Can We Go To Heaven If We Aren't Catholic?
I'll answer this question very quickly, and with complete Orthodoxy - the answer is YES - YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE CATHOLIC IN ORDER TO GO TO HEAVEN.
If you don't believe me, check out a very important document of the Catholic Church, called Nostra Aetate.
But if you don't want to read the whole thing, I'll basically summarize the main point of the question. The church teaches that eternal salvation is won, for everybody, through Jesus Christ - his complete self-gift on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.
Of course God isn't going to force his salvation on us - we have to freely accept it. If we accept it, we get to go to heaven.
So what does "accepting salvation" mean? Well, different people will answer in different ways.
Some would say "accepting salvation" means accepting as true all doctrines that are taught by the Roman Catholic Church.
Others might say that "accepting salvation" is about living the way Christ would live - imitating Christ - giving our lives away the way Jesus did.
Truth is, both of these are two opposite extremes of this issue, and their both wrong. The first is wrong in that we limit God to everything that the Church says about God. What the church teaches about God may be truth, but it can never be the whole truth, because God is infinitely bigger. Its also wrong because it reduces faith to a series of doctrines - faith is more than just doctrines - faith is lifestyle, faith is attitude, faith is relationship. And its wrong because, as the church clearly states in Nostra Aetate, those who have no access to the message of Jesus Christ, or who for reasons beyond their control are prevented from truly being exposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, may be assured of the possibility of salvation through their good works - because those good works are signs of the presence of God in their lives, even if they wouldn't call it that.
The second statement is wrong because it means effectively earning our salvation, which we can't, by being as perfect as Jesus was, which we also can't. This is called "salvation through works", which is an error - the letters of St. Paul make that very clear. We can't earn salvation - it has to be given to us, won for us, by God - and then we accept it - like I said above.
Can a Mahatma Gandhi go to heaven? I would think so. The works he did in his life were nothing short of miraculous. His holiness was miraculous. I think this would be a sign of the presence of God in his life. How else could he have accomplished what he did in this world, had God not been at work through him.
So the bottom line is this - are we open to God, at work in our lives, through our love and service? Maybe we can be, but without using those exact words to describe it. In fact, maybe it is by the grace of God that this good work is possible, even if we don't label it that way.
What if someone REJECTS belief in Jesus Christ, as Son of God, etc? Well, that's something else. But in such a case, I would have to look at the particulars - perhaps it isn't actually Jesus that they are rejecting, but someone's dogmatic, fundamentalist interpretation of what God is, that might not even be accurate anyway. Maybe they reject belief because of pains and scars that they may have suffered in their lives, that block the possibility of their faith? And maybe those people still live good "Christian" lives. Loving others and so forth. Afterall, isn't it better to be loving and generous FOR ITS OWN SAKE than it is to earn salvation, as so many Christian try to do? So I figure best to leave them up to God.
Whenever I do a funeral, I always try to learn about the persons life, in order to recognize in what ways Jesus has been present in his/her life, EVEN IF THEY WEREN'T AWARE OF IT. God can't work within us without our consent, so, such evidence of the presence of Jesus would be a sign that that person has in some way opened themselves up to God, wouldn't it? Perhaps not according to a doctrinal formulation, but in accord with the work of the Holy Spirit, which lives and moves in all things.
Mark 10:40 - "Anyone who is not against us is with us."
As such, I would categorically answer - you do not NECESSARILY have to be Catholic to go to heaven - but if you do go to heaven, it is because of the saving love of God, demonstrated through Jesus Christ - even if we don't know it or don't call it that.
So why should we be Catholic then, if we don't have to be to get to heaven? Wouldn't it be easier to be buddist or something else? There are a lot less rules, aren't there?
I'll get to that next week - Why should we be Catholic and not another religion?
You might also want to read - How Do We Know Our Religion Is the Right One?