem, technically a precinct of Hell, it may be noted that the main direction of the economy of salvation is temporarily reversed.

[14] It is interesting to note that Dante encounters two other pagans on his journey, the Trojan Ripheus in Paradise and the suicide Cato in Purgatory.

[15] In the case of the Cornelians, the Holy Ghost descended upon the Centurion’s house before baptism of water was administered. Any unbaptized followers of Christ in the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost enjoyed the status of catechumens and/or illuminandi. Of course, there were martyrs who experienced the baptism of blood even before or without becoming catechumens, such as the children of Christians who died in persecutions before a baptism of water.

[16] The Old Testament really recounts two anticipatory dispensations, or, if you will, two iterations of the pre-incarnation dispensation. The original antique dispensation is that associated with the “Noahite” era and this is followed by the dispensation of the circumcision; one universal and patriarchal and one particular and Judaic. See the note appended to the main body of this essay.

[17] Those so moved inwardly may be thought of as “informal” catechumens.

[18] I concur with Kierkegaard, in his Sickness unto Death, that knowing rejection of the faith is the quintessential mortal sin. Particularly unfortunate are those cases in which a sect purports to maintain the Gospel but repudiates it in every material respect, such as the “Latter Day Saints” do. Incidentally, Lamech of the Cainites was the first polygamist.

[19] Aquinas concluded that the ceremonies of Israel ceased to have any spiritual effect at Pentecost, but that resort to them only became sinful after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.

[20] For a member of such a dispensation, hearing the Gospel both “raises” and “razes” the shelter offered through that dispensation. There is a destabilization, if not a rupture of sorts. The Word “prunes” the hearer, as Jesus says (John 15:3). This is the correct translation of the Greek, captured in both the New American bible and the Jerusalem bible. For a person that is a member of an anticipatory dispensation, the hearing is a summons, the initiation of a process, and the establishment of what the lawyers might call “personal jurisdiction” by the Lord over the soul. For a pagan, the hearing is a judgment, with the simultaneous offer of pardon. If I may be permitted a pun, the Word puts down a period for the member of an anticipatory dispensation and it imposes a sentence for the pagan. If the hearer lacks the physical ability to ask for the Sacrament of baptism yet has faith, one must assume that baptism of desire operates.

[21] Similarly, if one were to locate a remnant of unevangelized Noahites, their rites (and the old Melchizedek priesthood) would continue to have effect. They probably would speak some form of Old Persian, but they also would have access to the language of Eden, if I and the Ethiopians are correct in presuming that the Joktanites demurred from participating in the Babel project. It is interesting to note that, in the early days of Islam, a segment of the Muslim faithful resisted the idea of looking to Ishmael as a progenitor, favoring Joktan instead. It is likely that this resistance was founded on the idea that all descendants of Peleg were idolators except for the house of Jacob. On a side note, I should like to think that Melchizedek took Iscah as his wife, uniting two of the more mysterious figures in early Genesis.

[22] The ceremony of innocence or admission for Hebrew males after Abraham was, of course, circumcision. What the ceremony or ceremonies for males and females before Abraham may have been is not revealed to us by Scripture or Tradition. It would appear that the ceremonies of admission may have functioned ex opere operato, unlike the ceremonies of contrition (e.g., Yom Kippur rites). If so, then would the pagan grandsons of Lot have access to the limbus patrum by virtue of the circumcision, at least until they committed a deliberate sin of some sort? A question for another day, perhaps.

[23] The question of whether unevangelized Noahites exist today is interesting. Paragraph 56 of the Catechism issued under the auspices of Saint John Paul II reminds us that the universal covenant with Noah remains in force until the universal proclamation of the Gospel.

[24] Although I see no reason to assume that evangelization of such a person would sever his or her access to the universal language of Eden.

[25] The Church as Mystical Body of Christ is inaugurated at the Ascension, which marks the establishment of the Church Triumphant. The Church Militant is in place at Pentecost, occurring ten days later. Finally, the Church Suffering is in place no later than the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. My guess is that this unfortunate pair had a vision of judgment as they confronted St. Peter, with the usual results. This pair represents the Adam and Eve of post-Redemption Purgatory. Perhaps the Church might find room in its calendar someday for a recollection of this event—perhaps ten days after Pentecost Sunday?

[26] If a Catholic monarchy is not at the head of the State, the modern State often disclaims any responsibility for the spiritual welfare of its citizens or any duty to foster true worship. This is not correct. Any state owes to God, the source of its authority, proper deference.

[27] It is interesting to note that Rousseau, in his Social Contract, concludes the work by asserting that adherence to EENS is the one and only unforgivable civic sin.

[28] Of course, in Hell, as in The Mikado, the punishment fits the crime, and a benevolent Salvation Army Major who declines baptism would probably not be lodged in the neighborhood of the leader of the thug cult. Residents of Hell all “have” the faith in the sense that they are in full possession of the truth, and yet they serve the king of lies.

[29] Life with Father is a wonderful movie that I highly recommend! The stories of Clarence Day, Jr. are neglected classics of domestic comedy.

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