In my pre-Catholic childhood, I once heard a story that, in my lack of understanding of it way back then, failed to appreciate its significance and with it nearly all of the surrounding material facts about it that could have now enabled me to place the story and provide names and dates and places. I have never come across it since, and if any reader out there would happen to know of whom I speak and when and where they lived (I would imagine that it was in Europe and some centuries ago), then I would be most grateful.
It was the story of a man, who was rather kooky and solitary, but of a saintly and sincere, but plainly simple and uneducated nature. What he would do is hide in the bushes and when someone would pass by he would suddenly jump out of the bushes, sprinkle them with water, and say, "I baptize thee in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost!" That would be it, and having done so he would then let the person so baptized go on his way, probably shaking his head in wonder at what a kooky person he just encountered. This was his way of assuring that every passing stranger was indeed baptized.
Needless to say, the Church took a very dim view of what he was doing. For one thing, perhaps many of the strangers so "baptized" may have already been baptized and as such rebaptizing them would be a sacrilege. More seriously, no instruction followed, as those truly newly baptized by him received no instruction in the Faith so as to know how to keep the grace of the baptism in water they received from him.
The Church is careful about who it baptizes. Except in the case of infants who are in Catholic families, and who also have committed Godparents who are Catholics in good standing and willing to do what it takes to raise the child in the Faith even if the parents fail, much instruction precedes the sacrament of baptism. An adult convert must endure a period as a "catechumen" first, while being instructed in the Faith, and then (usually at Easter) they can be baptized.
Receiving a baptism in water when one is not instructed or otherwise ensured that they will have every opportunity to learn the Faith as they grow up is in fact a grave evil to work on a soul. For being unlearned in the things of God, they can and will readily fall into sin, and to die baptized, but in a state of mortal sin, is even worse than to die unbaptized. Their mark of the sacrament on their soul only becomes yet another source of their agony in Hell, an obligation accepted (or imposed), but not lived up to.
Two correspondents of mine have raised an interesting objection to my Lumen Gentium thesis. It would appear that there are some pre-Vatican II writers (historians anyway, I don't know if any official and recognized theologians would have ever been so imprecise) who do, in a few obscure passages, mention the possibility of grace outside the Church. Of course this does not reconcile in an obvious way with the fact that the Church alone is the source or channel of God's graces unto salvation, and the objection raised by these two gentlemen would seem to contradict the Magisterium of the Church.
For example one such, a certain Bishop Hefele, an eminent Church historian from around the time of Vatican I, once wrote "The sacraments are often compared to channels through which divine grace comes to us. Then, when any one is baptized in a heretical sect, but is baptized according to the rules, the channel of grace is truly applied to him, and there flows to him through this channel not only the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the inner man; that is to say, he receives the grace of baptism."
Does that seem to contradict what I have written about how the grace of salvation, sanctification, and truth can be obtained only from the Church and from no other entity on earth? Of course I am not the only one seemingly contradicted here. contradicted here. For example, there is Pope Eugene IV who wrote at the Council of Florence, "The holy Roman Church believes, professes, and preaches that no one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not just pagans, but also Jews or heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the 'everlasting fire' ... For the union with the body of the Church is of such importance that the sacraments of the Church are helpful to salvation only for those remaining in it"
So what gives? Is there grace outside the Church or not? And if so how? The most important part of the solution to this immediate question is that grace comes in two basic forms. One is that of what the Church calls "sanctifying grace," and the other which it calls "actual graces."
Actual graces are a supernatural gift from God to enlighten our mind and prepare and equip us to do a good work or avoid a temptation. God gives such actual graces to all persons, irrespective of their connection (if any) to the Church. It is true that in this He favors those who are in His Church and without mortal sins, but such graces occur for and in all persons at various times. Actual graces are by their nature tied to the direct gift of God at one time or another and as such temporary by their nature.
An actual grace may be conveyed directly by God, as for example the man who initially accepted a casual lunch date with a coworker suddenly receiving a vision of what will happen if he begins and continues meeting with this coworker, namely that it would lead to him cheating on his wife, and so he changes his mind and cancels out on the date. Or an actual grace may be conveyed indirectly from God by quite literally any instrument of Divine Providence, and for that God can use quite literally anything, even sin. A person sins, gets caught up in some truly heinous sin, and having that happen learns that evil is a reality, and with further reflection also comes to realize that good is also a reality, and with that seeks repentance and God and ultimately His Church.
Actual graces, as such, occurring to any and every person, therefore occur outside the Church in addition to inside. The above examples could be persons who are not even Catholics at all (except in the latter example where the person eventually finds and joins the Church). Such graces are given with two ends in mind. One is that God seeks by such graces to bring a person to Him and His Church and ultimately to salvation through these graces. The other is that God loves His creatures and seeks their good while in this life even when they ignore Him. For example, two heretics (who know of the Church and have no interest to join it, and hence are still in deep trouble) could nevertheless be truly free to marry and do so in a truly sacramental sense, and God in His infinite kindness bestows upon them the actual grace of a good and solid marriage that lasts literally "until death do we part" and in which both parents are truly "there" for the children all their lives. They don't have sanctifying grace so if they die in this state they are doomed, but nevertheless they have the actual grace of the sacrament of matrimony, or at least of a good solid marriage.
The other kind of grace is sanctifying grace. This is what we call "being in a state of grace," namely that we have been justified before God on the strength of Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and our acceptance of and participation in that and God's will for our lives, and avoiding all mortal sin. Sanctifying grace is what we need in order to be saved. To die without it is to be damned. Where actual graces serve to push or nudge us in the direction God would have for us (resistance to which would lead to our damnation, but cooperation with which would lead to our salvation), and ultimately towards receiving sanctifying grace, sanctifying grace is that end towards which God seeks to push and nudge us with His Divinely granted actual graces. If He succeeds in getting us where He wants us, into a state of grace (sanctifying grace), then we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, and our soul is thereby made as beautiful as God. What an awesome gift!
