Invincible Ignorance in Salvation Theology

The first principle of salvation theology is that all persons who die in the state of grace receive eternal salvation in Heaven. Perhaps they go to Heaven directly, or perhaps after a temporary stay in Purgatory. But all who die in a state of grace are saved.

Pope Pius XII: “Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it, salvation and supernatural happiness the beatific vision of God — are impossible.” [Address to Midwives, n. 21.a]

The second principle is that all persons who die in a state of unrepented actual mortal sin receive eternal punishment in Hell.

Pope Benedict XII: “we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into Hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of Hell.” [Pope Benedict XII, On the Beatific Vision of God]

Everyone guilty of one or more actual mortal sins must repent, prior to death. For actual mortal sin deprives the soul of the state of grace; whereas sincere and full repentance returns the soul to the state of grace.

One can enter the state of grace by any of the three forms of baptism:
1. water (the formal sacrament of baptism)
2. desire (which can be implicit)
3. blood

Suppose that a poor soul has never entered the state of grace (having received no form of baptism) for his entire life, and he has committed actual mortal sins. If he repents out of love for God and neighbor from his actual mortal sins, his repentance is sufficient to constitute a baptism of desire, and so he enters the state of grace, for the first time, by his contrition.

Suppose that a poor soul has never entered the state of grace (having received no form of baptism) for his entire life, but he also has committed no actual mortal sins. Does he go to Heaven, because he is free from actual mortal sin, or to Hell, because he lacks the state of grace?

My answer is that such a person, if he is an adult who has had ample opportunity to enter the state of grace, is guilty of an actual mortal sin of omission for not obtaining the state of grace. And so he would be sent to eternal punishment in the limbo of Hell, having died in a state of “original sin alone”. But if such a person is a young child, who has not had ample opportunity to enter the state of grace due to the limitations of age, then God will grant that person the state of grace, prior to death, as a type of baptism of blood. And so the person would be sent to Heaven, having died in the state of grace.

Now, what place does invincible ignorance play in the plan of salvation? A third principle of salvation theology is that only gravely immoral acts committed with full knowledge and full deliberation can deprive a person of the state of grace and salvation.

A person who commits an act that is objectively a grave sin (objective mortal sin), without the full culpability needed for the act to be also an actual mortal sin (full knowledge and full deliberation), does not lose the state of grace due to that act. The choice of such an act might be a venial sin, if the person has some limited realization that the act is immoral, or the choice might not be an actual sin at all. A lack of full knowledge of the grave immorality of a choice necessarily implies that the act is not an actual mortal sin. So no one loses their salvation without knowledge, in their own conscience, that their own free choice was gravely immoral.

Invincible ignorance is a lack of knowledge, on a matter of faith or morals, without grave culpability for that ignorance. The ignorance is termed invincible, though not in an absolute sense. For all the truths of the eternal moral law needed to avoid sin are accessible to reason alone, apart from Divine Revelation. Thus, it might seem as if invincible ignorance should never occur in the realm of morality. But it does occur because fallen sinners, living in a sinful world, have difficulty correctly discerning moral truth. The human person is often unable to make a correct judgment on a matter of faith or morals, due to ignorance and the influence of sinful society, despite a sincere conscience.

Acts that are gravely immoral, which might possibly be committed with a sincere but mistaken conscience, may include the decision not to become a Christian or a Catholic, or the decision not to believe in God. It is objectively a grave sin to reject the Church. But some persons might do so with invincible ignorance. They see the sinfulness of Christians, including many Catholics, and so they conclude that our religion is not as holy as we claim it to be. They see the sinfulness of many believers, and so they conclude that believers might be mistaken about the existence of God.

As a result of this principle of invincible ignorance, many persons whose lives include many objective mortal sins might still be saved, if they enter the state of grace by some form of baptism, and if they repent from any actual mortal sins which they do commit.

Atheists, agnostics, believers who reject Christianity, Christians who reject Catholicism, persons living in sin (i.e. cohabitating or divorced and remarried), homosexuals living in sin or in a same-sex marriage, and many other persons who seem lost, can still obtain eternal salvation, even if they do not reform their lives, as long as they are in good conscience due to invincible ignorance.

Jesus established this third principle of salvation theology from the Cross when He cried out: “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34). They are forgiven who commit an objective mortal sin, without the full knowledge and deliberation needed for actual mortal sin.

Invincible ignorance is also the subject of this verse:
{9:41} Jesus said to them: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. Yet now you say, ‘We see.’ So your sin persists.”

If the Pharisees (or anyone else) were blind, in the sense of truly not knowing that an act is wrong, they would not be guilty of actual sin. But if they do know, then they are guilty.

If a person loves God and hates his neighbor, then that person does not truly love God. If a person hates God and loves his neighbor, then that person does not truly hate God. If a person loves his neighbor, but does not believe in God, then that person truly loves God implicitly. For whosoever loves all that is good in this life, especially human persons made in the image of God, truly loves God.

Invincible ignorance is not, in and of itself, salvific. We are not saved by an absence of knowledge on faith or morals. All that invincible ignorance does, in each case where it applies, is to exempt the person from the full guilt of actual mortal sin, for that particular act, thereby preventing the loss of the state of grace. Invincible ignorance keeps the person from a guilt deserving of Hell, though only for the particular sin involved in the ignorance.

But some form of baptism is needed, in every case for us poor fallen sinners, in order to obtain the eternal reward of Heaven. And repentance from every actual mortal sin is essential to return to the state of grace.

Believe, pray, love, and repent. For none of us is guaranteed salvation. Free will can thwart the universal salvific will of God.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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