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Chapter 26: Modes of Christian Response

Appendix: The upright who have not heard the gospel

In view of question D through K’s explanations of why a Christian life-style is necessary to live uprightly in this fallen world, someone might suppose that all who are not formed by the gospel in a self-conscious Christian life are necessarily immoral. But this is false.

Each society’s conventional morality is based upon a limited set of accepted goals, a requirement of fairness necessary for a common life, and the exclusion of certain types of behavior which are unreasonable in view of the common purposes (4‑E). Conventional moralities represent workable compromises between human aspirations for fulfillment and the hard realities of the fallen human condition. Such moralities are an aspect of culture which defines “the world” over against Jesus. For this reason, the Fathers of the Church were right in regarding the standards of pagan morality as norms of immorality and the pagan virtues as vices.

Nevertheless, the Church clearly teaches that God provides every person with the opportunity for salvation (30‑H). Such salvation comes only by the grace of Jesus; somehow those who have not heard the gospel can be united with Jesus by living faith. In short, upright pagans also receive the gift of the Spirit and share in divine love. How can this teaching be reconciled with the position that there is a specifically Christian normative content to morality, different from the specific content of conventional moralities, which can be grasped only in the light of the mystery of the redemption?

The starting point for answering this question is that persons who follow sincere consciences which are in error through no fault of their own are morally upright. They do not close themselves against integral human fulfillment; rather, they choose consistently with it. For instance, people who first conceived the idea of enslaving their defeated enemies rather than torturing them to death probably acted uprightly; similarly, many religious aberrations, such as human sacrifice, probably have been accepted out of an earnest but mistaken will to please God.

Moved by God’s grace, people in every state and condition can use their ability to make free choices in a way which is upright—given the options and the moral demands as they see them. Of course, people also can choose to violate their own consciences. Any society will be shaped by the interplay of both good and bad choices, although those who are vicious are likely to have greater wealth and power, and thus will exercise greater influence in shaping the common life.

Those who are upright seek God insofar as they understand how. They receive the gift of divine love which enlivens their love of human goods and makes them conscious of the unsatisfactoriness of the human condition and the inadequacies of conventional morality. Thus is born the restless heart, ready to welcome the gospel, disposed to grope toward it, and able to begin in some inadequate way to outline some aspects of Christian truth.

Under appropriate conditions, upright persons who have not heard the gospel have emerged and made an impact upon the consciousness of a society; some have become great historical figures. It seems reasonable, for example, to assume that Socrates and the Buddha were such persons. Their emergence depended upon factors in addition to their moral character—for example, on their intelligence and articulateness, on their social positions in societies at a certain stage of civilization, on their having some extraordinary associates and followers, and so forth. All such moral leaders are at odds with their own societies’ conventional moralities.

Despite the nobility of such moral leaders, their thought involved serious errors and their moral teaching fell short—according to objective standards of Christian morality—of marking the way toward integral human fulfillment.36 Neither Socrates nor the Buddha, for example, adequately appreciated material creation, and so neither proposed a moral ideal which gave due emphasis to the pursuit and enjoyment of human goods in this world. Both tended to confuse moral evil with the human condition of bodiliness; for both, evil cannot so much be overcome as escaped by a kind of knowledge which transcends the concrete limits of space and time, sentient desires, and death. In short, neither Socratic philosophy nor Buddhism is adequately and integrally redemptive; neither gathers humankind into a community in friendship with God.

To offer these criticisms is not to detract from the nobility of moral leaders such as Socrates and the Buddha. Their lives very likely were holier and more pleasing to God than are the lives of most self-conscious Christians; indeed, they seem to be great saints. Yet they lived in semidarkness; they did not perceive the true significance of the shadow of death; objectively, their ways are not the way of our Lord Jesus, which is the only way of peace which is wholly wise, wholly enlightened, wholly life-giving.

According to Catholic faith, which is true to divine revelation recorded in Scripture, all grace is through Jesus and all who are saved will rejoice in his fullness (see LG 14; S.t., 1–2, q. 106, a. 1, ad 3; 2–2, q. 2, a. 7, ad 3).37 There is only one heaven, the fulfillment of all things in Jesus; there is no world of ideas for Socratic disembodied minds and no nirvana into which Buddhists will be dissolved without their unwanted individual selves. The precious gift which has been received by those who live in Catholic faith is this: “He has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1.9–10). The work of redemption ultimately is a divine work. But by the Incarnation, God also has made it a fully human work.

Through the Church and explicit Catholic faith, we are blessed with the opportunity to cooperate consciously in God’s work. We are friends of God, for we know what he is about (see Jn 15.15). Working with Jesus, we build up his fullness in this world; ours is the dignity of confidants and intimate fellow workers with the architect and Lord of the world which will never end. If we are faithful, after death we shall find ourselves at home in heaven. Socrates and the Buddha also will find themselves there, but for them it will be an unexpected wonderland. (Concerning the way in which those who have not heard the gospel can be members of the Church, see chapter thirty, appendix two.)

36. A survey of moral systems considered as types of wisdom alternative to Christian faith: Jacques Maritain, Moral Philosophy: An Historical and Critical Survey of the Great Systems (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), esp. 71–91.

37. To deny this proposition, as some do, leads to the relativization of Jesus, who comes to be regarded as only one way of religious relationship with the transcendent; that, in turn, leads to denial of the authority of Scripture and of the Incarnation itself. See Lucien Richard, O.M.I., What Are They Saying about Christ and World Religions? (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 44–73. It is unclear why anyone would be interested in such a ghost of religion—which is no more acceptable to a serious Hindu than it is to a serious Christian.