Acerbo nimis and invincible ignorance

© Copyright 2014, T. Stanfill Benns (This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author. All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)

Recently a reader complained that Pope St. Pius X, in Acerbo Nimis, condemns the idea of invincible ignorance, when many Catholics today believe that both Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII taught that it was possible. Because we have already demonstrated at length why the claims of the Feeneyites cannot be true in articles posted to the site, we will not spend much time here. But it is important to make distinctions where this teaching is concerned, since so many have fallen into error for failing to do this. While we believe that those living today are more justified in claiming invincible ignorance than ever before, owing to the absence of a readily visible Church and its infallible head, we refuse to extend it any further than the popes themselves did. In fact this author has long complained of the very ignorance Pope St. Pius X details in his encyclical, an ignorance especially rife among Traditionalists. Please note the comments below in bold, as these will be used later for talking points.

1. “It is a common complaint, unfortunately too well founded, that there are large numbers of Christians in our own time who are entirely ignorant of those truths necessary for salvation. And when we mention Christians, We refer not only to the masses or to those in the lower walks of life — for these find some excuse for their ignorance in the fact that the demands of their harsh employers hardly leave them time to take care of themselves or of their dear onesbut We refer to those especially who do not lack culture or talents and, indeed, are possessed of abundant knowledge regarding things of the world but live rashly and imprudently with regard to religion. It is hard to find words to describe how profound is the darkness in which they are engulfed and, what is most deplorable of all, how tranquilly they repose there…We are forced to agree with those who hold that the chief cause of the present indifference and, as it were, infirmity of soul, and the serious evils that result from it, is to be found above all in ignorance of things divine. This is fully in accord with what God Himself declared through the Prophet Osee: ‘And there is no knowledge of God in the land. Cursing and lying and killing and theft and adultery have overflowed: and blood hath touched blood. Thereafter shall the land mourn, and everyone that dwelleth in it shall languish.’

2. …They have no conception of the malice and baseness of sin; hence they show no anxiety to avoid sin or to renounce it. And so they arrive at life’s end in such a condition that, lest all hope of salvation be lost, the priest is obliged to give in the last few moments of life a summary teaching of religion, a time which should be devoted to stimulating the soul to greater love for God. And even this as too often happens only when the dying man is not so sinfully ignorant as to look upon the ministration of the priest as useless, and then calmly faces the fearful passage to eternity without making his peace with God. And so Our Predecessor, Benedict XIV, had just cause to write: ‘We declare that a great number of those who are condemned to eternal punishment suffer that everlasting calamity because of ignorance of those mysteries of faith which must be known and believed in order to be numbered among the elect.’

(In the above paragraphs, Pope St. Pius X speaks primarily of baptized non-Catholics, for reasons explained below.)

6. We by no means wish to conclude that a perverse will and unbridled conduct may not be joined with a knowledge of religion. Would to God that facts did not too abundantly prove the contrary! But We do maintain that the will cannot be upright nor the conduct good when the mind is shrouded in the darkness of crass ignorance. A man who walks with open eyes may, indeed, turn aside from the right path, but a blind man is in much more imminent danger of wandering away. Furthermore, there is always some hope for a reform of perverse conduct so long as the light of faith is not entirely extinguished; but if lack of faith is added to depraved morality because of ignorance, the evil hardly admits of remedy, and the road to ruin lies open.

How many and how grave are the consequences of ignorance in matters of religion! And on the other hand, how necessary and how beneficial is religious instruction! It is indeed vain to expect a fulfillment of the duties of a Christian by one who does not even know them.

7. We must now consider upon whom rests the obligation to dissipate this most pernicious ignorance and to impart in its stead the knowledge that is wholly indispensable. There can be no doubt, Venerable Brethren, that this most important duty rests upon all who are pastors of souls. On them, by command of Christ, rest the obligations of knowing and of feeding the flocks committed to their care; and to feed implies, first of all, to teach. ‘I will give you pastors according to my own heart,’ God promised through Jeremias, “and they shall feed you with knowledge and doctrine.” Hence the Apostle Paul said: ‘Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, thereby indicating that the first duty of all those who are entrusted in any way with the government of the Church is to instruct the faithful in the things of God.’”

Acerbo Nimis (April 15, 1905)

First it should be noted that this is the famous encyclical on catechetical instruction from which this pope is often quoted. It is generally assumed that those receiving catechetical instruction are already baptized Catholics. Secondly, notice that St. Pius X excludes those of the lower classes from the main brunt of his comments, for he says they have “some excuse,” owing to the severity of their living conditions. Also crass ignorance, not invincible ignorance is mentioned here, and this term (crass) means grossly negligible ignorance, where no lack of means and intellectual ability exist, making the act fully culpable.  Clearly he is addressing those intended in Holy Scripture where it reads, that to whom much is given, much is expected. How should they learn about their faith? From their pastors of course, who no longer are available to us, as this site has long demonstrated. How the Feeneyites, who distort the meaning of all the popes say on this issue, can justify the recommendation of today’s clergy as teachers of the faith defies explanation. Only bishops can instruct their flocks effectively on these matters, Pope Pius XII taught in Si diligus, and Traditionalist “bishops” are not able to function as bishops, nor are they in union with the pope; Novus Ordo “bishops” likewise. The priests of both of these sects are not even lawful pastors. Their idea of “saving” people is dispensing the “sacraments” and saying “mass,” not teaching. The only “teaching” they will point you to is their own.

