According to Catholic theologians, can the unbaptized have charity?

Charity is

The infused supernatural virtue by which a person loves God above all things for His own sake, and loves others for God's sake.

In other words, can charity coexist with or even drive out sin (original or actual)?

  • The Samaritan in the Parable was not a Jew, unbaptised by our standards. But Jesus rates him over the Jews in so far as charity is concerned. I live in a country where Christians are a miniscule minority. I get to see good examples of charity displayed by non- Christian brothers - whether it be feeding the hungry, taking an accident victim to hospital or even donating ones organs, pree death to save others lives. Dec 17, 2023 at 10:31

5 Answers 5


No, not without grace. The unbaptized are deprived of sanctifying grace.

St. Thomas Aquinas, discussing "Whether by his own natural powers and without grace man can love God above all things?" (Summa Theologica I-II q. 109 a. 3), says (co.):

[I]n the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God's help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature.

homo in statu naturae integrae non indigebat dono gratiae superadditae naturalibus bonis ad diligendum Deum naturaliter super omnia; licet indigeret auxilio Dei ad hoc eum moventis. Sed in statu naturae corruptae indiget homo etiam ad hoc auxilio gratiae naturam sanantis.

  • 1
    -1 Aquinas did teach this, but the quote does not mention baptism, and the Second Vatican Council taught that non-Christians can be "moved by grace, [and] try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation." Dec 18, 2023 at 22:03
  • 1
    @DanFefferman I'm not asking about whether the unbaptized can be saved but whether they have charity.
    – Geremia
    Dec 18, 2023 at 23:18
  • @DanFefferman plus "being moved by grace" is not the same as "having charity"
    – eques
    Dec 18, 2023 at 23:19
  • If they are saved they can have charity. Moreover they do have charity as Lumen Gentium refers to them as those who "seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience." It is presumed that they have cared others and have in effect thereby cared for Jesus as well. Dec 19, 2023 at 1:42
  • "If they are saved they can have charity" Source? "they do have charity " Are you claiming that all movement of grace is charity? Charity is a theological virtue, not a moral virtue, which is necessarily above the reach of fallen man. You claim Aquinas did teach charity is not available to the unbaptized, but your argument would imply that Aquinas didn't teach baptism of desire or blood, but do you know that?
    – eques
    Dec 19, 2023 at 14:50

St. Alphonsus, following St. Augustine, defines charity as the virtue that unites us to God (Caritas est virtus coniungens nos Deo.).*

cited in St. Alphonsus, True Spouse of Jesus Christ, ch. 21, § 1:
Agglutinata est anima mea post te.* Ubi est ipsum gluten? Ipsum gluten caritas est. Caritatem habe, quo glutine agglutinetur anim atua post Deum.» S. AUGUSTINUS, Enarratio in Ps. 62, n. 17. ML 36-758.- «Quid est autem dilectio vel caritas nisi quaedam vita (nonne legendum: vittta?) duo aliqua copulans, vel copulare appetens, amantem scilicet et quod amatur?» IDEM, De Trinitate, lib. 8, cap. 10, n. 14. ML 42-960.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Disputed Questions on Truth q. 28 a. 5 ad 4) says

All sins have in common turning away from God
omnia peccata conveniunt in aversione a Deo

Therefore, sin and charity cannot coexist.


Let us look at the case of the Good Thief. He may not have been charitable in life, in that he invited crucifixion to the extent of justifying it himself. But he displayed a momentary act of charity by defending the innocence of Jesus, braving the Roman soldiers. That act of his, coupled with his repentance for the sinful past is rewarded by the Lord . In deed, God's Grace comes to a person irrespective of the state he/she is in , and changes him/her for good! So, we can safely conclude that Christian Charity can co-exist with sin, and can, with God's Grace, even drive out sin.


Can the unbaptized have charity?

The short answer is yes, but not on his own without God’s grace that can be infused into the soul. Baptism remains the standard norm of souls receiving sanctifying grace. However God is free to to infuse these gifts where he sees fit in extraordinary circumstances.

So what is charity??

The infused supernatural virtue by which a person loves God above all things for His own sake, and loves others for God's sake. It is a virtue based on divine faith or in belief in God's revealed truth, and is not acquired by mere human effort. It can be conferred only by divine grace. Because it is infused along with sanctifying grace, it is frequently identified with the state of grace. Therefore, a person who has lost the supernatural virtue of charity has lost the state of grace, although he may still possess the virtues of hope and faith.

We can not limit God to a set of definitions that would infringe on his omnipotent powers in regards to sanctifying souls in extraordinary circumstances.

Whether the justification of the ungodly takes place in an instant or successively?

