Muhammad Ali died and went to Heaven

Probably. I can’t be certain about the state of anyone’s soul at death — except canonized Saints and certain holy persons mentioned in Sacred Scripture. But based on what is known about his life, especially in his later years, he was filled with the love of God and neighbor, and therefore he was in the state of grace and most likely died in the state of grace. And it is Catholic dogma that all human persons who die in the state of grace go to Heaven, perhaps after a time of purification in Purgatory.

Now famed heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay converted to Islam in 1975, and, about that time, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He continued to be a devout practicing Muslim until his death on 3 June 2016. Ali was raised in a Protestant Christian family, and was therefore certainly baptized as a Christian. After converting to Islam, he never returned to Christianity. He had sufficient accurate knowledge of the Christian faith, and yet he rejected that faith and chose the religion of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

So the question that concerns this article is whether or not a person, in the same or similar situation, can be saved, if he never reverts to Christianity. I’m not asking if it is certain, but if it is plausible and likely that such a person would be saved, despite rejecting Christianity and never repenting of that rejection. The answer depends on a proper understanding of salvation theology.

The state of grace is absolutely necessary at death for salvation. And we poor sinners, who were conceived with original sin, must obtain the state of sanctifying grace at some point in our lives, prior to death. For we do not have the state of grace from conception. Yet we can only obtain the state of grace in one of three ways:

1. formal Baptism with water
2. a baptism of desire
3. a baptism of blood

It is Catholic dogma that is no other way for a person conceived with original sin to obtain the state of grace than one of the three forms of baptism.

Once a person enters the state of grace, by some form of baptism, he or she can lose that state only by committing an actual mortal sin: a gravely immoral act, chosen with full freedom of will (i.e. full deliberation) and full knowledge of the grave immorality of the act. A grave sin committed without full knowledge of its grave immorality or without full deliberation is not an actual mortal sin and does not deprive one of the state of grace.

If anyone commits an actual mortal sin, they can return to the state of grace in one of three ways:
1. by at least imperfect contrition and the Sacrament of Confession
2. by perfect contrition (with a later sacramental Confession, if the person is Catholic or Orthodox and is able)
3. by the Sacrament of Baptism, for those who were never formally baptized, or by the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, in some cases

When a baptized Christian leaves the Christian faith for another religion, such as Judaism or Islam, this deliberate decision to depart is objectively a mortal sin. But it might not be an actual mortal sin if the person sincerely believes that his new religion is the truest path to God, and that Christianity is not. By this invincible ignorance, the person avoids committing an actual mortal sin and therefore retains the state of grace.

How can a person who has sufficient accurate knowledge of Christianity leave the Faith without full knowledge of the gravely immoral of such a decision? The sins of Christians is the answer. We poor sinners who profess the Christian Faith — whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant — have obscured the beautiful face of Christ by our many sins, so much so that some Christians depart from the true Faith, mistakenly thinking it to be false or misguided. And for similar reasons, many persons who sincerely seek religious and moral truth turn aside from Christianity, not because of Christ but because of his poor sinful followers.

A person who is formally outside of the one true Church, having departed after formal baptism or having never joined by formal baptism, can still be in the state of grace. He might retain the state of grace, if his departure was not an actual mortal sin. And those who have never been baptized with water may have obtained a baptism of desire implicitly.

Everyone in the state of grace is a member of the one true Church, including baptized Christians, former Christians, non-Christian believers, and unbelievers. Only baptized Christians are formal members, and a baptized Christian remains a member, even if he or she falls from grace by actual mortal sin. Non-Christians can enter the state of grace by a baptism of desire, which is often implicit, and they can return to the state of grace after actual mortal sin by perfect contrition.

Everyone who is in the state of grace is a child of God by spiritual adoption, whether they entered that state by baptism with water or baptism of desire or a baptism of blood. Everyone in the state of grace has the three infused theological virtues: love, faith, and hope. This love is the true spiritual love of God and neighbor. But whoever truly loves his neighbor also loves God, at least implicitly. The love of God and the love of neighbor always go together. And so, an Atheist who loves his neighbor thereby implicitly loves God, and can enter the state of grace by that love as a type of implicit baptism of desire, and can return to the state of grace, after actual mortal sin, by that love, as a type of implicit perfect contrition.


Now for the case of Muhammad Ali. He was well-known to be peaceful, devout, and prayerful. He worshiped and loved God. He also had a strong desire, in his many years of retirement after his boxing career ended, to do good for other persons. His works witnessed to his faith in God and to his love of God and neighbor. So, as far as anyone can tell without being able to see his soul directly, Ali was filled with love, faith, and hope and therefore was most likely in the state of grace.

A Muslim who truly loves God and neighbor must necessarily be in the state of grace. You cannot truly love any human person, in the true sense of a selfless spiritual love, without the infused virtue of love (charity) given only in the state of grace. If you love one human person truly, you also love all human persons, at least implicitly, and you also love God, at least implicitly.

