By Dr. Shannon Loughlin
In Canto 19, Dante stands before the Eagle formed by the light of souls, and wrestles once again with an issue that has plagued him in one way or another throughout his journey: divine justice. In this exchange, the Eagle gives voice to Dante’s unspoken question of the salvation of those whose geographic isolation prevents them from hearing the Gospel:
Upon the Indus’ banks a man is born, and in that country no one’s there to preach on Christ, no one to read of Him, or write; And all his actions and desires are good, as far as human reason can perceive, without a sin in either deed or speech. He dies unbaptized and without faith. Where is the justice that condemns the man? Where is his fault, if he does not believe? [lines 70-78]
Dante’s struggle is a common one for those who seek to reconcile the Christian belief that salvation comes through Christ alone and the reality that some people seem to live good and just lives without being Christians. Regarding salvation, the Catholic Church has affirmed that salvation comes through Christ alone, and through the Church, which is His Body. The Church, though, also acknowledges that there are some who out of invincible ignorance can be without knowledge of the gospel of Christ and yet still seek God with a sincere heart and, in ways known only to God, achieve salvation. (cf. CCC 846-848)
However, it is in that key phrase, “known only to God,” that we see why the Eagle ultimately dismisses Dante’s question. We are at the heart of the issue with lines 73-74: “And all his actions and desires are good, as far as human reason can perceive, without a sin in either deed or speech.” Dante is trying to make human reason the means through which divine justice can be fully understood. The Eagle points to another, Lucifer, who out of pride, refused to acknowledge that God’s ways are not limited to the ways and understanding of created beings [lines 46-48]. Human reason, of course, can and should delve deeply into the mystery of God, and we are called to use it in our journey of faith. The compatibility of faith and reason, however, does not raise human reason to the height of the divine perspective. To do so is to tread into the realm of idolatry, where human knowledge is substituted for divine truth.
In this Year of Mercy, when we are called to live out the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy, this bit of perspective is critical. It is far too easy to allow pride to creep in when we bear wrongs, forgive injury, or counsel the doubtful. It is far too easy to judge those whom we are called to feed and clothe, based on their deeds or speech. It is far too easy to gloss over our own areas of ignorance as we try to instruct the ignorant. This is why Pope Francis has called us to humility, honesty, and forgiveness throughout this Year of Mercy, and why we must carry these spiritual lessons with us forward as we give witness to the Good News.
Shannon Loughlin has worked in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 16 years and currently serves as the Associate Director of Pastoral Services. She has a Ph.D. in Systematic Theology and a Masters in Pastoral Ministry, both from Duquesne University. Her undergraduate work was at SUNY Geneseo.