Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Salvation and invincible ignorance

In the combox under “Startling revelation! Catholic Church against gay marriage!” writes concerned reader Lori Bisser:

Hi, I am respectfully wondering in this portion: “Should the liberals leave the Church? I’m sure a few of my fellow bloggers would wish for it. But when Jesus asked the Twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ they responded, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’ (Jn 6:67-68). If you care for someone, you wish for their conversion of heart; to wish them out of the Church is not much better than wishing them to go to hell … in fact, the two desires are almost equivalent.” Are you saying that if a person is not Catholic, they are going to hell? Or am I making a giant leap?

Yes, you are respectful, Ms. Bisser, and for that I thank you. As for whether it’s a leap …?

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” You hear this quite frequently with hard-line conservatives, especially those who wish Vatican II undone and hold little respect for the popes who have followed Ven. Pius XII (1939-1958). But this maxim is not as absolute as some might think (or wish).


Let's start off with an unimpeachably orthodox pope, Bl. Pius IX:
For, it must be held by faith that outside the Apostolic Roman Church, no one can be saved; that this is the only ark of salvation; that he who shall not have entered therein will perish in the flood; but, on the other hand, it is necessary to hold for certain that they who labor in ignorance of the true religion, if this ignorance is invincible, are not stained by any guilt in this matter in the eyes of God. Now, in truth, who would arrogate so much to himself as to mark the limits of such an ignorance, because of the nature and variety of peoples, regions, innate dispositions, and of so many other things? For, in truth, when released from these corporeal chains “we shall see God as He is” [1 Jn 3:2], we shall understand perfectly by how close and beautiful a bond divine mercy and justice are united; but, as long as we are on earth, weighed down by this mortal mass which blunts the soul, let us hold most firmly that, in accordance with Catholic teaching, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism” [Eph 4:5]; it is unlawful to proceed further in inquiry.[1]

Saint Paul, speaking of mankind without Christ, tells us:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rom 2:9-16).

St. Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. 390 – ca. 455) has a thought which reminds me of St. Peter’s contention that Jesus “preached to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt 3:19-20):

It may be true that, just as we know that in former times some peoples were not admitted to the fellowship of the sons of God, so also today there are in the remotest parts of the world some nations who have not yet seen the light of the grace of the Saviour. But we have no doubt that in God’s hidden judgment, for them also a time of calling has been appointed, when they will hear and accept the Gospel which now remains unknown to them (The Calling of All Nations II:17).

St. John Chrysostom (347 – 407), reflecting on the conversion of the centurion Cornelius:

And Peter, it says, opened his mouth, and said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” [Ac 10:34]. This he said also by way of justifying himself with the Jews then present. For, being at the point to commit the Word to these (Gentiles), he first puts this by way of apology. What then? Was He a respecter of persons beforetime? God forbid! For beforetime likewise it was just the same: Every one, as he says, that fears Him, and works righteousness, would be acceptable to Him. As when Paul says, “For when the Gentiles which have not the Law, do by nature the things of the Law” [Rom 2:14]. That fears God and works righteousness — he assumes both doctrine and manner of life — is accepted with Him; for, if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 23).

Very good, then: Those who are invincibly ignorant of the gospel message have a possible out; we trust that God in His infinite mercy and justice will provide for those who, without knowing Him, still obey His divine mandate of justice, mercy and charity. So far as the maxim holds, it largely applies to people who have either learned the truth and rejected it — heretics and schismatics — or whose ignorance is vincible.

By “heretics and schismatics”, I’m not referring to those raised in Orthodox or Protestant communions. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church §838 explains:

“The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honored by the name of Christian, but do not profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter” (Lumen Gentium §15). Those “who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio §3). With the Orthodox Churches, this communion is so profound “that it lacks little to attain the fullness that would permit a common celebration of the Lord’s Eucharist” (Paul VI, Homily on the Ecumenical Meeting Between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople, 12/14/1975; cf. UR §§13-18).

No, I prefer to leave those labels to those who call themselves “Catholic” yet knowingly put forth false doctrine or willfully cause dissention among the faithful.

But this creates a question: Is it better to perfectly follow a defective version of the Faith or to imperfectly practice the fullness of it? As C. S. Lewis said in another context, I should suppose it depends where the person started out from. It may be that the Protestant, as perfect as he is in following his version, could do better as a Catholic; it may be that the Catholic’s imperfection is better than we could have expected given his background.

And it’s right here that we run into an unsatisfying ambiguity. For to ask whether being a good Protestant is “good enough” is almost to invite the answer “no”, because it implies that the “good Protestant” knows he’s got to give something up if he swims the Tiber, or that he doesn’t want to be bothered with the extra effort.

Such a “good Protestant” may go to hell if he stays away from the Church. Or he may not. While God has granted many charisms and powers to the Church, the ability to read souls has only been given to a select few saints. And to read the soul of the living is not to know its ultimate fate after death. We do what we can, and leave the rest to God’s grace.

But the Lord’s great commission ends with “… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20), and not “… leaving them in at least some kind of half-assed relationship with me.” In this respect, modern Christians, Catholics included, are as much “mission territory” as is some remote fastness in Mainland China where the name of Christ is barely a whisper in the night, a vague memory of tales from the round-eyed foreign devils.

So even granting that some kind of chance exists outside the visible bounds of the Church doesn’t take away the necessity of our mission. Nor does it relieve of the obligation to choose one path or the other those whose invincible ignorance has been cured.


[1] Bl. Pius IX, Singulari quadem, cit. in Denziger Enchiridion Symbolorum 1647; retrieved from http://www.catecheticsonline.com/SourcesofDogma17.php 9/20/2011.