I have to be careful sometimes; when I have an innocent idea in my head, I can sometimes express it in such a way that the innocence is lost. I tend to frame things in a way that may offend. This topic in particular runs that risk.
Last summer (2008) I was involved in a Summer Apologetics Series at my parish in Henderson, NV. I gave a few talks on various Catholic apologetics issues to the mixed group of attendees (some Catholic, some anti-Catholic). I remember vividly making the following statement during the first of my two talks: "It just isn't a fair fight anymore. All historical evidence, the Fathers of the Church and the continuity of the Roman Catholic Church make the search for the church founded by Jesus simple. Further, the defense of this ancient church is also simple given this overwhelming amount of evidence."
What I meant was that the evidence clearly points to the fact that the Roman Catholic Church is the church founded by Jesus and the result of his promise to be with us always. There isn't any doubt in my mind. What I failed to realize at that moment is something I have been contemplating ever since that day (and likely before as well). If all the evidence is so crystal clear, why are there scholars and modern-day Davids (e.g., men after God's heart) outside the Catholic Church?
Having spent the majority of my life in the protestant church, I have known many people who are completely sold out and following Jesus to the best of their ability. They are, without a doubt, on their way to heaven without the fullness of truth found in the Catholic Church. As I contemplate their lives and consider their consciences are crystal clear, I am amazed that God can be so merciful - to them and to the others outside the Church.
I am amazed God has been so merciful to those who are outside the Church (through no fault of their own). He has ordained that many Godly people remain outside the Church to care for those who find themselves outside the Church. Otherwise, how can you explain people like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Jim Elliot, C.S. Lewis, etc. These men of God are universally accepted and intelligent Christian leaders who have not recognized the fullness of truth found in the Church. Yet, they are undoubtedly on the road to heaven (some likely already there).
In a sense, this topic is also intertwined with our free will. If every quality non-Catholic Christian leader were to cross the Tiber and enter the Roman Catholic Church, their followers would have virtually no choice. Of course, I see this as a good thing, but I cannot begin to understand how valuable to God is our free will.
So, as my faith journey continues, I am keenly aware of God's mercy when it comes to non-Catholic churches. I have been routinely amazed at God's mercy toward me. Now I am amazed at the unexpected nature and breadth of His mercy. It is truly woven through all facets of life.