Some have said that a “novelty” introduced by the second Vatican Council is the idea that some people who are not Christians at all could be saved by God. These same folks are apparently unaware of the fact that the Catechism teaches us that the Church does not know any other way to ensure salvation except by means of baptism, and that God is not bound by His Sacraments in such a way that He may only work through them. But let us move past this oversight, and consider the words of St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (written in approximately 138-161 AD):
We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them [Chapter XLVI (emphasis added)]
Catholics have taught the possibility of salvation for those who have never heard of Christ from practically the very beginning. Vatican II introduced no novelty with this idea, and the Catechism reaffirmed the necessity of baptism while nevertheless insisting that God may act graciously for the salvation of others because He is not limited by the sacraments. There is no “modernism” to be found here.
Does God’s grace mean we can live how we want, or that we can skip baptism and count on him to bring us to heaven anyway? Emphatically not. When the Savior tells you how to be saved, it takes a bold, arrogant man to ignore all that and count on receiving God’s mercy in some other way. We do not get to choose how God fulfills His promises of salvation, and at the same time we have no cause for complaint if He sometimes saves people who have never heard of Jesus or the Cross or Baptism.
[Thanks to David Anders for locating this quotation from St. Justin, which I remembered but had been unable to find for years!]