The entire justification of the ungodly consists as to its origin in the infusion of grace. For it is by grace that free-will is moved and sin is remitted. Now the infusion of grace takes place in an instant and without succession. And the reason of this is that if a form be not suddenly impressed upon its subject, it is either because that subject is not disposed, or because the agent needs time to dispose the subject. Hence we see that immediately the matter is disposed by a preceding alteration, the substantial form accrues to the matter; thus because the atmosphere of itself is disposed to receive light, it is suddenly illuminated by a body actually luminous. Now it was stated (I-II:112:2) that God, in order to infuse grace into the soul, needs no disposition, save what He Himself has made. And sometimes this sufficient disposition for the reception of grace He makes suddenly, sometimes gradually and successively, as stated above (I-II:112:2 ad 2). For the reason why a natural agent cannot suddenly dispose matter is that in the matter there is a resistant which has some disproportion with the power of the agent; and hence we see that the stronger the agent, the more speedily is the matter disposed. Therefore, since the Divine power is infinite, it can suddenly dispose any matter whatsoever to its form; and much more man's free-will, whose movement is by nature instantaneous. Therefore the justification of the ungodly by God takes place in an instant. - Summa Theologiae Question 113. The effects of grace.


In Ut Unum Sint Pope John Paul II clarified than those not baptized into the Catholic Church can have charity:

"Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21). The consistency and honesty of intentions and of statements of principles are verified by their application to real life. The Council Decree on Ecumenism notes that among other Christians "the faith by which they believe in Christ bears fruit in praise and thanksgiving for the benefits received from the hands of God. Joined to it are a lively sense of justice and a true neighbourly charity".

Catholic theologian Karl Rahner went a step further in his doctrine of Anonymous Christianity, arguing that even non-Christians can be saved by responding the Holy Spirit without baptism. Indeed, one of the means by which they may accomplish this is by loving their neighbors as themselves - in other words, through acts of charity. According to Nicole Streit of the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University:

It is the implicit nature of these acts of faith, hope, and love, which distinguish “anonymous Christians” as well as visible Christians from those who lie outside of salvation. In as much as acts of charity are directed towards others, their love and faith is considered directed toward God since Christ is the source of the grace which they have received. Since “anonymous Christians” lack explicit Christian faith and baptism, they are not members of the visible church. Even so, since they do share in Christ’s grace of which the church is the sacramental sign, they are in spiritual communion with the church.

Rahner's theology echoes the teaching of the Second Vatican Council's Lumen gentium, which holds that:

Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—-those too may achieve eternal salvation.

Regarding the question of original sin, this is not entirely clear. However since Lumen Gentium affirms that "Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ," there are two possibilities: a) a kind of salvation that coexists with original sin or b) a salvation that eliminates it. I am not aware of this particular issue being addressed by Catholic theologians but it is quite clear that Lumen Gentium teaches that the unbaptized can be saved. In Rahner's theology, the mechanics of this type of salvation involve the Anonymous Christian responding to the "whispering" of the Holy Spirit through their conscience. Since it is hard to imagine salvation coexisting with original sin, there may be an implication here that this form of grace eliminates it. Admittedly this raise issues in the area of sacramental theology, which is one reason I say it remains unclear.

Conclusion: Although Aquinas may have argued otherwise, contemporary Catholic theologians, as well as the Second Vatican Council, have included non-Catholics and even non-Christians among those who can receive the grace of salvation and have Charity, as defined in the OP.

  • Did this get downvoted because it is inaccurate it some way, or because the downvoter disagrees with the theologians I quoted...? the question is not whether the doctrine is correct, but whether Catholic theologians teach that the unbaptized can have charity. Some of them clearly do... including a recent pope and a Vatican council. Dec 18, 2023 at 22:12
  • I downvoted because my question is about whether charity can coexist with original sin in the soul of the unbaptized.
    – Geremia
    Dec 18, 2023 at 23:20
  • @DanFefferman the question is about the unbaptized not the Catholics. The quote you give from JPII is based upon Vatican II's decree on Ecumenism and concerns the baptized, so it doesn't prove what the question is asking.
    – eques
    Dec 18, 2023 at 23:22
  • and you keep conflating charity with salvation, which are distinct yet related concepts
    – eques
    Dec 18, 2023 at 23:23
  • @Geremia I appreciate getting you objection, otherwise I can neither grow nor correct myself . I think Rahner and Vatican II make it clearly teach that the unbaptized can have charity and also that they can be saved. Original sin is trickier... I do not know if this has been addressed directly but if they can saved then either salvation coexists with original sin, or it has been driven out. Dec 19, 2023 at 1:03

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .