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“Ask a Priest: Could a Muslim End Up Holier Than a Christian?”
Q: I told my Protestant friend that if a Muslim follows his conscience perfectly, then he can be holier than a Christian. My friend thought this was ridiculous. His argument was as follows. He cites Romans 3:23, “For all have fallen short, there is no way to salvation except through Jesus Christ.” Thus my friend thinks that native Indians are under just condemnation of God’s wrath. God told the Israelites to kill gentiles; that means God predestined the gentiles to hell. Likewise all people of other religions are destined to hell. If there is another way of being saved, then there is technically another gospel. My friend also said that he found out that Catholics believe that there are sins that can’t be forgiven in confession and deserve excommunication if those sins were carried out in full consent. He said that Paul tried to destroy the church, and surely that was worse than abortion. So do we believe Paul wasn’t saved? -S.H.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: As regards the Muslim, you and your friend are both right, in a sense. The Muslim could turn out holier than a Christian, though, as your friend notes correctly, salvation does come through Christ. These two positions are compatible because God doesn’t hold it against someone if he grew up without knowledge of the Christian faith. Still, the redemption of all people relies on Christ’s redemptive suffering on the cross.
A key passage from the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium deals with non-Christians.
In No. 16 it says, “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.”
God, by the way, predestines no one to hell. In fact, he “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
If all the upbaptized were lost, that would mean everyone in the Old Testament is lost. Scripture doesn’t support that at all; notice Our Lord’s parable about Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is in a state of peace, “carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22). That hardly sounds as if Abraham is in hell. The upshot is: Your friend is mistaken that all people in other religions are doomed to perdition.
As for unforgivable sins, your friend is a bit confused. There are certain sins that bring excommunication. Those sins can be forgiven in confession, though the priest might need special permission in certain cases to give absolution. In rare cases the permission would need to come from the Holy See, the anonymity of the penitent being strictly guarded, of course.
As for Paul, he repented of his sins, and he is recognized as a saint today. He was surely saved. The unforgivable sin that Jesus referred to is the case where someone is obstinate and refuses forgiveness.
The Catechism says in No. 1864: “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”
I hope this helps.