At one time, the famous phrase, “By their fruits (deeds) ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:16), seemed obvious enough to everyone. It meant that one’s deeds and indeed his words manifested his character. Everyone knew that our external acts were products of our internal understandings and choices. Laws were external to us in the sense that we did not give ourselves their content, but their obedience or rejection was internal as a norm of our action. Publicans and sinners have a certain visible status. Nor were the hypocrites neglected. These were the ones who obeyed the external letter of the law, but did not practice it themselves.
The Church herself, while being identified with the body of Christ, had certain external manifestations. It was not an invisible Church of the saved. It manifested itself through visible hierarchy, sacraments, buildings, laws, and words. It was pictured as being built on a rock. Those movements that wanted to interiorize the Church so that it had no visible presence were declared to be heretical. Enemies of the Church have worked to deny it any place in the public forum, any real freedom of action to be itself present among men.
The most difficult of the Christian teachings was thus not the existence of God but that of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Atheism is a relatively minor problem compared to the Incarnation. This fact meant that, while the Father was not visible to us, He could make Himself visible through His Son, the Word made flesh, a graphic phrase. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.9) This Word actually “dwelt amongst us,” another graphic phrase. The notion of God entering our history as man seemed to many to be a rejection of God’s utter otherness, whereas, in fact, it was a confirmation of it.
But since Pope Francis’ famous “Who am I to judge?” and the way bishops chose to deal with those who claim that they are Catholic but do not agree with the Church’s stated position on many issues, a shift from objective to subjective criteria is noteworthy. If neither the Pope nor the bishops are willing to “judge”, we have a Church in which we really cannot tell who is or is not a member. We can say that anyone who is baptized is a Catholic or Christian. But we are not ever sure what it is that anyone holds or how God judges the internal or subjective side of life. The distinction between saint and sinner becomes blurred.
Augustine had already pointed out that the City of God could not be identified with visible Church membership. There were members of the City of Man who would eventually be saved, while members of the visible Church would be lost. Aquinas, moreover, held that we must obey an objectively erroneous conscience. This principle did not mean that we did not need carefully to form our conscience. But we did not want anyone to act against his conscience even if erroneous. This position implied that someone who does something objectively wrong would not be guilty if he honestly thought it right.
In addition we have the Old Testament admonition that “My ways are not your ways.” (Isaiah 55.8) The Church has consistently taught that we do not know God’s final judgment on anyone’s eternal status. Oh, we canonize saints, but that is never undertaken without some sign of final holiness. Whether Judas, Ivan the Terrible, the Muslim suicide bombers, Hitler, Stalin, and other famous killers of history are eternally lost, we are reluctant to say. Not a few people deny the possibility of any after life to avoid facing this issue.
There are always, of course, the stories of the holy man being buried alive. Therefore he may have despaired at the last moment. Also we have stories of terrible sinners and killers who repent on their way to the gallows, the good thieves of history. “Only he who perseveres to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13) We do know that the divine mercy can save “whoever will be saved,” as John Paul II put it.