To such a question one could respond very succinctly: The usefulness of
faith is not comparable to any good, not even one of a moral nature.
The Church, in fact, has never denied that even a nonbeliever could perform
good and noble actions. Everyone can easily agree with this. The value of
faith cannot be explained, even though efforts are often made to do so, by
merely stressing its usefulness for human morality. Rather, one could say
that the basic usefulness of faith lies precisely in the fact that a
person believes and entrusts himself. By believing and entrusting
ourselves, in fact, we respond to God's word. His word does not fall into a
void, but returns to Him, having borne fruit, as was said very effectively
in the Book of Isaiah (cf. Is 55:11). Nevertheless, God absolutely does not
want to force us to respond to His word.
In this regard, the Council's teaching, and especially the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, is particularly important. It would be worthwhile to quote and analyze the entire Declaration. Instead, perhaps quoting a few phrases will do: "And all human beings" we read, "are bound to search for the truth, especially with regard to God and His Church, and as they come to know it they are bound to adhere to the truth and pay homage to it" (Dignitatis Humanae 1).
What the Council emphasizes here, above all, is the dignity of man. The text continues: "Motivated by their dignity, all human beings, inasmuch as they are individuals endowed with reason and free will, and thus invested with personal responsibility, are bound by both their nature and by moral duty to search for the truth, above all religious truth. And once they come to know it they are bound to adhere to it and to arrange their entire lives according to the demands of such truth" (Dignitatis Humanae 2). "The way in which the truth is sought, however, must be in keeping with man's dignity and his social nature-that is, by searching freely, with the help of instruction or education . . . through communication and dialogue" (Dignitatis Humanae 3).
As these passages show, the Council treats human freedom very seriously and appeals to the inner imperative of the conscience in order to demonstrate that the answer, given by man to God and to His word through faith, is closely connected with his personal dignity. Man cannot be forced to accept the truth. He can be drawn toward the truth only by his own nature, that is, by his own freedom, which commits him to search sincerely for truth and, when he finds it, to adhere to it both in his convictions and in his behavior.
This has always been the teaching of the Church. But even before that, it was the teaching that Christ Himself exemplified by His actions. It is from this perspective that the second part of the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom should be reread. There, perhaps, you will find the answer to your question.
It is an answer that echoes the teaching of the Fathers and the theological tradition from Saint Thomas Aquinas to John Henry Newman. The Council merely reaffirms what has always been the Church's conviction. The position of Saint Thomas is, in fact, well known: He is so consistent in his respect for conscience that he maintains that it is wrong for one to make an act of faith in Christ if in one's conscience one is convinced, however absurdly, that it is wrong to carry out such an act (cf. Summa Theologiae 1-2. 19. 5). If man is admonished by his conscience-even if an erroneous conscience, but one whose voice appears to him as unquestionably true-he must always listen to it. What is not permissible is that he culpably indulge in error without trying to reach the truth.
If Newman places conscience above authority, he is not proclaiming anything new with respect to the constant teaching of the Church. The conscience, as the Council teaches, "is man's sanctuary and most secret core, where he finds himself alone with God, whose voice resounds within him. . . . In loyalty
to conscience Christians unite with others in order to search for the truth and to resolve, according to this truth, the many moral problems which arise
in the life of individuals as well as in the life of
society. Therefore, the more a good conscience prevails the more people and social groups move
away from blind willfulness and endeavor to conform to the objective norms of moral behavior. Nonetheless, it often happens that conscience errs through invincible ignorance, without, for this
reason, losing its dignity. But this cannot be said
of the man who does very little to search for
truth and good, or when through the habit of sin conscience itself becomes almost blind" (Gaudium et Spes 16).
It is difficult not to be struck by the profound internal consistency of the Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom. In the light of its teaching, we can say that the essential usefulness of faith consists in the fact that, through faith, man achieves the good of his rational nature. And he achieves it by giving his response to God, as is his duty-a duty not only to God, but also to himself.
Christ did everything in order to convince us of the importance of this response. Man is called upon to give this response with inner freedom so that it will radiate that veritatis splendor so essential to human dignity. Christ committed the Church to act in the same way. This is why its history is so full of protests against all those who attempted to force faith, "making conversions by the sword." In this regard, it must be remembered that the Spanish theologians in Salamanca took a clear stance in opposition to violence committed against the native peoples of America, the indios, under the pretext of converting them to Christianity. Even earlier, in the same spirit the Academy of Kraków issued at the Council of Constance in 1414 a condemnation of the violence perpetrated against the Baltic peoples under a similar pretext.
. . .
Christ certainly desires faith. He desires it of man and he desires it for man. To people seeking miracles from Him He would respond: "Your faith has saved you" (cf. Mk 10:52). The case of the Canaanite woman is particularly touching. At first it seems as if Jesus does not want to hear her request that He help her daughter, almost as if he wanted to provoke her moving profession of faith "For even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters" (Mt 15:27). He puts the foreign woman to the test in order to be able then to say: "Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (Mt 15:28).
Christ wants to awaken faith in human hearts. He wants them to respond to the word of the Father, but He wants this in full respect for human dignity. In the very search for faith an implicit faith is already present, and therefore the necessary condition for salvation is already satisfied.
From this point of view your question finds a rather complete response in the words of the Council's Constitution on the Church. Therefore it deserves to be read once again: "In fact, those who through no fault of their own are not aware of the Gospel of Christ and of the Church, but who nonetheless search sincerely for God, and with the help of grace attempt to carry out His will, known through the dictates of their conscience-they too can attain eternal salvation. Nor will Divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who have not yet arrived at a clear knowledge and recognition of God, and who attempt, not without divine grace, to conduct a good life" (Lumen Gentium 16).
In your question you speak of "an honest, upright life even without the Gospel." I would respond that if a life is truly upright it is because the Gospel, not known and therefore not rejected on a conscious level, is in reality already at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him. Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul. The Spirit blows where He wills and as He wills (cf. Jn 3:8). The freedom of the Spirit meets the freedom of man and fully confirms it.
This clarification was necessary in order to avoid any danger of a Pelagian interpretation. This danger already existed in the time of Saint Augustine, and seems to be surfacing again in our time. Pelagius asserted that even without divine grace, man could lead a good and happy life. Divine grace, therefore, was not necessary for him. But the truth is that man is actually called to salvation; that a good life is the condition of salvation; and that salvation cannot be attained without the help of grace.
Ultimately, only God can save man, but He expects man to cooperate. The fact that man can cooperate with God determines his authentic greatness. The truth according to which man is called to cooperate with God in all things, with a view toward the ultimate purpose of his life-his salvation and divinization-found expression in the Eastern tradition in the
doctrine of synergism. With God, man "creates" the world; with God, man "creates" his personal salvation. The divinization of man comes from God. But here, too, man must cooperate with God.