Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and Pharisees

Many Catholics today have fallen into the error of the Pharisees, by speaking about non-Christians as if they cannot be children of God, as if they are very unlikely to be saved, as if all Christians are better than all non-Christians. Similarly, they err by speaking about persons, whether Christian or not, who are guilty of objective mortal sin, as if their objective sin must necessarily also be actual mortal sin, and as if they could not possibly be in the state of grace by invincible ignorance.

What does Jesus say?

{23:34} Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.” And truly, dividing his garments, they cast lots.

God does not forgive actual mortal sin unless the person is repentant. So why does Jesus say, speaking very generally: “forgive them”? Who is forgiven in this expression? “For they know not what they do.” The reason they are forgiven is that they have invincible ignorance; their objective mortal sins were not committed with full knowledge and full deliberation. In such a case, objective mortal sin is not also actual mortal sin and does not deprive the soul of the state of grace. Jesus was not speaking specifically or only about those persons who crucified Him. Some persons involved in the crucifixion may have had invincible ignorance; others were fully culpable.

Jesus was speaking very broadly, about the offer of salvation from the Cross. If objective mortal sin is committed with invincible ignorance, that is, without sufficient knowledge of the grave immorality of the act to make the sin also an actual mortal sin, then the person is not condemned by God.

{21:23} And when he had arrived at the temple, as he was teaching, the leaders of the priests and the elders of the people approached him, saying: “By what authority do you do these things? And who has given this authority to you?”
{21:24} In response, Jesus said to them: “I also will question you with one word: if you tell me this, I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.
{21:25} The baptism of John, where was it from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” But they thought within themselves, saying:
{21:26} “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Then why did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we have the crowd to fear, for they all hold John to be a prophet.”
{21:27} And so, they answered Jesus by saying, “We do not know.” So he also said to them: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.
{21:28} But how does it seem to you? A certain man had two sons. And approaching the first, he said: ‘Son, go out today to work in my vineyard.’
{21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.
{21:30} And approaching the other, he spoke similarly. And answering, he said, ‘I am going, lord.’ And he did not go.
{21:31} Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “Amen I say to you, that tax collectors and prostitutes shall precede you, into the kingdom of God.
{21:32} For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Yet even after seeing this, you did not repent, so as to believe him.

By prostitutes, Scripture indicates everyone guilty of grave sexual sins of every kind. By tax collectors, Scripture indicates everyone guilty of sins of greed or violence. (Tax collectors typically collected much more than was due to be paid, and they threatened or used violence to collect this excessive payment.)

Jesus and His Church teach that persons guilty of grave sin can be saved by repentance, and they can also be saved if their objective mortal sin is not also actual mortal sin.

A non-Christian who repents from sin with perfect contrition (which can be implicit) can thereby enter the state of grace for the first time. Otherwise, a person who repents from actual mortal sin by perfect contrition returns to the state of grace.

Catechism of Pope Saint Pius X:
“17 Q. Can the absence of Baptism be supplied in any other way?
“A. The absence of Baptism can be supplied by martyrdom, which is called Baptism of Blood, or by an act of perfect love of God, or of contrition, along with the desire, at least implicit, of Baptism, and this is called Baptism of Desire.”

If anyone, Christian or not, commits an objectively grave sin, but without full knowledge and full deliberation, then he does not lose the state of grace. Not every objective mortal sin is also an actual mortal sin, and only actual mortal sin deprives persons of the state of grace.

The Council of Trent infallibly teaches that everyone in the state of grace, whether by formal baptism with water or by a baptism of desire, is an adopted son (child) of God. So the idea circulating recently among conservative Catholics, that only baptized Christians are children of God, is heresy. A non-Christian who has never entered the state of grace by a baptism of water, or desire, or blood is not a child of God. But any non-Christian who has entered the state of grace, by the love of God or the true selfless love of neighbor, is a child of God.

Pope Pius XII: “An act of love is sufficient for the adult to obtain sanctifying grace and to supply the lack of baptism.” (Address to Midwives, n. 21a.)

