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Thomas Ryan, CSP Answers:
Q: How do Catholics believe that non-Catholics who have been exposed to Catholic teaching but keep their own faith will be judged?
Catholics believe that non-Catholics will be judged in the light of how they’ve lived according to their conscience. Vatican II’s document “Dignitatis Humanae” acknowledges that we have the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. We must not be forced to act contrary to conscience, nor must we be prevented from acting according to conscience, especially in matters religious. (3:2). That said, our conscience must be informed, and moral judgement enlightened.
There can be many contributing factors to errors of judgment. The Catholic Catechism cites some examples: “Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and charity” (1792).
There are also other factors that come into play. For example, when someone has been raised in a faith tradition other than Catholic, the values and compass bearings they have absorbed can be deeply rooted in their hearts and minds. To then “be exposed” to teachings from another tradition of Christian faith or another world religion may only be a passing experience. For some, while that episodic experience may well raise some questions, they will continue to be guided by what they have been taught. Not everyone cares enough about pursuing the questions raised more deeply. And even for those who do, the answers they’re given may not be convincing enough to motivate them to change their compass bearings and cause possible upset within their families. Or, they may not see Catholics “walking their talk” and actually living in accord with what their Church teaches.
We must all avail ourselves of the means to form our conscience. The Word of God is a light for our path. We must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. This is how moral conscience is formed. In the end, a human being must always obey the judgment of his/her conscience. The education of conscience is a lifelong task, but one that guarantees freedom and peace of heart.