Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hope for the Hopeless: God Working in the Invincibly Ignorant

A new question appeared on the Catholic Forum and I thought I'd share my response with you to wrap-up the month of May.

When we have a person who from day one of their lives has had no chance of ever travelling on the right track, how would we see God’s will working in those situations?

Written on every man's heart is God's divine law (Romans 2:14-16) meaning that every person has a knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong:
"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1776
But having said this, from a doctrinal and hypothetical point of view, if we have someone whose sense of morality is warped due to either having not been taught properly between right or wrong and generally has a poor sense of it, i.e. if the person is "invincibly ignorant", then this person would not be held culpable for doing wrong, but efforts must then be made to form the person's conscience so the person does not commit evil again.
Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.
The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart. 
In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path, we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord's Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church. 
Faced with a moral choice, conscience can make either a right judgment in accordance with reason and the divine law or, on the contrary, an erroneous judgment that departs from them. 
Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law. 
To this purpose, man strives to interpret the data of experience and the signs of the times assisted by the virtue of prudence, by the advice of competent people, and by the help of the Holy Spirit and his gifts. 
Some rules apply in every case:
- One may never do evil so that good may result from it;
- the Golden Rule: "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them."
- charity always proceeds by way of respect for one's neighbor and his conscience: "Thus sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience . . . you sin against Christ." Therefore "it is right not to . . . do anything that makes your brother stumble." 
53 DH 3 § 2.
54 Cf. Ps 119:105.
55 Cf. DH 14.
56 Mt 7:12; cf. Lk 6:31; Tob 4:15.
57 1 Cor 8:12.
58 Rom 14:21.
59 GS 16.
60 1 Tim 5; cf. 8:9; 2 Tim 3; 1 Pet 3:21; Acts 24:16. 
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1783-1789 
Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1860

We also must bear in mind Christ's words regarding the ignorant:

"If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin." - John 15:22

... Meaning that we are only responsible and can be held accountable for what we know, but once we know "it" there is no excuse for it there after.

So how does God work with people who are invincibly ignorant? This is what the Church teaches us:
"Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men."
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 848

In short, there is hope for a person who "had no chance of ever traveling on the right track" but the Church - the laity including - have a moral obligation the bring others to a knowledge and faith that brings them into friendship with God; we must, as Christ tells us:

"Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." - Matthew 5:16



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