Unlike actual graces that God dispenses wherever He so chooses and there is none who can stop His hand, it is the Church which holds the "purse strings" as it were to sanctifying grace. It is the Church which dispenses the sacraments that in turn convey both the sanctifying grace the Church alone imparts, along with (where applicable) the actual graces of the particular sacrament that any church working a valid sacrament could also impart.
Not that sanctifying grace cannot also extend beyond the Church, for it most certainly does extend to catechumens in good standing, and at least potentially to some few others as well who cooperate with the actual graces that God provides to them in His mercy. However no one who is not part of the Church can in any way make themselves or become (while not being part of the Church) themselves the agents or means of conveying sanctifying grace. They may be recipients only.
There is one other consideration however that must be brought to bear, and is the potential role of literally anything to be an "agent of Divine Providence" in bringing an actual grace to a person. Divine Providence can quite literally use anything at disposal for some end that may indeed serve as an actual grace to a soul in need. Imagine a person, sitting along in his house, lonely and depressed and seriously preparing for suicide, with a glass of liquor, a gun, and a book about death laid out before him on a table. He is getting ready to blow his brains out, but then comes some distraction that turns his attention elsewhere long enough to give him time to change his mind and not do it.
That distraction could be a Jehovah's Witness or a Fuller Brush salesman at his door, a neighbor suddenly playing his rock music really loud, or even a centipede crawling across his floor and biting him in the foot. Whatever. Anyway, whatever it was, the distraction sustained him through the darkest hour of his life, and surviving he then goes on to seek God and to ultimately do all that is needed to be saved, where surely he would have been damned had the distraction not come at that fateful hour. If one thing had not been available, God could easily have used some other for the same purpose.
Say however, that it happened to be the Jehovah's Witness. Can one truly say that the person owes his salvation to that false sect? Obviously he gained no sanctifying grace from it, but in that case the member of the false sect did serve as an agent of God's Providence to provide to this person the actual grace of not committing suicide. But as you can see that is no credit to the false religion whatsoever, as all glory rightly belongs to God and God does not share His glory with other gods (such as of the Watchtower Society).
Now this brings us to the most convoluted question in all of this. If a heretic or schismatic provides a valid sacrament, is this grace outside the Church? The most common such sacrament is baptism, so let's discuss that one as the example. Even here however there is yet one more distinction to be made. The Church teaches that baptism, unlike most other sacraments, has the least requirements upon the minister giving it. Unlike most other sacraments which require at least a priest, baptism merely requires that the one doing the baptism must be a human being (trained chimpanzees and robots will not do here), capable of pouring or otherwise validly using the water and saying the right words with the correct meanings and intent, and that the one doing the baptizing is not the one being baptized. That's it. No more or other requirements.
That means that a Buddhist could (if I were not already validly baptized) baptize me into the Catholic Church, should he so choose. And that goes equally for a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Protestant, an Atheist, even a Satanist. Notice that most of these categories (except for the Protestant, and even here there are some exceptions) have no water baptism as part of their religion. That means that they, in doing it, would be acting "in the name of," as it were, the Catholic Church, administering a Catholic baptism. This would actually come under the same heading as the more unusual instance of some East Orthodox, Old Catholic (Utrecht sect), or even excommunicated vitandus priest giving a dying soul the last sacraments in an emergency. More of this category I will deal with later.
There is a second category of heretical baptism, and this would apply to the Protestant (or East Orthodox or Old Catholic) who baptizes "in the name of," as it were, their own particular sect. Note here that even these types could administer the Catholic sacrament in the name of the Catholic Church as could all the other categories, but in addition, they have the power to do it for their own sect as well.
When (in ancient days) the various saints and fathers of the Church debated the question of "heretical baptisms" it was this second basic category with which they were concerned. Various groups would spin off the Catholic Church so as to follow their own ideas, yet a number of them retained the Catholic notion and action of water baptism. Even some saints doubted the validity of such baptisms. But the Church did determine that, providing certain basic criteria are met (as they were in the cases of many of the heretical groups), the baptisms are sacramentally valid.
So, what of these valid baptisms? Did the false sects convey God's grace to souls, in contradiction to the teaching of Pope Eugene IV and so many others? Well, this gets back to the story of the man I opened this article with. Without a doubt, such a heretical baptism would be, as it were, an actual grace, albeit "forced" from God, which nevertheless conveys the mark of the sacrament. Now this is absolutely no different than being baptized by the man mentioned at the beginning of the article, absolutely no different. The heretic, the man, whoever, has served as, at best, an agent of God's Providence, with no more credit due than was due to the Watchtower Society (and its god) for sending the Jehovah's Witness who rescued the person from committing suicide as illustrated above, or to the neighbor and his loud rock music.
It is not fair or right or just to regard the heretical sect as a "channel of salvation," as they had absolutely no more role in the recipient's obtaining of sanctifying grace than the Jehovah's Witness or the neighbor with the loud rock music. Indeed, if the one so heretically baptized grows up and accepts even one heresy (as taught by the heretical sect) he is outside the Church. Even if the person is truly and sincerely ignorant and God merciful, the fact remains that God's mercy could equally have extended to that same soul even were he not water baptized at all. So the heretical water baptism, though confecting the actual grace of the sacrament, nevertheless counts for nothing towards the recipient's salvation.
In my second part, I will present how grace is misrepresented in the document Unitatis Redintegratio and how it mixes the sacred with the profane in Part Two - Grace and the Decree on Ecumenism.