God's normal and primary extension of sanctifying grace is through His Sacraments. It is true that "God is the Author of the Sacraments, but He is not bound by them." Even so, they are His ordinary means of sanctifying grace. In that non-Christians and even non-Catholic/Orthodox Christians do not avail themselves of the Sacraments - Confession or Reconciliation being especially germaine in this discussion - it is difficult to see how, without innumerable extraordinary interventions into the free will of such people at death, God can pull very many through under such conditions. Well, one might say, a perfect act of contrition could suffice for such people. Indeed it could. But, as a matter of practical experience, how many non-Catholics even have the slightest notion that, at a bare minimum, such a contrite state of soul is necessary to be saved? I would venture fairly few!
The Church is beginning to show signs of backing away from tolerating an almost implicit universal salvationism common over the last couple of generations, and backing in toward the center. The rigorism of the first half or more of the Christian era went too far in one direction, to the point where it was considered flat-out impossible for any non-Catholic to be saved. God would be little better than a monster for creating souls He knew from all eternity had no chance whatsoever to be saved. The excessively hopeful expectations of salvation for non-Catholics of more recent times went too far in the other direction. God, in such a scenario, instituted Sacraments and called people to the Narrow Way for no serious purpose, since virtually everyone can attain salvation, Sacraments or no.
The "correct" answer may lie in the unpacking of what it means to be in a state of sanctifying grace, what is required by God to be considered in that state, and, realistically, how many people outside of the sacramental system are likely to attain it.
Given that it's possible for non-Catholics to attain such a state, even deprived of the Sacraments due to particular circumstances, God isn't a monster. Yet, to the extent that people are accountable through evidence supplied by their own consciences, people who cannot bring themselves (even - and this is important - with the availability of the "actual grace" given by God to do it) to a state of "perfect contrition" at death are still judged justly, and with a consistency that can harmonize itself well with a true need for the Sacraments as the "ordinary means" of salvation.
Salvation, at bottom, is very difficult for non-sacramental Christians to achieve, and even harder for non-Christians. At the very least, we should presume such is the case, lest the graces gained for us on the cross should be watered-down. We are all still responsible for our sins, and the presence of sanctifying grace in one's soul at death seems to be an absolute requirement. This may grate on lot of people here, yet the concept is only one step removed from what most of them would say themselves (often rather cavalierly) about all non-Christians. The Bible is used by them to support the notion that, unless one embraces Christ as He would want to be embraced, one cannot be saved. Though the Church, as I've tried to make clear, isn't quite that absolutist about it, as a practical matter, She can respond to that notion with a "Just so!"
This is a truly distressing article, that casts the rather vague pronouncements of Vaticn II in the worst possible light. A better tool than that could not be given to the ultra-traditionalists. I trust that the cardinal did not mean to send an indifferentist message, but that is the only note that I distinctly pick up in this.
Thnak you for bringing some order into this with your enlightened post.
An excellent discussion, M. Thank-you.