First, it’s important to have in front of us the statements in question, so that we can analyze them together. Here is what the Council of Florence said on salvation outside the Church, from the "Bull of Union with the Copts":
It firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.The Second Vatican Council speaks of salvation outside the Church in Lumen Gentium, nos. 14 and 16. Here are the pertinent sections from those two articles:
14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. 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 (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) 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. [. . .]Having the documents before us, we could say that the Council of Florence provides a strict expression of the salvific necessity of the Church, whereas Lumen Gentium provides a broader expression. I think there is a way to reconcile the two.
16. [. . .] 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. 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. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. [. . .]
First of all, we have to remember that this "Bull of Union with the Copts" was written in 1442, 50 years before anyone in Europe knew anything of the Western Hemisphere. The mindset of the time was that the gospel had already been proclaimed to all the nations and if anyone was not a full member of the Catholic Church it was because he refused to be, not because he was invincibly ignorant or innocent of failing to join Her. That this mindset was at work is confirmed by the fact that: 1. These words are directed to “Jews or heretics and schismatics”, in other words, formal heretics, people who knowingly and obstinately reject the truth of the Church; and 2. The last clause of the passage in question is, according to Fr. William G. Most, a quotation from the early Church father Fulgentius, whose words were directed specifically to heretics.
What all of this means is that the Council of Florence does not have in mind people who had no opportunity to know Christ and His Church, or who are prevented in some way from accepting this truth. When read in this light, the Council is in agreement with Lumen Gentium. After all, we do read in no. 14, “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.”
What this also means is that no. 16 is not a contradiction, but a caveat, a further explanation upon the Church’s teaching on salvation outside the Church. The Second Vatican Council is merely wishing to clarify that the Church’s teaching on this (and there have been many strict expressions of it, besides what we see from Florence) is not meant to condemn those who are non-Catholic through no fault of their own. It’s important to point out that Lumen Gentium is not the first time we find a broad expression of the teaching on salvation outside the Church.
Pius IX, in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore of August 10, 1863, taught:
7. [. . .] There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.On August 9, 1949, the Holy Office condemned (here) the error of Leonard Feeney who held that those who failed to enter the Church formally, even with no fault of their own, could not reach salvation. The decree says (numbering is mine):
8. Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, to whom "the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior." [. . .]
12. [. . .]Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.Pius XII had said that a man can be "ordered to the Church by a certain desire and wish of which he is not aware," that is, the one contained in the good dispositions mentioned by the Holy Office (cf. Mystici Corporis, no. 103)
13. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.
Gaudiem et Spes, another document from the Second Vatican Council, cites Lumen Gentium no. 16 when it says:
22. [. . .] All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way (cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 16). For, since Christ died for all men (cf. Rom 8:32), and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. [. . .]There is also this, from Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio:
10. The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.What we see from this is that Lumen Gentium is not a novelty or an aberration. Instead it is a further development and elucidation of the one Catholic faith.
I am quite indebted to the following articles for the bulk of what I have written here. They are also yours to consult for more information.
- Outside the Church There Is No Salvation
- Without the Church There Is No Salvation
- Fr. Alfred McBride, O. Praem: Is There Salvation Outside the Church?
- No Salvation Outside the Church
- The Church and Salvation
- Fr. William G. Most: Is There Salvation Outside the Church?