Monday, October 31, 2011

Guest Post: Why Convert?: Invincible Ignorance vs. Knowledge of the Truth

by JFB, a friend in seminary

I recently learned from a friend about a theological problem that he had faced. Once, while talking with some of his friends, he was asked by one of them who was a Protestant whether Catholics believed that anyone not a member of the Catholic Church was destined for Hell.

My friend responded, "No, Catholics believe that if a non-Christian leads a good moral life to the best of his knowledge, Jesus will have mercy." The Protestant then asked the next logical question: “Well, if that’s the case, why would you want to evangelize? If you just let them stay in their ignorance, they’ll have a greater chance of getting into heaven, because if a person doesn’t know about Jesus, he won’t be held to the higher standard than a Christian would be.”

This is very a reasonable question, and quite wrong-headed. First, let us make some general assumptions. It is not my purpose here to prove the Catholic Church is the one, true religion. I am merely showing why a Catholic should want to convert someone and risk their rejection rather than let them serve God as best they can with the knowledge they have.

So we assume that the Catholic Church is the one, true universal church, founded by Jesus Christ approximately 2000 years ago. The Catholic Church holds the deposit of faith given to us by Jesus Christ and the surest means of acquiring salvation. The Catechism says, "The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: 'There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer'" (CCC 605).

Therefore, anyone who loves God and seeks to know and serve Him as best as they are able -- be they Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, or Pagan -- is capable of being redeemed by Jesus through his suffering and death and entering Paradise. At the very least, it is not ours to judge on the final destination of any person.
Christ is Lord of eternal life. Full right to pass definitive judgment on the works and hearts of men belongs to him as redeemer of the world. He "acquired" this right by his cross. The Father has given "all judgment to the Son." Yet the Son did not come to judge, but to save and to give the life he has in himself. By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself, receives according to one's works, and can even condemn oneself for all eternity by rejecting the Spirit of love (CCC 679).
So then, why attempt to convert anyone? Why not let them try to live their life the best that they can, shielded at the Final Judgment by Invincible Ignorance?

Let me begin with a little joke. The denominations do not matter much for the general telling of the joke. One day, a Roman Catholic Priest, a Byzantine Priest, and a Rabbi are walking along a river. The Catholic Priest sees a Coca-Cola machine on the other side of the river and, being thirsty, walks across the surface of the river, buys a coke, and then walks back.

The Byzantine Priest is also thirsty and he too walks across the river to buy a coke. The Rabbi is astounded by this and decides he wants a coke too; if these guys can walk on water, so can he! He steps out into the river and immediately falls in. He pulls himself ashore and steps out again. As he's falling in the second time, the Catholic priest turns to the other and says, "Do you think we should tell him where the rocks are?"

The Catholic Church is not just another religion. Its beliefs are not just as valid as anyone else's. Now, in terms of comparing salvation to walking across the river to get a coke, the Rabbi might have been able to swim across on his own. The current may have pulled him downstream and he would be exhausted and wet, but it is possible for him to make it. It is also possible that he could have drowned.

If, when he made it to the coke machine, he were to be met there by one of his Priest friends and told about how he could have walked on the rocks, do you think he would've thanked him? Would he not have preferred to have been told that before he nearly went off a waterfall?

True: he may have decided that he felt like a swim and forsaken the rocks, and that would be his own decision. If a person of another faith or lack thereof is truly dedicated to learning the Truth of this life and serving it to the best of their ability, they should run to conversion when they are presented with the truths of the Catholic Church. If, on the other hand, they turn you away, mock you, and/ or refuse to listen to what you have to say, then they have judged themselves already (as stated above in CCC 679).

But maybe, just maybe, what you said will touch their heart beyond their understanding and some day lead them to the truth. In short, by attempting to convert someone to Catholicism you are only doing them a favor, or at the very least you are doing them no disservice because they are not intent on living the best way that they can. A further analogy that might be made is that hoping that someone will be saved by ignorance of the truth is about as safe as hoping that by virtue not teaching someone self-defense they will never be mugged.

Now, how to go about teaching someone about the truth of the Catholic Church: I'm afraid there is no sure method. Even logic can be ignored by someone sufficiently determined to do so. But perhaps the best way to convert someone is by example. To quote (somewhat inaccurately, I'm sure) a Priest I know: "I have never converted anyone by defeating them in logical argument. Rather those I have converted did so because they saw a completeness in my life which they lacked."

Another way of saying this is to use the words of St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words." But this doesn't mean you should not have logical arguments at the ready.
"...Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame" (1 Peter 3:15-16). 
I hope this note has been enlightening. My final thought is that if you want to achieve Heaven, you must live what you preach, and preach by how you live.

Oremus pro invicem


  1. This was great! I liked the joke - and how you related it to spreading the Gospel! Hope you come back for more guest posts!

  2. This is a topic I've been wondering about for a long time. Thanks for this great post. I loved the analogy with the joke!

  3. My husband is a convert. When I eturned to the practice of my faith, he came to church with me casually, literally "along for the ride." However, after about three years, he decided to become a Catholic. Everyone is on different places in their faith journey, by planting a seed, you may reap a harvest later.