I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost. But for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
Long have I puzzled over the two points in bold. I shall describe my puzzlements before proposing a resolution.
When Paul says: "I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance," he is aligning himself with those of whom Jesus said, while dying on the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Paul believes he was forgiven because he knew not what he did. And no doubt that is true. Yet, to my mind, such sayings pose a severe difficulty.
Notice the assumption that the ignorance involved is inculpable. I do not question that assumption; after all, it was the God-Man who made it in these cases. But it does not follow, as a general matter, that all ignorance of the saving truth is inculpable; nor in fact would that be true. Some people are ignorant because they do not want to know the truth. That holds for many seemingly small matters as well for the largest. And it makes sense: after all, remaining ignorant when one could, as a practical matter, learn the truth is often easier on the conscience as well as on the mind. For that reason, ignorance is sometimes voluntarily self-inflicted; Aquinas termed that "vincible" ignorance, which does not exculpate. Indeed, it is no less culpable for being shrouded with innocent-sounding rationalizations. Regarding our own faults, we all do that. I am ashamed by how much I used to do it, and no doubt I'm doing it even today in ways I prefer not to recognize. From a doctrinal point of view, I have observed such a phenomenon in many cradle-Catholics, who give themselves all sorts of plausible-sounding reasons for not having learned what are, as a matter of fact, the very sound answers to the very serious questions they have about aspects of the Catholic faith—questions that, with depressing regularity, have to do with sex and marriage. And I've already explained, in a previous post, why many clergy are content to let them remain in such ignorance.
Yet divine mercy is not withheld from such people, or indeed from anybody. As today's Gospel reminds us, God comes seeking after us like a shepherd for a lost lamb or a housewife for a lost coin. To our calculating minds, the effort hardly seems worth it: why risk 99 sheep for one lamb, or clean the whole house to find one coin? God is not an obsessive-compulsive; yet he comes running out to meet us insignificant fools, like the prodigal son's father. That makes sense of a sort if we're talking about mercy, which is undeserved, as distinct from mere justice. Yet given that we're talking about infinite Mercy, which is not supposed to be "worth it" in terms of what can be measured, it cannot be said that God limits mercy to the inculpably or invincibly ignorant. So, why speak as today's reading does, as though mercy is extended to people, such Jesus' killers or the pre-conversion Paul, precisely because they're inculpably ignorant? The inculpably ignorant cannot be convicted as a matter of justice; they "know not what they do" and cannot be held to account for not knowing; so, what "mercy" is there in letting them off? Those who really need mercy are the culpable; and they receive mercy when, to their shame, they recognize themselves as culpable.
Then there's Paul labelling himself the "foremost" of sinners. It is true that he once did some objectively very wicked things to the Church; but if, as he was wont to affirm, the grace and mercy of God wash away the guilt of the past, why does he continue to label himself the foremost of sinners? Why not just say "a" sinner and leave the ranking to God? Is it not a form of false humility to cast oneself as the chief of sinners?
I know there is a pious tradition, especially in Eastern Christianity, of Christians each speaking of themselves as the chief of sinners. I doubt that most who speak that way literally believe that they are, each and individually, the chief of sinners; certainly the Church holds no competition for the title and would not look kindly on one. So, what are we to make of Paul's language and the tradition stemming from it? And how does that relate to the first difficulty I described?
My suggestion is that both difficulties point to one sound recommendation: that we not give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
When Paul says that he was treated mercifully because he acted out of ignorance, he does not mean to imply, as general propositions, that all ignorance is inculpable or that we shall not be treated mercifully if we have sinned while knowing the truth. The former proposition would be too lax, the latter too strict. He is indicating that he could not have presumed on merciful treatment if he had sinned while knowing the truth. As a matter of moral psychology, there's a very good reason for that. If he had sinned while knowing the truth, there's no guarantee that he would not thus have been so confirmed in evil, by choice, as to be incapable of repentance; and if he had been incapable of repentance, he could not have received the mercy that was otherwise and always on offer. There are people who, by choice, are confirmed in evil; if you doubt that, have a look at the late Scott Peck's People of the Lie. It is unsafe to presume that one hasn't been, or cannot be, one of them.
By the same token, regarding oneself as the foremost of sinners is not a form of disingenuous breast-beating. It is a way of refusing to give oneself the benefit of the doubt. Thus one does well to presume that, if others had been given the divine grace and aid oneself has been given, they would probably have done a better job of being a disciple than oneself has. In that sense, we can and should each regard ourselves as the foremost of sinners: not as an assertion of the literal truth, which we cannot know in this instance, but as a guard against the sin of presumption.
As I've argued before, that sin is pretty common today. I know partly because of the reasons for which I used to commit it myself. It is best to be cured of it the easy way: by recognizing that the mercy which God always extends does not ensure that we will make the choices necessary to receive it. I learned that the hard way. But it is all too likely that some never learn it at all.