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“Ask a Priest: Can a Mass Get an Unrepentant Sinner Into Heaven?”
Q: In a recent conversation with a friend of mine who is a devout Catholic (I am not), he said a few things that I did not understand. I made the comment that a person who lives a life of habitual unrepentant sin will not go to heaven, whether he is a Catholic or not. My friend says that Catholics are able to have a Mass said for someone like that, so they can enter heaven if they are a Catholic. Is this true? When I told him that I did not think the Bible says that, he told me that I am “not authorized to interpret Scripture.” What does that mean that I am not authorized to interpret Scripture? My friend also told me that even though I think I am a Christian, if I refuse to be a part of the Roman Catholic Church, I cannot and will not go to heaven. Is this true? -R.T.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: Your friend is seriously mistaken on a number of points.
Someone who lives and dies unrepentant in serious sin risks eternal loss — and all the Masses in the world wouldn’t get a soul out of hell.
We are all free to read Scripture, and many people can draw unique fruits and insights from it, which is good. We as Catholics do believe, however, that our personal interpretations shouldn’t contradict the way the Church interprets something. That is reasonable, since God doesn’t intend for Scripture to be interpreted one way by the Church and in a radically different way by someone else. That would render Scripture virtually meaningless.
This isn’t to say, however, that the Church interprets everything in Scripture in a rigid way. In fact, there are relatively few passages that the Church has made definitive judgments on. It doesn’t, for instance, try to interpret every symbol in the Book of Revelation.
In practice, the Church encourages us to read Scripture but with an eye toward Tradition, so that we don’t run off the rails, so to speak. For more reading, you might check out the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s “Interpretation of the Bible in the Church“.
As for needing to be Catholic in order to enter heaven, that is patently false. The Church recognizes that salvation is possible for people who are visibly outside its ranks.
The Second Vatican Council constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, deals with this topic. Section 16 of that document is worth quoting here at length:
“Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found among them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”
I hope this helps. You might even think about sharing this answer with your friend.