The CCC refers to the Catholic Church as "the universal sacrament of salvation" (CCC 774–776), and states: "The Church in this world is the sacrament of salvation, the sign and the instrument of the communion of God and men" (CCC 780).
But what does this mean? Many people misunderstand the nature of this teaching. Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus means: "outside the church there is no salvation". But what does this mean?
Certain people claim that unless one is a full-fledged, baptized member of the Catholic Church, one will be damned. Others claim that it makes no difference what church one belongs to.
The truth is right in the center. Not the mushy middle of indifference, but right smack in the center of truth and love.
From Lumen Gentium "Outside the Church there is no salvation" - How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body.
So does that mean I could nominally be Catholic, but not live the faith and still be okay?
Again from Lumen Gentium: “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."”
Saint Augustine says it this way: How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!
So does that mean that family, friends (or for that matter 5 billion people on the planet) are condemned?
Lumen Gentium: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation"
How could a merciful God condemn those who are truly ignorant? He can’t and thus we have what has come to be known as baptism of desire.
So does that mean that children, family friends who have left the church are okay or are they condemned?
Lumen Gentium: They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.
While we leave the final judging to God, those who reject Him and remain unrepentant are subject to eternal punishment. So often, those who leave don’t know who and what they are leaving.
The best thing we can do for them, and for ourselves is to pray and live the Gospel. We need to be willing to be missionaries and martyrs for both truth and love and let the love of Christ urges us on. (2 Corinthians 5:14)
The dismissal at Mass says it all. Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord or Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life. Do that with zeal for souls and we will see our family, friends and even strangers flocking to the Church instead of away from it. Catholics living the Gospel is all it takes to make our religion matter!