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For example, say there is a 28 year old Muslim woman living in Afghanistan. Her whole life, her family, friends, and community have told her to "stay away from those pagan Christians because they believe in three gods". So when she meets Christians that try to explain the gospel to her, she conciously denies it.

One day, on her way to volunteer for an orphanage, a man viciously beats her to death.

Is this woman's concious denial of the gospel a mortal sin that causes God to subject her to having her flesh burned forever and ever in eternal hellfire?

  • There are two questions here. The question "Can a non-Catholic commit a mortal sin?" needs to be answered first before the question "Is a non-Catholic's denial of the Gospel of Christ a mortal sin?" can be answered. – Geremia Aug 14 '16 at 4:48
  • Hello @Geremia. If there is any possibility that a non-Catholic can commit a mortal sin, then my next question would be "is a non-Catholics denial of the gospel a mortal sin". If they can't, then there is no reason to ask the question. So it should be a simple yes or no answer, right? – anonymouswho Aug 14 '16 at 22:55
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The short answer is “not necessarily”.

“Conscious” denial of the Gospel is not the same thing as denial “with full knowledge.”

“Grave matter” vs. “mortal sin”

In Catholic moral theology, a distinction is made between the objective gravity of an action, and a person’s subjective culpability.

For example (to name an action that everyone agrees is gravely disordered), killing an innocent person is clearly gravely wrong. It is possible, however, that the perpetrator of the crime not responsible, or not fully responsible, for his actions (if, for example, his is not mentally competent).

When the action itself is gravely disordered (gravely immoral), in Catholic terminology, it is called grave matter for sin. (See Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 1858.)

For such an action to be a mortal sin (that is, for the person to be fully responsible for that action), three conditions must be met:

  • The matter must be grave (i.e., the action committed must be, objectively speaking, gravely immoral).
  • The person must fully understand what he is doing.
  • The person must freely and deliberately perform the action.

(See CCC 1857, more fully explained in nos. 1859-1861.)

Hence, someone who honestly and innocently does not know that a certain action is wrong, or acts, say, out of grave fear, then he is not fully responsible for that action (and might even be completely free from responsibility in certain circumstances).

That does not mean that the action itself is not evil; however, determining personal culpability is more complex than simply assessing the objective goodness or evil of an action.

Applied to denying the Gospel

In the scenario described by the O.P., although refusing to believe in the Gospel is certainly grave matter, the person in question is clearly misinformed about the Gospel.

Moreover, there are a number of other factors that probably diminish (and, in my opinion, eliminate) her responsibility:

  • Prejudices learned from youth against Christianity. (E.g., if you are taught all your life that Christians are “pagans,” you will have a harder time being convinced by them—and this is not your fault, obviously.)
  • Grave fear of the consequences of converting. Regrettably, in most Muslim societies, there is not much tolerance of those who become Christian (and in many cases, it leads to the convert’s exile or death).

In conclusion, then, it is extremely unlikely that her “conscious” denial of the Gospel would be held against her by God.

Not an impediment to salvation, but not a guarantee, either

Note that we are speaking about a person who is (1) gravely misinformed about the Faith, to the point of thinking that it is evil; and (2) in grave fear of converting. In a case like this, the objectively grave matter of refusing to believe cannot be imputed to the person (although it remains grave matter).

Hence, it is not an impediment to the person’s salvation. It is not, however a guarantee of salvation, and in fact, salvation is (at least objectively speaking) harder to obtain, since the person is deprived of all the helps that being a believer entails.

The Church teaches that God gives the opportunity of salvation to all men:

[W]e ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery (Gaudium et Spes 22).

This is not, of course, a guarantee of salvation, but requires the grace of God and at least the implicit acceptance of that grace on the person’s part, which would require that person, among other things, to behave in accord with his conscience.

