One irony of becoming a Lutheran was that it greatly improved my opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. Previously, I had on occasion leaned (albeit reluctantly) towards the view expressed in this Credenda/Agenda article that the Roman Catholic Church (as a body) was apostate, having finally had its lampstand removed when it anathematised the gospel at the Council of Trent. That wasn’t to say that Roman Catholics couldn’t be saved, just that they were saved despite their church’s teaching rather than by it.
However, I now prefer Luther’s perspective on this issue, as set out in his 1527/8 letter “Concerning Rebaptism”, written in opposition to Anabaptists who rejected infant baptism as “papist”:
We on our part confess that there is much that is Christian and good under the papacy; indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found there and has come to us from this source.
For instance we confess that in the papal church there are the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed.
Similarly the pope admits that we too, though condemned by him as heretics, and likewise all heretics, have the holy Scriptures, baptism, the keys, the catechism, etc.
In other words, it is not that a few Roman Catholics may be saved despite the complete absence of the gospel from their apostate church. On the contrary: notwithstanding the Tridentine anathemas, the gospel can still be found (can scarcely be avoided, indeed) in the Roman Catholic Church as it reads the Scriptures, baptises, celebrates the sacrament of the altar, prays the Lord’s Prayer, confesses the creeds etc. Plenty enough gospel there to save its members.
As Luther continues:
I content that in the papacy there is true Christianity, even the right kind of Christianity and many great and devoted saints. Shall I cease to make this pretence?