Pope St. Pius X could scarcely have contradicted his predecessors on this teaching concerning ignorance, for in his Oath Against Modernism he says the Church has always taught the same truths of faith in the same sense and we must accept this on faith. So if these people wish to use Pope St. Pius X to confound what is said by Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII, they are sadly out of luck, for the Church is the same forever. And since the cry of the Feeneyites is “outside the Church no salvation,” let us just remind them of the fact that if they want us to believe this they must first define the word Church. Once they realize the true extent of its meaning, it will be clear that unless we listen to the popes and councils of the past and obey Church law, the “Church” is nowhere! Outside the Church means outside the doctrinal boundaries set for us by the popes and councils. Following the Old Catholics and the Liberal Catholics, the Feeneyites were the first “Traditionalists” to venture outside these boundaries in modern times. In championing Fr. Leonard Feeney they rejected the decision of Pope Pius XII, acting as Christ’s Vicar, concerning Feeney’s teachings and thereby chose the doctrines of man over those of Christ. Rejection of the papacy and the championing of external religion has been the most prominent feature all Traditionalists share, and the Feeneyites are no exception. With their mouths they profess to accept what the Church has taught but their actions speak so loudly we cannot hear what they are saying.

On invincible ignorance

First we must remember that Bp. Hay, so often wrongfully quoted as favoring the rigorist interpretation of no salvation outside the Church, died decades before the reign of Pope Pius IX; in his time the question of invincible ignorance was still open for debate. Pius IX began to answer that question and Pope Pius XII placed the finishing touches on that answer. Thus their definitive teaching in this matter is to be held superior to anything from the theologians which proceeded it. Once Rome has spoken, the matter is no longer open for debate. This is precisely the reason we refuse to debate or tolerate in any way the heretical twaddle of the Feeneyites. Secondly, in regard to what is written above, it is clear that Pope St. Pius X is addressing lax baptized Catholics and baptized non-Catholics, for invincible ignorance is usually associated with those not actually baptized with water or those baptized in another false rite. Why else even admit that there could be baptism of desire which the Feeneyites so fiercely deny? Rev. Hay writes: “If they have no baptism at all, or have altered the way of giving it from what Christ ordained, then they are in no better state as to their possibility of salvation than Turks, Jews or heathens, however they might boast the name of Christians.” Pope St. Pius X calls those he is addressing Christians, which indicates they are members of Christ’s Church by baptism, even if they are not living as Catholics.

And yet Pope Pius IX teaches: “It is known to Us and to you that they who labor in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion and who, zealously keeping the natural law and its precept engraved in the hearts of all by God, and being ready to obey God, live an honest and upright life, can, by the operating power of divine light and grace, attain eternal life, since God Who clearly beholds, searches, and knows the minds, souls, thoughts, and habits of all men, because of His great goodness and mercy, will by no means suffer anyone to be punished with eternal torment who has not the guilt of deliberate sin,” (Quanto conficiamur moerore, 1863). And since this can happen in the case of a Protestant who is not validly baptized, although he believes such baptism is valid, baptism of desire necessarily comes into play.

“In his infinite mercy, God has willed that the effects, necessary to salvation, which are directed toward man’s final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing. This we see clearly stated in the Council of Trent, both in reference to the sacrament of regeneration and in reference to the sacrament of Penance. ‘The same in its own degree must be asserted of the Church, in as far as She is the general help to salvation. Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to Her by desire and longing,’” (Pope Pius XII, Suprema haec sacra, 1952). Here we see the actually possibility of those being saved who are not even thinking they are baptized, but nevertheless wish to know and love God.

As has been pointed out repeatedly in articles on this site, this can happen in three ways: 1) When a baptized Catholic is separated from the Church by schism and heresy and wishes to return but cannot be absolved, owing to the absence of the hierarchy; 2) when one never baptized (though Protestants may believe they have been validly baptized) truly desires to be a member of Christ’s Body, and believes they work for that Body by at least following the natural law and following their own conscience; or 3) a non-Christian realizes their plight but has no access to the truth although desiring that access. These are very important distinctions. In the first instance, Catholics and baptized non-Catholics are already included in the Mystical Body through baptism. Secondly, those not baptized, if they truly love God and persevere in their own faith, have expressed their desire to be so baptized, even though they did not receive the Sacrament.  Pope Pius XII wrote: “However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God,” (Suprema haec sacra). “These things are clearly taught in that dogmatic letter which was issued by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on June 29, 1943, on The Mystical Body of Jesus Christ…For in this letter the Sovereign Pontiff clearly distinguishes between those who are actually incorporated into the Church as members and these who are united to the Church only by desire,” (“Canon Law Digest,” Vol. III). This covers both those mentioned in two and three above.