For a fuller treatment of the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation,* and how non-Catholics (and even con-Christians) can be saved, see a document called Dominus Iesus, issued in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, especially Chapter VI, which reads in part:

[I]t must be firmly believed that “the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door”[Lumen gentium, 14]. This doctrine must not be set against the universal salvific will of God (cf. 1 Tim 2:4); “it is necessary to keep these two truths together, namely, the real possibility of salvation in Christ for all mankind and the necessity of the Church for this salvation” [Redemptoris missio, 9] (No. 20).

[…]

With respect to the way in which the salvific grace of God—which is always given by means of Christ in the Spirit and has a mysterious relationship to the Church—comes to individual non-Christians, the Second Vatican Council limited itself to the statement that God bestows it “in ways known to himself” (No. 21; the quote is from the passage of Gaudium et Spes given above).


* Although it does not directly address the question as asked, it is useful background to address the issue of the contentious dogma Extra ecclesia nulla salus (“Outside the Church there is no salvation.”)

This dogma was first formulated by the Church Fathers of the third century. The Church at the time was conflicted by various heretical and schismatic groups, as well as the pastoral problem of the so-called lapsi (those who caved in to demands to renounce their faith or sacrifice to pagan gods by their persecutors). The first formulation of the dogma appears in the writings of Cyprian of Carthage (d. ca. 258). Hence, Cyprian should be understood to mean, “salvation is not to be found by (deliberately) adhering to heretical or schismatic sects,” but only in the Catholic Church.

This dogma was reaffirmed multiple times, most notably in the Council of Florence, in which the Eastern Orthodox were briefly reunited with the Catholic Church. In the profession of faith Cantate domino, the doctrine is stated as follows:

[The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives.

There are a couple of points to keep in mind here:

  • The Council effected a reunion between groups that had previously considered each other schismatic and (to varying degrees) heretical. It would be absurd for each party to affirm that, prior to the reunion, all members of the respective faithful in the opposing camp were destined to eternal condemnation, simply because the reunion had not yet been effected. Hence, there is an assumption in this passage that the refusal to be united to the Church is deliberate.

  • It leaves a way out for those who are acting out of invincible ignorance or grave fear: they must be jointed to the Church before the end of their lives. It does not specify the manner in which they are joined, which could be in a way that is extra-sacramental (as with the Catechumens).

(Note that the Church has a long history—dating back at least to Tertullian—of recognizing the so-called “baptism of desire”—the desire of catechumens for Baptism—and “baptism by blood”—that is, the martyrdom of the non-baptized. In other words, those who explicitly desire Baptism but are not able to receive it, and those who give their lives for the Faith, even before their Baptism, can still be saved. See CCC 1257-1261.)

The dogma was given further scrutiny after the discovery of the Americas. (Recall that the Council of Florence concluded in 1449; Columbus set sail in 1492.) Before that time, most Europeans assumed that the Gospel had essentially already been preached to the whole world. It soon became clear, however, that vast numbers of people had simply never been evangelized. Theologians of time (e.g., Francisco de Vitoria and the School of Salamanca) recognized that it was absurd to affirm that the native Americans were condemned simply because they had not been evangelized.

The Church has specifically condemned a “rigoristic” interpretation of this dogma (i.e., that formal membership in the Catholic Church is a strict and absolute requirement for salvation), most notably in a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemning the rigoristic interpretation of Jesuit Father Leonard Feeney.

Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, mentioned above, goes so far as to teach that God offers the possibility (not the guarantee!) of salvation to all men without exception, as mentioned.

The most current authoritative interpretations of this dogma are found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church nos. 846-848 and the document Dominus Iesus mentioned above.

In summary, the Church teaches the following:

  • Objectively, all men are obliged to avail themselves of the means of salvation, which includes membership in the Catholic Church.
  • Those who are unable to be full members of the Church through no fault of their own (i.e., the usual mitigating circumstances: invincible ignorance, grave fear, etc.) are nevertheless offered the possibility of salvation in ways known to God alone.
  • That salvation is in any case mediated through the Catholic Church, even if the person is not initially aware of it. (For Christians, they participate in certain elements of the Catholic Church that are effective for salvation; in particular, they all take part in the one Baptism, and some groups, like the Orthodox, even enjoy all seven Sacraments.)

