In this context, let me say a further word about the Muslim suicide terrorists, as they are called. Let me include in this consideration the Catholics in public life who disagree in “good conscience” with the Church’s teachings, who act on these disagreements as if it is all right. In Muslim theology, a suicide bomber is a martyr. In killing a number of infidels along with himself, he is offering his life to the cause of Allah. The people whom the terrorist kills are not Muslims. They are by definition at war with Islam. Moreover, they were born Muslim, as are all people, but they were corrupted. Their status is that of an enemy to Islam. Therefore, it is an act of virtue to kill them.
Such a doctrine, no doubt, is hard to swallow. And yet even on Catholic principles, we must say that, if the conscience was clear that this was a right thing to carry out, then it is an act of virtue, not a vice. Once we accept this position, the whole objective order of right and wrong is obscured. We might question whether there is such a thing as a conscience so erroneous that it can accept this consequence. But on the surface, it seems to be possible.
In the case of the Catholic politicians who take the position that their conscience tells them that supporting legislation that is objectively evil is the right thing to do, we are in the same situation as with the Muslim. If a politician is not excommunicated, he can assume that he is still in good standing in the Church. The bishops are silent or do not explicitly forbid sacraments or Church membership. The man can conclude that there must be something valid in his position. Otherwise, he would be excommunicated. Again, we have the subjective becoming the reality, not the objective rule or law.
The same situation, no doubt, exists in the case of the man who is seen to be good. The parable of the publican and the sinner (Luke 18:13) graphically made the point that external piety is not enough. Likewise, it was the sinner who really showed the love of God. None of these considerations is intended to suggest that the objective order is not important. It, indeed, remains the standard. Moreover, we cannot know that someone—the suicide bomber, the politician—is not deceiving himself and knows it. This situation too would be invisible to us.
Can we draw any conclusion from such reflections? Surely the old Aristotelian adage, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” applies here. It is pretty plain from Scripture that God reserves final judgment for Himself. So we can survey the souls of the seven billion people who live on this planet and be sure that we do not know how each will stand before God. Surely, this fact is a blessing to us. But it is also a warning.
One of the striking things about contemporary thought, except in the case of the Muslims who follow a different piper, is the reluctance to judge anything in terms of right and wrong. What is behind this refusal? It allows us to do what we want even if it is evil. If we convince ourselves that no final accounting will ever be made, then we can be sure that whatever we do makes no ultimate difference. In a world in which everything is relative, nothing makes any difference. Can this view itself be a justification for an erroneous conscience so that in fact everyone holding this view would be saved? In theory, I suppose it is possible, but in practice, I doubt it.
Why doubt it? It is too obviously a refusal to look carefully at what we do. We desperately invoke a theory to justify ourselves. The purpose of the theory is precisely to allow us to do what we want. We suspect that we do this, but we are reluctant to admit it. The essence of divine judgment, no doubt, is to see the heart. But that “seeing” by no means suggests that the whole order of nature and grace could be bypassed on the grounds that we honestly did not have a clue about whether there was any order in nature and grace.