“Ask a Priest: My Sister Left the Church. Is She Doomed?”

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Q: I am stuck between God’s mercy and the Catholic belief set by the Second Vatican Council about who can be redeemed. My sister had been baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church, but has chosen not to believe. She lives her life by the golden rule, believes in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, and believes the Bible has good lessons to teach. However, she does not think the Bible accounts are real or that God is real. I believe that God loves and forgives, that his mercy and grace can conquer all. I want to believe that this means she can still be saved; but by my interpretation of Vatican II, she can’t. As I am sure you know it states, “Those who know that God founded the Catholic Church through Christ as the necessary means to salvation, yet still refuse to enter or remain in it, cannot be saved.” She rejects that God is real. Does this mean she will not be saved? If she cannot be saved, then how can my heaven be heaven without all the ones I love? -O.K.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for your concern for your sister. First, now isn’t the moment to despair about your sister. Her concern for those who suffer hunger would indicate that she has a good heart. The Holy Spirit can work with that.

On the other hand, it is important not to underestimate the value of explicit belief in God. Somewhere along the line your sister seems to have decided to reject the idea of God. If there is no God, then ultimately there is really no point to doing good works.

Nor should God’s mercy and grace be confused with his justice. The nature of God and the nature of serious sin cannot and will not mix, and to think that he will simply shrug off grave sin when souls come before him for judgment is dangerously presumptuous.

Perhaps your sister realizes this deep down — that doing good works is a real demand of the moral life, that she cannot be indifferent to the plight of the poor. For believers this moral life has a solid foundation: God.

Objectively someone who chooses atheism is putting his/her soul at risk. Subjectively, however, it is not for us to say which souls would be lost. God alone knows your sister’s heart and her motivations. There could be a number of reasons why she lost confidence in the Church as God’s instrument of salvation.

Rather than trying to figure where she’s “going to end up,” it might be better to focus on helping her experience a conversion and to get her to know the person of Jesus Christ.

To that end it might be good to pray intensely for your sister. Remind her of your love for her often. Look for opportunities to share your faith — for instance, you can speak about how your own relationship with Jesus helps you find meaning. Here you don’t have to preach; rather, the quiet and loving witness of what the faith means to you can be a powerful persuasion.

You might look for opportunities to get your sister on a mission trip with a Catholic group. Perhaps that experience would help her connect the dots between her penchant for good works and the teachings of the Catholic faith.

As for heaven, if and when we are blessed to get there, we will be perfectly happy, because we will see God himself. At that point even the absence of loved ones from this world will not dim our happiness. In heaven we will wonder how anyone could have possibly rejected God. But that is another issue.

For now, focus on what you can do for your sister. Helping to bring her back to the faith would be a great act of mercy.

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