In this way, we can still affirm that outside the Church there is no salvation, without affirming that God condemns people for actions that are not their fault.

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    In summary you are saying that according to Catholisim, ignorance is bliss—that not knowing or properly understanding the Gospel will keep you out of hell‽ This sounds more like your personal opinion and a liberaization of theology than it does historic Roman Catholisim. I think this answer calls for some more refereces to back up the idea that good-ish non-Christians default to going to heaven instead of hell and that judgement only applies to well informed rejectors of the Gospel (which is what this answer seems to conclude). The current citations are for side issues. – Caleb Aug 12 '16 at 7:38
  • Thank you AthanasiusOfAlex. Although I agree with Caleb that this could definitely use more references, I say (+1) for making me feel a little better about the eternal torture chamber of burning flesh in hell. If I'm not mistaken, are you saying that as long as a man is ignorant of the full revelation of the gospel, it's more than likely he will be forgiven for both his ignorance and sin? Does this mean that the only people that are surely going to hell are those that study the Scriptures their entire lives but choose to ignore them to follow a false god? – anonymouswho Aug 12 '16 at 8:08
  • It seems that if I wish to avoid eternal burning of my flesh, then when somebody tries to explain the gospel I should quickly cover my ears and shout "blah, blah, blah!" If I try to teach another the gospel, and he later denies it, should I feel bad for laying the foundation that eventually leads this man to have his flesh burned forever and ever? Are these logical conclusions to this doctrine? – anonymouswho Aug 12 '16 at 8:08
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    I'm going to have to -1 this as not useful in answering the question because the original version conflates the sins of believers with the issue of non-believers and the edited section and new citations seem to contradict the conclusion presented. Also if it turns out the conclusion you're prensenting is current Catholic doctrine, this is a clear change of position and you don't identifiy when and where this position originated or what portion(s) of the Catholic world have gotten on board with this and which ones might give a different answer. – Caleb Aug 12 '16 at 8:35
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    This is in fact current Catholic doctrine, @Caleb; it's not new per se although it's been more clearly stated in the last century and a half or so. I'm not seeing a contradiction between the original version and the edit: what's the issue in your understanding? Finally, I'm unaware of any "portion(s) of the Catholic world" outside some sedevacantists, whom I consider doubtfully part of the Church, who have a different answer. – Matt Gutting Aug 12 '16 at 9:01
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AthanasiusOfAlex's answer is long, thorough, and well-referenced, in my opinion. Here I'd like simply to offer a brief summary, in light of some of the current (2016-08-12 18:34 GMT) comments:

Case 1

Someone voluntarily receives baptism, or receives baptism at the desire of their guardians: If such a person truly believes those things the Church teaches to be true, and follows what the Church says to do—praying, receiving the sacraments, doing their best to obey the laws of God and the Church, receiving absolution for sins committed—then they will be admitted into heaven.

Case 2

The opposite. Someone deliberately and consciously attempts to avoid learning anything about the Church and Her teachings, e.g. in order to say before God "But I didn't know!": Such a person is deliberately attempting to avoid the Truth; they are not "invincibly ignorant" but ignorant by their own free will. Such persons do not have the possibility of entering into heaven; they have gravely sinned.


Note: This includes the case where the person is validly baptized—inside or outside the Catholic Church—and, knowing the Church's truths accurately and knowing them to be necessary for salvation, deliberately rejects them even to the point of death (God being of course able to forgive up until death).


Case 3

Someone, entirely without their own voluntary attempt or cooperation, winds up being unable to freely accept the truths offered by the Church (for example through being unaware of the Church or misled about it), but nevertheless attempts to live a good life, as they understand it, and makes significant efforts to learn more about the truth and to grow spiritually: These persons, as AthanasiusOfAlex states, have the possibility of entering heaven, but not a certainty of doing so.


