Who can get to heaven?

Question: I am having difficulty in resolving the teachings of the saints and the subject of Islam. The saints say that no one can be saved apart from the Church, and they call Islam superstitious and refer to their prophet as the antichrist and so forth. I cannot square this with the Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 841, which says God’s plan of salvation includes Muslims.

David Pair. via email

Answer: It remains the teaching of the Catholic Church that no one who knows that the Church and Christ are necessary for salvation and who rejects them can be saved. However, when and how a person “knows” enough to be blameworthy of this sin of unbelief is not always clear.

There is a distinction made between vincible and invincible ignorance. Invincible ignorance is ignorance that cannot be reasonably overcome, given the circumstances. As such, one is not fully culpable for acting contrary to what they did not know.

Vincible ignorance is ignorance that could have been overcome with a reasonable effort but was indulged anyway. This sort of ignorance is more blameworthy and brings forth varying degrees of punishment depending of the degree of resistance to the truth.

Church teaching therefore recognizes that there are sometimes obstacles that keep the Muslims from recognizing the need for Christ and the Church. Many are taught from youth that Christians are blasphemers for our teaching on the Trinity. In certain areas, it is unlawful to practice the Christian faith, etc. Such Muslims can be saved if they sincerely seek God but remain in substantial and invincible ignorance as to the need for Christian faith.

This does not mean that they are automatically saved or even likely saved, only that salvation is possible for them, since we know God to be just and not the sort who would condemn others for what they could not reasonably know. Surely they would have to undergo purgation and enlightenment after death and acknowledge it was only through Jesus that they could enter heaven.

As for the saints, we cherish their lives and example. However they are not the magisterium. Thus we are not required to square Church teaching with them. Rather, their views need to be squared with Church teaching. Further, the saints often lived in and spoke to situations more specific than what the general norms of the Church address.

Question: Please explain how Jesus can be God as well as man at the same time.

Anthony Retnam, via Facebook

Answer: If I could explain it, I might be a heretic. There are mysteries here, which caused the ancient Church to fall to its knees when the words of the Creed in this matter were said. How can the infinite enter the finite; how can Mary’s creator be born of her?

The mystery is described by the term “hypostatic union,” which states that Jesus, though one person, has two natures: divine and human. These natures are united in his one person but not mixed or confused. Your question, “how can this be?” can only be answered by an appeal to God’s omnipotence and will to save us. Jesus had to be God to save us, but had to be man to represent us. Hence, it is fitting that Jesus be both, but how this is done is left to God.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.