Nor can Pope Pius XII be accused of admitting such an exception in the cases of all those or even the majority of those who are not Catholic, for he says only that such salvation “can be gained in certain circumstances,” (Ibid.) As Rev. Francis Connell wrote: “Those who are not actual members of the Church can be sanctified and saved if they are invincibly ignorant of their obligation to join the Church and are in the state of sanctifying grace, since such persons have an implicit desire of membership in the Church. But they are not to be reckoned as members of the Church — not even invisible members,” (The American Ecclesiastical Review, “Questions and Answers,” January, 1958). How much more true these words ring today, when even if they were wholly convinced Rome and Traditionalism are in error and they must join the Church, they see no place to go. Only certainly validly baptized Catholics returning to the Church in the required manner after recanting their heresy and schism may be counted as true members. But even this reinstatement as members of the juridic Church is not complete since they still await absolution by true hierarchy.

This successfully resolves the problem of “outside the Church no salvation.” For truly it remains a mystery of faith who shall be saved extraordinarily in this manner and how indeed they are united to Christ’s Body. Traditionalists and Feeneyites alike may think themselves able to dictate to God what He can and cannot do concerning His creation, but that only casts them alongside Satan and the fallen angels who also believed themselves superior to God. Christ established His Church and appointed Peter and his successors as His Vicars. Those who cannot obey what they have taught on faith, without questioning the decisions they made long ago, have no right to challenge anything said here, for they long ago ceased to be Catholic.

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2 Comments

  1. NEIL RANGEL

    GREETINGS. I AM A ROMAN CATHOLIC STILL IN SEARCH OF THE TRUTH . HAVE BEEN STRONGLY INFLUENCED BY ALL – FEENEY, THE TRADITIONALISTS AND THE SEDEVACANTISTS – THEY ALL SEEM TO HAVE SOME VERY VALID REASONS FOR WHAT THEY BELIEVE IN.. AND I FEEL VERY SAD FOR THE SORRY STATE OF THE CHURCH TODAY. I DONT THINK THE PONTIFFS BEFORE 1958 WOULD HAVE EVEN DREAMED OF WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN.I BELIEVE THE WATERED DOWN SALVATION DOGMA IS THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEMS SINCE VC2. SINCE THE INVINCIBLY IGNORANT MAY/CAN ALSO BE SAVED; WHY NOT JUST LIVE ALONG WITH THEM. OUR LORD WOULD AT LEAST HAVE MADE SOME PASSING REFERENCE TO A BAPTISM OF DESIRE..I FEEL THIS IS SOME VERY WISHFUL THINKING THAT SOMEHOW ENTERED THE MAGISTERIUM SINCE TRENT AND HAS EVOLVED FROM ONE OF EXPLICIT DESIRE TO ONE OF IMPLICIT DESIRE. NO ONE WAS SAVED OUTSIDE NOAH’S ARK; SO WHY SHOULD ANYONE BE SAVED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH; IS GOD NOT OMNIPOTENT ENOUGH TO LEAD ALL HE DESIRES TO SAVE TO THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
    IF MEN CAN BE SAVED OUTSIDE THE CHURCH THEN THE CHURCH HAS NO REASON TO EXIST AND FROM THIS IT WILL ALSO FOLLOW THAT CHRIST AND HIS SUFFERING HAVE NO REASON TO BE KNOWN
    I KNOW GOD WILL HOLD NOTHING AGAINST ME FOR BELIEVING THAT THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SALVATION OUTSIDE THE CHURCH

    Reply
    • T. Stanfill Benns

      “Only those who have been baptized, who profess the true faith, who have not miserably separated themselves from the fabric of the Body and who have not, by reason of very serious crimes, been expelled by legitimate authority, ARE ACTUALLY TO BE COUNTED AS MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH,” (Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis).

      The American Ecclesiastical Review, “Questions and Answers,” January, 1958, Rev. Francis J. Connell: “Those who are not actual members of the Church can be sanctified and saved if they are invincibly ignorant of their obligation to join the Church and are in the state of sanctifying grace, since such persons have an implicit desire of membership in the Church. But they are not to be reckoned as members of the Church — not even invisible members.” (Rev. Connell was Rev. Fenton’s teacher.)

      Msgr. J. C. Fenton: “That one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church ACTUALLY AS A MEMBER, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing,” ((“Pope Pius XII and the Theological Treatise on the Church,” (The American Ecclesiastical Review, December, 1958).

      I have never said that those who are not validly baptized are actual Church members. I have said only that as an act of God’s mercy, which certainly He is free to exercise despite what any of us may think concerning this act, others may be saved but NOT as visible (or invisible) members of the Church. I refuse to pretend to put limits on God’s mercy and to demean the teachings of His Church. Whatever God does in this regard is a secret, and Pope Pius IX basically says it is none of our business. So for all intents and purposes, outside the Church TO OUR KNOWLEDGE — that is, outside the confines of the certainly validly baptized — no one IS saved. God alone knows the exceptions He allows to this rule. Of COURSE I believe there is no salvation outside the Church, but I also MUST believe that in any given case God can and does relax His own rules. Feeneyites are wasting their time beating this dead horse.

      Reply

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