A Muslim who knows about Christianity and does not convert may well remain in the state of grace. For although refusal to convert is objectively a grave sin, only actual mortal sin deprives a person of the state of grace. And we know by the example of their lives that many Muslims devoutly love God and have a true love of neighbor, often expressed in word and deed.

Now there are, unfortunately, some Muslims — like the members of the group called ISIS or ISIL — who evidently hate their neighbor. They commit horrific violations of human rights and grave crimes against humanity, while claiming that it is the will of God or the rule of their religion. These persons are not true Muslims, and they are not true worshippers of God. But it happens also in Christianity that some persons, who outwardly profess to worship God, are so filled with selfishness and hatred of their neighbor that they have no real love of God or neighbor at all. They are on the path to Hell.

For no one can truly hate their neighbor — not a hatred for the behavior of their neighbor, when that behavior is disordered, but rather a true malice toward any human person — and then truly love God. Neither can anyone truly hate one human person, and then also love any other human person. The state of grace is the state of loving God and neighbor. You either have that infused virtue of love, in which case you love, at least implicitly, all human person and God, or you lack that infused virtue of love, in which case you are unable to love in the fullest and truest sense of the word.

Any non-Christian can be saved by accepting Christ implicitly, by means of their love of God or at least their love of their neighbor, who is made in the image of God. But of course the reverse also applies. Anyone can be lost to eternal damnation by rejecting Christ implicitly, by means of their hatred for God or religion or their fellow human persons made in the image of God.

He who truly loves his neighbor, truly loves God. He who truly hate his neighbor, truly hates God.

Very many persons are saved, who are formally outside of the Church, because they are implicitly members of the Church by the love of neighbor. But not every Christian is saved, and not every non-Christian is saved — only those who obtain and retain the state of grace, which is the state of loving God and neighbor.

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

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6 Responses to Muhammad Ali died and went to Heaven

  1. Matt says:

    Ali was married four times and had seven daughters and two sons. In 1975, Ali began an affair with Veronica Porsche, an actress and model. By the summer of 1977, his second marriage was over and he had married Porsche. Also he had daughters, Miya and Khaliah, from extramarital relationships. This is from Wikipedia.

    Matthew 19:9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Objective sins are only actual sins if the person realizes it is wrong. And, like any sinner, he may have repented from his past sins. In fact, if a person truly loves God and neighbor, he or she must necessarily have repented from past grave sins.

  2. Michael says:

    I have to agree with Matt’s comments. Your article paints Ali as a living saint on par with Mother Teresa. Not only was he an adulterer but he was a modern day gladiator whose very career was based on a sport aimed at physically beating others into submission. He may have repented yes, but will very likely spend a long, long time in purgatory.

    • Ron Conte says:

      I don’t see how the length of time in Purgatory can be stated as “long, long” and “very likely”. Also, your depiction of boxing, as if it were a sin or as if one boxer were victimizing another is simply not true. The Church has never condemned sports such as boxing, football, rugby, or other physical contests as sinful, simply due to the use of force.

  3. Ben Gallia says:

    There is no salvation outside of the Church. Sure, he was devout… his devotion was to a false god and a false prophet! Unless he had a full realization of his culpability at some point on his deathbed and a perfect act of contrition, all is lost for him. Who rejects the Catholic Church while actually believing that what they’re doing is wrong? He’s not invincibly ignorant; he never gave the one true Faith the same shot. I didn’t see a man conflicted in the slightest about his past beliefs. We can’t judge internals but externally this man was a notorious public sinner. Because he ran out of breath before he was able to accuse himself or to do penance for it, we must condemn his disastrous failure to lead a life worthy of a Catholic.

    If by a galactic longshot he actually made it into purgatory, the first thing he’d want us to do is not to celebrate his horrible life choices or his meaningless sports achievements. He never pulled punches, neither should we. Let his life and (by all appearances) unprovided-for death be a warning to all of us.

    • Ron Conte says:

      The Magisterium has taught that devout prayerful Muslims truly love God. There are three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam. Your claim that peaceful devout Muslims, such as Ali, worship “a false god” is incompatible with magisterial pronouncements on the subject. The Church also teaches (Vatican II and Redemptoris Missio) that persons who are non-Christians (formally outside the Church), can be members implicitly (members of the soul of the Church, if not of Her body). So a person who outwardly rejects the Church, may still be in the state of grace (RM 10).

      Perfect contrition would only be necessarily if his objective mortal sins were also actual mortal sins. We cannot assume that all who reject Christianity, or who divorce and remarry, or who commit other objective sins, are guilty to the extent of actual mortal sin. And, in addition, perfect contrition is certainly possible for non-Christians, especially those who are devout believers in God.

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