The Catholic Letter

A Commentary on Catholic Catechism Articles

Catechism Paragraph 161

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On Faith and Ignorance

Believing in Jesus Christ and in the One who sent him for our salvation is necessary for obtaining that salvation. "Since "without faith it is impossible to please [God]" and to attain to the fellowship of his sons, therefore without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life `But he who endures to the end.'"

This article of our faith might beg the question: "What about those who are ignorant of God... are they condemned to hell from the very start?"

It's a fair question, but I don't think it's very difficult to answer.  Nor is it difficult to accept the answer.

St. Augustine tells us that the laws of God are not of stone, but written into the very hearts of men: "Thy law is written in the hearts of men, which iniquity itself effaces not."  This is supported by evidence throughout history-chiefly by the fact that every society, whether it has come to embrace Christianity or not, supports some sort of religion, which tries to give thanks (or appeases) some sort of deity.  We, as man, know from the depths of our souls that we owe something to a higher being.

I mentioned St. Augustine for a reason.  He happens to be a Doctor of the Church, and had a great understanding of God-one most people could never hope to have.  On the other end of the spectrum, St. Bernadette wasn't quite so gifted in the ways of intellect.  Her faith was very simple, and she couldn't comprehend even some of the most uncomplicated doctrines or ideas.  Yet she is also a saint, and St. Bernadette's faith was no less pleasing to God than St. Augustine's.  She was given very little knowledge, but she used that knowledge as well as she could.

As Catholics, we have the fullness of faith.  Our protestant brothers and sisters do not.  Some of them have turned from the faith for the wrong reasons, but many are simply ignorant.  They have some understanding of what God is and what God wants, and they follow God's will as much as their knowledge will allow them to.  Is their faith worth less to God because of their ignorance?

Now let's take a look at the a group like the early American Indians.  When we arrived in the new world, there was no knowledge of the Christian God.  But most tribes had some sort of idea about a god who existed and who demanded their service.

Obviously, some of those tribes distorted this idea, and created gods who demanded human sacrifice and did unspeakable things in the name of their ‘religion'.  But not all of them.  Just as there is in any place and time, there were people who tried their best to give their ‘gods' the praise and glory due to them.  Is their faith, however malformed, worth any less to God?

If it is, then we should all be shaking in our boots, as none of us have achieved the knowledge or understanding that our great saints have.  We all rely, in one way or another, on ignorance.  But ignorance does not diminish faith.