Our parish was holding an "inquiry meeting" in which parishioners could come and ask any question about Catholicism that they might have. We had been holding these meetings for a few years, and my experience in leading these sessions told me that the questions could cover a wide range of topics. But I remember one night in particular. The meeting had gone on for some time, and a woman ("Maria") had been sitting near the back, listening but not participating. Near the end, I asked if there were any more questions. Maria hesitated, then slowly raised her hand. She softly asked,
"I was wondering, do only Catholics go to heaven?"
Now this was a question I had frequently been asked, and it is always a question with personal ramifications for the inquirer. Behind it was the real question, "will my husband/wife/father/relative who is not Catholic go to heaven?" Maria in particular was anxious to hear my answer. Her eyes were filled with both hope and fear, for her husband was a Buddhist. She hoped that this person whom she so loved would spend eternity with God, but she feared that his lack of baptism and faith in Christ would deny him entrance to our heavenly home.
So what does the Catholic Church teach in regard to the eternal destination of non-Catholics?
First and foremost, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation only comes from Jesus Christ. What is meant by this is that salvation would not be possible if not for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - his mission was to open the gates of heaven in order that men and women might enjoy eternity with him. Christ himself said plainly, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Due to Original Sin, man has become separated from God, and Jesus Christ is the only "bridge" that allows one to be reconciled to the Father.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church considers itself the "sacrament of salvation" (CCC 774-775), meaning that the Church, as Christ's Body on earth, is the means through which people come to salvation in Christ. It is the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that "outside the Church there is no salvation." A common image of the Church invoked by the Fathers is that of Noah's ark. Those who were on the ark were saved from the floodwaters, but those who were not on board perished.
From these teachings, it might appear that only Catholics may go to heaven. However, we must distinguish between the ordinary means of salvation and possible extraordinary means. Throughout her history, the Church has always understood that there can be exceptions to the standard. This does not mean exceptions to the exclusivity of Christ as Savior or the Church as the instrument of his salvation. No, it means exceptions to the ways in which Christ's salvation through the Church occurs in the life of the individual. We see this most clearly in the Church's teaching on baptism.
Baptism is the means by which one is brought into the Catholic Church, and thus baptism is tied directly to salvation: "baptism is necessary for salvation" (CCC 1257, cf. John 3:5). But the Church has always recognized that there are three types of baptism: (1) regular, sacramental water baptism; (2) baptism by blood, meaning martyrdom for Christ; and (3) baptism of desire, which means that one desires to be baptized but is unable to do so (cf. CCC 1258-1260).
What this means is that there may have been some throughout history and today that have desired, either explicitly or implicitly, to be baptized. For example, if an adult convert dies driving to the Easter Vigil to be baptized, would he be eligible for salvation? Of course: his explicit desire to be baptized is honored by God. What if someone does not know about Catholicism - or is not properly formed in that knowledge - but sincerely desires to follow God as best he or she knows how? It is possible that this constitutes an implicit desire for baptism, and thus is a means to salvation. "Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity" (CCC 1260, emphasis in original).
As the Catechism states, "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments." (CCC 1257). Thus although we are bound to follow the commands of Christ to be baptized if we know and understand these commands, God is not bound to damn those who, through no fault of their own, do not know and understand these commands.
Does this mean that we should not encourage others to become Catholic? Absolutely not - we as Catholics should continue in the work of evangelization. We know in full confidence that being a Catholic and following Christ in the Catholic Church is a sure path to salvation; thus, we should desire that all people come to join Christ's Church here on earth. Christ himself commanded us to preach the good news to all nations (cf. Matthew 28:19-20), and no Catholic is exempt from this commission. Thus, to be Catholic means to be an evangelizer.
While talking to Maria, I found that her husband would often go to our parish's Eucharistic Adoration chapel to meditate while she went to daily Mass. He would tell her that "there is a peaceful presence there." I told her to continue to pray for her husband and evangelize him, knowing that the Presence he encounters in that chapel desires his salvation even more than she does. She and all of us who pray for loved ones who are not Catholic should do so with hope in God's mercy and love.