Note: This includes the case where a validly baptized person rejects the Church's teachings through being misinformed about them or through misunderstanding them by no fault of their own.

  • Thank you Matt. Concerning Case 2, does this include anyone that belongs to a Protestant denomination? – anonymouswho Aug 12 '16 at 22:11
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    @anonymouswho I would say that it need not include every such person, though doubtless it would include some such. – Matt Gutting Aug 12 '16 at 23:42
  • In particular, in nearly all cases the Church regards any these people who have received baptism as being validly baptized, so that they would fit into Case 1. – Matt Gutting Aug 13 '16 at 0:00
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    Except that it is possible to receive a valid baptism and consciously reject the Catholic Church (which may be a Case 1.5) – Andrew Leach Aug 13 '16 at 10:01
  • @Matt, I agree with Andrew. What about those that fit under Case 1.5? I discussed this with a Protestant friend today, and he went on a rampage about how baptism isn't necessary and the Catholic Church is wrong. If the people that have been baptised but teach this common Protestant doctrine, or the people that listen to them, all die today will they have their flesh burned in agonizing hell fire forever and ever? – anonymouswho Aug 13 '16 at 10:32
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"Is this woman's concious denial of the gospel a mortal sin...?"

No.

or in a few more words:

In the abstract, maybe, but it's fundamentally a meaningless statement.

The question contains a misuse of the term "mortal sin" as used in Catholic theology. It's basically a category mistake. A mortal sin is a sin that leads to death (Heb. 10, 1 Jn 5). One of the ways that the Catechism describes mortal sin is as follows:

Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.

So sure -- one conceivably can discuss whether or not any particular sin is "mortal" by its very nature, but in the context of an unbeliever, this distinction is essentially meaningless:

We are born dead in our sins, but in Christ we are given new life (Eph. 2). Only once alive is it meaningful to speak of sins that lead to death. Only once God has awakened charity in our hearts is it possible to destroy charity.

Thus the Catholic Catechism discusses the need for a "new initiative of God's mercy" (note: by "new" this is not set in opposition to the work of Christ on the cross) after a mortal sin has been committed. Note that those sins from which we have been rescued (murder, adultery, theft, false witness, ...) are all grave sins by any measure, and thus would be considered mortal sins in almost all situations when committed by Christians.

For more pseudo-authoritative discussion, see Aquinas' speculations here and here.


"[Does] mortal sin cause God to subject a sinner to eternal damnation?"

No.

At least, mortal sin is not a direct cause. Perhaps this may better be understood by a contrary analogy: a man may put his faith in Christ and His Gospel, but Catholics would not say that the man by his choice was the cause of his own salvation -- God's grace and Christ's gift are the immediate cause of the salvation.

  • In Catholic theology, “mortal” sin is only called “mortal” by analogy, and it refers to any action sufficiently grave as to cut off a person’s life of grace. Those who do not have the life of grace (either because they have never been baptized or because, after receiving Baptism, they have lost the state of grace through a grave sin), however, can still commit grave sins, and we can still call those sins “mortal” by analogy, even though the soul of such a person is “dead” to begin with. – AthanasiusOfAlex Aug 16 '16 at 7:15
  • Thank you galdre. I think I'm understanding Catholic theology a lot better. It seems like a non-Christian/Catholic cannot commit a mortal sin, because they never had charity to begin with. It is only those that believe in the Church's teachings and know with certainty that they are true, but afterwards they commit a grave sin and unfortunately die before confessing and whatever else is required. Is this correct? Are these the only people that will have their flesh burned forever and ever in agonizing pain? – anonymouswho Aug 17 '16 at 17:01
  • No, that is not correct, I'd suggest going back to AthanasiusOfAlex answer and reading it again, rather than trying to paraphrase this. – KorvinStarmast Feb 1 '17 at 22:02

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