The Catholic Church has always taught, and on occasion infallibly defined, the doctrine that "outside the Church no one at all is saved." This doctrine has a strict, as well as a moderate and a loose interpretation, depending on the meaning given the word "outside."
All three interpretations are presently allowed Catholics, pending a definitive resolution of the issue by the Magisterium. The strict interpretation holds that absolutely no one who has not been sacramentally baptized by water and the Holy Ghost, and who at the time of death is not a member of the institutional Roman Catholic Church in the state of grace, can be saved. This position was championed by Rev. Leonard Feeney, S.J., in the 1940s. For his troubles he was condemned by the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1949 and later excommunicated for disobedience to his Jesuit superior and to the Archbishop of Boston at the time, Richard Cardinal Cushing. About 20 years later, though, through the good offices of Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, Cardinal Cushing's successor as Archbishop of Boston, Fr. Feeney and most of his followers were reconciled with the Vatican. In the reconciliation process, the successor body to the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Sacred Congregation for the Defence of the Faith, explicitly allowed Fr. Feeney and his followers to continue upholding their strict interpretation and they do so to this day.
The moderate interpretation, most famously advanced by St. Thomas Aquinas, holds that even persons not sacramentally baptized, but who die desiring to be baptized or who die martyrs for the Catholic Faith, may also be saved (the so-called "Baptism out of Desire" and "Baptism out of Blood" exceptions).
Lastly, a loose interpretation, popular since the mid-1800s, holds that all people of good will (nowadays called "anonymous Christians") may be saved even if they had never met a Christian in their lives or even if, during their lifetimes, they had known of Christianity but in good faith rejected it. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church ("Lumen Gentium") has the most authoritative exposition of this loose interpretation. Pope Paul VI's 1968 "Credo of the People of God" and Pope John Paul II's 1994 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" have also adopted this loose interpretation.
In the last hundred years much heat, but little light, has been expended by partisans of these three interpretations. Traditionalists and Conservatives admit that their two interpretations (even though mutually incompatible) are a hard doctrine to accept, but contend that, because no one has any right to salvation and because Jesus Himself explicitly dictated the sine qua non conditions for being saved, there simply can be no other way to salvation but baptized membership in the institutional Roman Catholic Church.
Liberals and Modernists, on the other hand, will often cite the "hard cases" of aborted babies guilty of no personal sins and of eminently admirable and God-loving non-Christian adults, all of whom (as far as we know) have died without ever having had even the chance to receive sacramental baptism. Liberals and Modernists claim that such "hard cases" constitute the most convincing argument against the strict and the moderate interpretations, maintaining that neither of those readings of the Church's "extra ecclesiam..." doctrine can possibly be valid, given what we all know of God's infinite love and mercy and universal salvific will.
The so-called " hard cases," however, are just red herrings. No holder of even the strictest interpretation would presume to deny anyone salvation. They only say that the Church has defined, therefore it must be believed, that before anyone can be saved there are certain conditions that must be met: conditions, it should be emphasized, not established by men - and thus questionable, but revealed by God - and thus unquestionable.
Now, some Catholics might contend that since God set the conditions, He is free to waive them. The problem for Fr. Feeney and his followers with this solution is that the Bible and Tradition have always taught that there are no exceptions. Fr. Feeney's insisting, though, that the Church has taught that there are no exceptions to the New Testament's Revelation of the conditions necessary for being saved does not , however, amount to saying that any particular dead person is necessarily damned.
Holders of the strictest interpretation have always admitted that, because God is all-powerful, all-loving and all-merciful, He at any time can make it possible for any person to meet His conditions for salvation. For example, the most famous of the miracles performed by St. Ignatius Loyola was the one in which he brought a dead catechumen back to life just long enough for the man to be baptized.
I contend that God's bringing dead people back to life is not the only way He could miraculously bring someone to being able to meet the necessary conditions for salvation. He could also, at the moment of any person's death, work a miracle by having one of His saints on Earth, or maybe even one of His priest saints in Heaven, sent just long enough to administer to that person the Sacraments of Baptism or Penance. In such a case, the deceased would have truly, albeit miraculously, met "in his or her lifetime" all the requirements of even Fr. Feeney's strictest interpretation. Such an event could happen in a split second, so fast that human bystanders would never know that it occurred.
Of course, no one has to believe that any such miracle has ever happened or will ever happen. But, it seems to me, that all Catholics must at least believe that such a miracle could happen. And, therefore, if such a miracle could happen, we may all pray for them to happen, especially (in these days) for all the millions of babies so cruelly aborted.
There can only be, I think, two counter-arguments: 1) God has revealed, or the Church has taught, that there can be no supernatural administrations of sacraments and 2) God has revealed, or the Church has taught, that the sacraments may only be administered by persons naturally on the scene and/or not yet dead.
The burden of proof, however, for establishing these counter-arguments would lie with the opponents of my hypothesis. They, after all, would be the ones arguing that God cannot do something, that God cannot work a certain kind of miracle. If, though, God can cause such a miracle, then there is no reason for anyone's despairing of the salvation of any aborted foetus, or of the salvation of any upright non-Catholic, or even of any mortally sinful Catholic.
Of course, no Catholics would dare presume that God will work such a miracle for anyone. The regular, naturally administered sacramental economy of the Church is the only thing we are assured can bring us to salvation. But just knowing that a miracle can happen allows us to hope and pray for anyone's salvation.
Apparently, the position expounded above is no different from that of Fr. Feeney's followers.
Click here for the exchange of letters
I had with Fr. Feeney's followers at the St. Benedict's Center.