I’ve been thinking lately about how much contemporary theology is prone to excuse sheer lack of faith.
For any given doctrine, including the very divinity of Christ, you’ll hear someone say, “I just don’t believe it.” The Bible is very clear about the importance of taking God at His word.
For example, a video has been circulating Facebook of a Muslim imam saying that it’s a sin for a Muslim to say “Merry Christmas.” Of course, technically, from the perspective of Islam, he’s absolutely right. What strikes me most about this video, though, is that the imam insists that it’s not only heresy (from a Muslim perspective) but outright stupid to suggest that God would become Man. He clearly *understands* what the Catholic Church teaches; he just don’t think it’s true because he refuses to believe it.
A similar discussion has gone on recently regarding an Irish bishop who told Catholics who are just filling up pews because they see the Catholic Church as a cultural tradition but they have no real commitment to their faith to be honest and leave (kind of like the words of Jesus in Revelation about “be hot or be cold, but if you’re lukewarm, I’ll spew you out”).
The concept of “Anonymous Christian” or “Baptism by Desire” suggests that a person who truly doesn’t *know* the Christian faith and has no opportunity to know the faith but would be open to it if he or she were taught it *might* possibly be saved through an extraordinary act of God’s grace. The Feeneyites argue that such a person wouldn’t *need* an extraordinary act because God’s providence would provide such a person with a Christian missionary at the right time.
The next stage after that is someone who has “invincible ignorance,” a term which in most formal theology applies to those who are mentally or intellectually handicapped in a manner that impedes their right judgement. Such a person may be told, “Jesus is the Son of God,” but not be capable of comprehending what that means.
OK, fair enough. It is always important to remember, when dealing with these questions, that we’re talking about speculation regarding what *may* happen in extremely rare circumstances, to other people. For the most part, the whole point of these hypothesized “extra-ordinary” means of salvation for those outside the Church is that the person in question has never met a Christian. Many contemporary theologians speak of Rahner’s idea of the “invisible Christian,” or of “invincible ignorance” or of baptism by desire, and they apply it to people they know.
I’ve argued with some neoconservative Catholics who have a very interesting view of Islam. On the one hand, they claim that Islam is an evil religion (as a religion, it is, but that doesn’t mean all its adherents are evil people), and they claim that all Muslims want to kill everyone else. So they argue that Muslims should be killed. *Then* they say, when confronted with the fact that they would be sending these Muslims to Hell, that, “Well, Muslims are invincibly ignorant, so they can still go to Heaven.” So they’re Evil, and they deserve to be nuked because they’re so Evil, and they’re going straight to Heaven??
Some people seem to use “invincible ignorance” as a catch-all for *any* ignorance or any denial of God’s truth, and then basically use it as a catch all to say that just about everyone who isn’t Christian is going to be saved anyway. This is exactly the mentality that RadTrads object to in post-Vatican II thinking. It doesn’t really matter if someone is Catholic, except that it’s an easier way for that person to get to Heaven–supposedly.
To this mentality, a man can live your life as a Muslim, commit acts of terrorism, familial abuse, rape, adultery, incest and murder in the name of “Allah,” and then go straight to Heaven because he’s “invincibly ignorant.”
A baptized Catholic can use birth control her entire life, aborting who knows how many children via the Pill’s abortifacient effects, maybe have a surgical abortion or two, get divorced, shack up, et cetera paribus, and never go to Confession because “She was probably badly catechized, so she’s invincibly ignorant.”
And so on.
A similar claim is that Protestants are Christians just as much as we are, and they have valid Baptism (which the do), so they’re OK without the Eucharist or Reconciliation. Yet Catholic dogma clearly states that a person, once baptized, who commits mortal sin cannot be forgiven of that mortal sin without Reconciliation or at least the intention to receive the Sacrament. Again, some Protestants may be forgiven for their ignorance, but all of them? Doesn’t the validity of their Baptism put them in a precarious spot, especially versus the so-called “anonymous Christians” who don’t get sacramentally baptized at all?
Now, I’m willing to grant quite a lot in these regards. For example, a Protestant who has grown up with a lot of biases against the Catholic Church and a lot of misinformation may be totally sincere in rejecting some aspects of Catholic dogma. But it just seems to me to be taken way too far. Certainly, again, the very valid complain of many RadTrads is that the generous teachings of Vatican II are used as an excuse by most Catholics–certainly laity but including priests and bishops–to *NOT* engage in their duty to evangelize and their duty to admonish sinners. They’ll even argue that by not evangelizing, they’re helping to save souls by giving them the excuse of ignorance!
And what always strikes me when these topics come up is the importance of Faith in the Bible. “Nothing is impossible with God,” we are reminded several times in the Bible. The Bible treats it as a pretty serious crime when God promises or works a miracle and a person refuses to believe. Indeed, it is precisely in this context that Jesus refers to the “sin of the Holy Spirit.” The different places where Jesus says that the “sin against the Holy Spirit” cannot be forgiven in this life or the next are when He’s talking about the Pharisees rejecting His miracles or His ability to forgive sins.
Another thought that brought this to mind was a discussion at my Carmelite meeting about St. Paul. I pointed out that St. Paul, when he was persecuting the Christians, was being “righteous.” He was not killing Christians sadistically; he was doing it because he thought it was what God wanted. Out of all the Pharisees who were going around persecuting Christians at that point, Jesus reached out the Paul because Paul was sincere. Paul was ignorant (not invincibly ignorant, just ignorant) of the truth of Jesus Christ.
Compare him to the Pharisees who actually witnessed Jesus’ miracles firsthand yet rejected Him. They were *choosing* to reject what they saw before their own eyes. Many of the Pharisees had enough knowledge of Christianity to at least make an informed choice, and perhaps knew full well it was true, but they simply refused to accept what they knew, and they reacted against it in anger.
Now, when it comes to what actually happens at personal judgement, I prefer to keep in mind that Our Lord is a Divine Person, and from His perspective, it is all about relationship and about love. I think Judgement is more like C. S. Lewis’s idea of “God in the Dock,” that when each person dies, Jesus appears, and the person either greets Jesus with love or fear, and that’s it–St. Teresa of Avila says something similar. The Sacraments dispose us to be more ready to receive Christ, but that doesn’t preclude some “anonymous Christian” from dying and seeing Jesus and saying, “Hey! You’re the One I’ve hoped for my whole life but never knew about.” But most people outside the sacraments are going to be bound by some kind of sin, and/or they’re going to be bound by some kind of insistence of the absurdity of the Truth.
I think of the amazing passage in Les Miserables when Javert commits suicide because he spent his life, he thought, serving God and found out that what he *thought* God wanted was wrong and that God actually wanted mercy. Confronted with his “Road to Damascus” moment, Javert doesn’t change his ways like Saul/Paul did; he turns in his resignation to God and commits suicide.
It’s easy to say that maybe the YouTube Imam is missing something. Maybe he is invincibly ignorant in the true sense of the word, incapacitated by mental handicap of some sort (in which it would be the duty of a Christian to pray over him to be healed). But the plain fact of his video is that he is sitting there, claiming to be a Muslim theologian, insisting that he is *not* invincibly ignorant, saying that Christian teaching is that God became Man, which is true, and saying that he refuses to accept that God became Man.
Do you *really* think that such a person, so opposed to the notion of Jesus, when he dies and confronts Jesus in Person, will react the way Paul did? And if he *would* react the way Paul did, then why doesn’t God reach out to him now and convert him to Christianity so he can be a missionary? Or rather, when he dies, will he see Jesus and react in outrage that God would so condescend to become Man? Would he say, “I want no part of such a God!” After all, that’s what Satan said.