I’m following up on a question asked about the phrase “invincible ignorance” in my earlier post.
The phrase comes from the papal encyclical by the soon-to-become-infallible Pope Pius IX, Quanto Conficiamur Moerore (On Promotion of False Doctrines).
First, he blathers on about
“grief … over the corruption of morals so extensively increasing and promoted by irreligious and obscene writings, theatrical spectacles and meretricious houses established almost everywhere; by other depraved arts and monstrous portents of every error disseminated in all directions; by the abominable impurities of all vices and crimes growing constantly and the deadly virus of unbelief and indifferentism spread far and wide; by contempt for ecclesiastical authority, sacred things, and laws and by the outrageous plundering of Church possessions; by the bitter and constant abuse of consecrated Church officials, of the students of religious communities, of virgins dedicated to God; by the diabolical hatred of Christ, his Church, teaching, and of this Apostolic See. These and almost innumerable other evils perpetrated by the embittered enemies of the Catholic Church and faith, we are daily compelled to lament.”
Then he notes, since our Apostolic Office demands we carefully and zealously defend the cause of the Church committed to us by Christ, we condemn those who attack and despise the Church itself, its sacred laws, ministers, and this Apostolic See. Hence, with this letter, once more we confirm, proclaim and condemn totally and singly that which in many consistorial allocutions and in our other Letters we have been forced to deplore, declare and condemn.
He notes, Here, too, our beloved sons and venerable brothers, it is again necessary to mention and censure a very grave error entrapping some Catholics who believe that it is possible to arrive at eternal salvation although living in error and alienated from the true faith and Catholic unity. Such belief is certainly opposed to Catholic teaching. Only then, in this context, does he make the allowance that there are “those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion”.
Who these folks are is not identified, but the sense is that these are folks who “struggle” with becoming Roman Catholics, the next statement being, “Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff,…” So the presumption is that some of these “struggling” folks with “invincible ignorance” soon will become Roman Catholics.
Roman Catholics are encouraged to “be nice” to these folks, on the hope that they will submit to the entire Roman series of necessary events.
“God forbid that the children of the Catholic Church should even in any way be unfriendly to those who are not at all united to us by the same bonds of faith and love. On the contrary, let them be eager always to attend to their needs with all the kind services of Christian charity, whether they are poor or sick or suffering any other kind of visitation. First of all, let them rescue them from the darkness of the errors into which they have unhappily fallen and strive to guide them back to Catholic truth and to their most loving Mother who is ever holding out her maternal arms to receive them lovingly back into her fold. Thus, firmly founded in faith, hope, and charity and fruitful in every good work, they will gain eternal salvation.
Francis Sullivan, in his work Salvation Outside the Church? (subtitled “Tracing the History of the Catholic Response”), writes:
it is not immediately evident how we are to reconcile what seems to be contradictory tenets: that on the one hand, there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, and, on the other, that those who are invincibly ignorant of their obligation to belong to this church can be saved. I suggest that the apparent contradiction can be solved, if we realize that Pope Pius has substantially affirmed the thesis …. That extra ecclesiam nulla salus refers only to those who are culpably outside the church. It is true that the pope does not use the word “culpably,” but he uses equivalent ones when he declares that those who are contumacious against the authority of the Catholic Church, or are pertinacious divided from the unity of that church, cannot obtain eternal salvation.
Later Sullivan says, “If one reads his statement carefully, one sees that being “invincibly ignorant of our most holy religion” is a condition that must be fulfilled to avoid culpability, but is in no sense a cause of salvation. Neither is it correct to say that people are saved merely by keeping the natural law; this would be to fall into Pelagianism, of which Pius IX is surely not guilty. The operative words in his statement are: “through the working of divine light and grace.” It is this that effects salvation, provided, of course, that people freely cooperate with divine grace” (Sullivan, pgs 114-115).
Of course, this is not the end of the story in any event. This encyclical occurred prior to Vatican I, so any Roman Catholic may feel free to disagree with it. There are additional “nuances” from subsequent popes, and speculation about “anonymous Christians”, as well as the formulae adopted in Vatican II that the Roman Catholic Church is somehow “the sacrament of salvation” (plus subsequent nuances registered after that).
But it is the beginning. “Invincible ignorance” is the foundational condition of “being saved outside the [Roman Catholic] Church”. I don't know why the phrase is “invincible” ignorance, as opposed to the kind of ignorance that can be overcome. Presumably, if you learn about the Roman Catholic religion, God will enlighten you as to the need to become Roman Catholic. If you’re still “struggling”, (in which case, your “ignorance” is still “invincible” or “inculpable”, then you still have some hope, but your only hope still is to become Roman Catholic). As Sullivan notes, this statement is “all the more remarkable that such a statement was now made with papal authority. No pope in history had ever explicitly declared that people ‘ignorant of our most holy religion’ could be saved” (114).