There’s a widespread belief among Catholics that all non-Catholics automatically go to heaven by virtue of invincible ignorance, with exceptions perhaps for the spectacularly wicked. I certainly hope this is true, but the assumptions that go into the belief seem to me flawed. When pressed, the well-wishing Catholic will admit that there is such a thing as culpable ignorance: ignorance based on a will to self-deception or the result of culpable negligence. That’s not what I’m talking about though. When further pressed, he will admit that it would be quite sinful for a person to know Catholicism to be the true faith but refuse to convert (whether because of pride, laziness, fear of status loss, or slavery to sin), but I would agree with him that such cases are probably quite rare. If “no salvation outside the Church” just refers to people who know Catholicism is true but refuse baptism, it doesn’t have much application. Such cases aren’t what I’m talking about either. What I’m saying is that there are beliefs that it is wicked to hold even if they are arrived at honestly.
Now, it is true, of course, that a person is not culpable for an honestly-formed mistake. Still, there are some beliefs that are incompatible with true virtue, even if honestly held. They deform a man not only intellectually, but morally. Invincible ignorance means implicit assent to the faith, but some beliefs constitute an implicit rejection. For example, if a person who is ignorant of the Faith accepts existentialism or Marxism, that person is rejecting the very idea of God. They explicitly reject any kind of transcendent order, believing both that it doesn’t exist and that this is a good thing. They’re enemies of God even if they’ve never heard of Him. It is impossible for such people to be in a state of grace; therefore it is impossible for one who dies with such beliefs to go to heaven. Nor could they even have perfect natural virtue, since some of the virtues (like reverence and piety) they reject in principle. I actually have more hope for uneducated atheists who just think of God as a cosmic tyrant; they at least might not know what they’re talking about.
It is rather perverse that the idea of the noble pagan has taken such hold of the Catholic imagination just as the real thing was disappearing. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire or as counter-reformation missionaries traveled the continents, it would have been much more natural to wonder what God’s purpose was for many apparently admirable pagan men who lived and died without hearing of Christ. Today, though, paganism (which primarily means pre-Christian religion) is much rarer. Most non-Christians in the Western world have heard of Christianity and explicitly rejected it. Educated men of other civilizations also know about Christianity and reject it. It’s just absurd to imagine that these are all anonymous Christians who so misunderstood the Faith that their rejection of it bears no spiritual significance.
Again, it might be troubling if most of the people who reject Christianity did so out of loyalty to another admirable tradition, like Confucianism, neo-Platonism, or ancestral paganism. Once there were many such to trouble the Christian imagination, but now Islam is the only highly-visible example. What we see is a great consolidation. In the West, it has never been intellectually easier to be a Christian than today; plausible alternatives like Platonism and Stoicism have fallen by the wayside (or rather continue to exist only within Christianity) and the only remaining “live” alternative to the Church is the moral insanity of liberalism. Unlike the righteous pagans of yesterday, the anti-Christian forces of today reject the Church precisely for sinful reasons–to enable pride and the libido dominandi (either for individuals or for collectives) or to enable concubiscence. Hopes that the anti-Christian forces have some hidden communion with God and would explicitly embrace Christianity if only they really, really understood it seem far less reasonable than when Unam Sanctam was written.
As a pagan-sympathetic Catholic polemicist, I feel very comfortable with this development. The Church is becoming the repository of mankind’s spiritual sanity; She carries within Her all the admirable traditions of the West–and increasingly those of the East as well–and the reactionary finds that he can defend them all at the same time. It’s no longer necessary to denigrate Cicero to uphold Saint Paul; our enemy would obliterate both their traditions. Most Aristotelians today are Catholics. I would not be surprised if, in another couple of generations, most genuine Confucians were also Catholic. Outside the Church, every nonliberal tradition (again, perhaps excepting Islam) is devoured. Life is getting simpler.
Filed under: Defense of Christianity |