Those sinners who outwardly reject the Church, if this choice falls short of the full culpability of actual mortal sin, can also be in the state of grace by an implicit baptism of desire. They are saved by the Church and by Christ, despite this outward rejection, due to their love of God (in a non-Christian religion), or due to the true selfless love of neighbor, which always includes, at least implicitly, the love of God. They have invincible ignorance and so they are not guilty of actual mortal sin, despite the objective mortal sin of rejecting Christianity.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “salvation is accessible in mysterious ways, inasmuch as divine grace is granted to them by virtue of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, without external membership in the Church, but nonetheless always in relation to her (cf. RM 10). It is a mysterious relationship. It is mysterious for those who receive the grace, because they do not know the Church and sometimes even outwardly reject her.”

So those Catholics err greatly who claim that all non-Christians are not children of God, or that they are unlikely to be in the state of grace. They also err who equate every objective mortal sin — such as committed by prostitutes and tax collectors — with actual mortal sin.

{2:15} And it happened that, as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat at table together with Jesus and his disciples. For those who followed him were many.
{2:16} And the scribes and the Pharisees, seeing that he ate with tax collectors and sinners, said to his disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
{2:17} Jesus, having heard this, said to them: “The healthy have no need of a doctor, but those who have maladies do. For I came not to call the just, but sinners.”

The Church is a field hospital, entering the war zone of sinful secular society to treat the spiritual wounds of sinners. So it is that persons who commit grave sins can still be saved, because the Church treats and heals their wounds.

But as for those modern-day Pharisees, who consider themselves justified but who despise non-Christians and persons afflicted by grave sin, they will not enter the kingdom of God, unless they repent.

{7:29} And upon hearing this, all the people and the tax collectors justified God, by being baptized with the baptism of John.
{7:30} But the Pharisees and the experts in the law despised the counsel of God concerning themselves, by not being baptized by him.

{18:10} “Two men ascended to the temple, in order to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.
{18:11} Standing, the Pharisee prayed within himself in this way: ‘O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of men: robbers, unjust, adulterers, even as this tax collector chooses to be.
{18:12} I fast twice between Sabbaths. I give tithes from all that I possess.’
{18:13} And the tax collector, standing at a distance, was not willing to even lift up his eyes to heaven. But he struck his chest, saying: ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’
{18:14} I say to you, this one descended to his house justified, but not the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled; and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Persons who commit grave sins, and who repent out of love for God or neighbor, are on the path to Heaven and are in the state of grace. Persons who commit grave sins, without the full culpability of actual mortal sin, may still be in the state of grace, despite objectively grave sin — as long as they entered the state of grace at some time, and do not fall away by any actual mortal sin.

But Catholics who behave like Pharisees might not be in the state of grace. For treating your neighbor with malice or contempt or denigration or derision is a grave sin.

{5:20} For I say to you, that unless your justice has surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

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

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2 Responses to Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and Pharisees

  1. Guest says:

    Where you err is thinking that all unbelievers have invincible ignorance or that good hope can be placed in their salvation. A pre conciliar pope rejected that very statement. We can’t judge that anyone is invincibly ignorant, only God can. We ought to convert all that we can.

    If the traditions are right most Catholics are damned. What good hope can we have then for those who do not know the faith, if even those who have the faith are in danger of going to hell?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I do not say or assume that all non-Christians or all non-believers have invincible ignorance. The Magisterium, though, has repeatedly stated (pre-conciliar Popes, if that matters to you) that those who are ignorance of our most holy religion can still be saved. They are not per se saved by ignorance; that particular point means that they may not be guilty to the extent of actual mortal sin for not becoming Catholic or Christian. And yes, we should strive to convert all whom we can convert, especially fellow Catholics who have fallen away.

      The Magisterium teaches the universal salvific will of God, and His infinite mercy. Not all are saved. But the idea that “most Catholics are damned” is unsupportable. You are not referring to Sacred Tradition, or Sacred Scripture, or the Magisterium, but to past theological opinions. You are also ignoring recent teachings of the Magisterium.

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