“One of the most common errors concerning conscience involves taking a half-truth (that conscience must be followed) without explaining what conscience is, or why it needs to be formed.
Pope John Paul II warned against precisely this kind of distortion: “To claim that one has a right to act according to conscience, but without at the same time acknowledging the duty to conform one’s conscience to the truth and to the law which God himself has written on our hearts, in the end means nothing more than imposing one’s limited personal opinion.”
So how do we avoid falling into that kind of distorted understanding of conscience? By ensuring that our consciences are properly formed. This is not an option, but a moral duty for all humans:
“Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings (CCC 1783).”
One reason conscience is at such risk of corruption is that we tend to contemplate actions that we want to do (or else, that we feel we ought to do, but are looking for excuses not to do). We’re not neutral, which is why it’s so easy for us to corrupt our consciences by (for instance) rationalizing our actions or creating one standard for ourselves and another for everyone else.
The world may say to “follow your heart” in such matters, but the Bible takes a more realistic view: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Recognizing this, and the need for a neutral, outside authority, is the first step. But it’s only the beginning. As the Catechism points out, “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task” (1784). It means much more than simply reading Church documents to find out official Catholic teaching (although that can be an important part of it). It begins with parents attending to the “moral education” and “spiritual formation” of their children (CCC 2221) and includes every means by which we strive to grow in virtue.
In this process, we are “guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church” (CCC 1785). When we find our own inclinations pointing in one direction, and Church teaching pointing in the opposite, it can be helpful to ask: which of us is more likely to be correct? The Church, which was promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with two thousand years of lived experience? Or me, the individual with an obvious bias in the situation at hand?
But our ultimate teacher in this area is not our parents, or even Church authorities, but God Himself. Proper formation of conscience cannot happen apart from a life of prayer, since “in the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path” and “we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice” (CCC 1785).”
“When he was yet Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI delivered four homilies using passages from the book of Genesis as points of departure. These later became a book: “In the Beginning”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
The book gets to the heart of the matter. “In our own lives,” Benedict declares, “each one of us must answer, whether he or she wants to or not, the question about being human.”
Even after God came down from heaven and gave us the answer, we continue in no small number to cast about for an explanation of why we are here. Indeed, the assertions by nihilist historians such as Yuval Noah Harari—that all the meanings we attach to life are delusions—are evidence that the question will never go away.
Whereas the Socratics and the Scholastics would have contemplated the question with quiet serenity, we pursue it with anxiety, created and exacerbated by the ubiquity of screens. In screens so many of us search, and search, and search, without even realizing that it is meaning we’re searching for. How enervating a search, and how hopeless!
Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, knew where to locate our meaning, and he devoted his priesthood to directing and redirecting our focus there. He pointed us to the complementary realities for which man was made, the two experiences necessary for living a full life: divine worship and human friendship. As he insisted in his brilliant Spirit of the Liturgy, we must get the former right to get the latter right: “It is only when man’s relationship with God is right that all of his other relationships—his relationships with his fellow men, his dealings with the rest of creation—can be in good order.”
Where, how, does man put his relationship with God in good order? It is in the same place—the same experience—where he locates his meaning: in the liturgy.
Pope Benedict knew that we, in the post-conciliar age, had lost our sense of this truth. In his 1985 interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, called our attention to “the post-conciliar [liturgical] pluralism,” noting that it was strange that it had “created uniformity in one respect at least: it will not tolerate a high standard of expression.”
It would be reductionist to understand this observation merely as the future pope seeking to rescue the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from banal sanctuaries, insipid music, the innovations of narcissistic liturgists, and the extemporizing of bored priests. As his papacy would show, through his profound theological reflections on liturgy—ever rooted in his extraordinary grasp of Scripture, his command of classical languages, and his understanding of the anthropology of ritual sacrifice—and through his restoration and promotion of the traditional Latin Mass—Pope Benedict understood and wanted the faithful to understand that man is most himself participating in the liturgy, because it is in the liturgy that, on this side of the veil, man is most united—heart to heart—with God. So sacred an encounter, by virtue of the gravity and sublimity of its nature, must be elevated in its forms and expressions above all other human activity.
This word, participating, confounds us because we think Christianity is a religion of doing rather than being. What is meant by participation, or even “active participation”—participatio actuosa, as the Second Vatican Council puts it? “Unfortunately, the word,” Cardinal Ratzinger said, “was very quickly misunderstood to mean something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people as possible should be visibly engaged in action.” Visit today a parish where even the most reverent Mass of Paul VI—what Benedict called the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite—is offered, and witness, for example, the collective arm-raising during the prayer “We lift them up the Lord” . . . even if it’s rendered “Habemus ad Dominum.” You will see what is not participation, but, in fact, a distraction from what Cardinal Ratzinger identified as the actio divina.
What should the faithful be doing at Mass, then, if not opening their arms or calling out responses or looking for work in the sanctuary? “The real action in the liturgy in which we are all supposed to participate,” Benedict wrote, “is the action of God Himself.” In the “oratio, the priest speaks with the I of the Lord—‘this is My body,’ ‘this is My blood.’” At this moment, Benedict asks us, “are not God and man completely incommensurable? Can man, the finite and sinful one, cooperate with God, the Infinite and Holy One?” The answer is yes, and it is this cooperation that the Church intends when calling for our participation in the liturgy—not a participation of moving and speaking, but rather the participation that comes from cooperating in mind and spirit with what is happening on the altar. This requires the active engagement not of our arms, but rather, as the rite says, of our hearts. That engagement can be given silently, and no less ardently for the silence. Perhaps it should.
This participation, which becomes a constant living in the presence of God, informs and transforms all our other relationships, all our friendships. The Christian who leads such an integrated life, one that begins with participation in a rightly ordered liturgy, becomes another St. Andrew, bringing his brother to Christ.
In 2007, on the Feast of St. Andrew, Pope Benedict XVI published his second encyclical, Spe Salvi. “In hope we are saved,” it begins, quoting St. Paul to the Romans. This salvation, Benedict continues, citing the patristic studies of Henri de Lubac, “has always been considered a ‘social’ reality.” Real life, the pope declares, can be attained only within the context of “we.” The “individual,” an impossible concept conceived by Enlightenment philosophers, and one that their less imaginative heirs today keep attempting to foist on us, makes no sense to the Christian.
In marriages, in families, in associations and friendships and religious orders, we are not individuals, but a communion of persons. The Trinity—the God in Whose image we are made—is a communion of persons. Our road back from the hopelessness of an atomized society of screens to true friendships is true liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI pointed the way—and will continue to.”
Amen. I am in a desert wasteland of liturgy. The ancient Greek philosophers began with the question “What is the life well lived?” The question remains to each person who dares live it as weighty and profound and pressing as ever.
“Historically, the Church has taught that the graces of baptism can be received not only through the administration of the sacrament itself (baptism of water) but also through the desire for the sacrament (baptism of desire) or through martyrdom for Christ (baptism of blood).
Recent doctrinal development has made clear that it is possible for one to receive baptism of desire by an implicit desire. This is the principle that makes it possible for non-Christians to be saved. If they are genuinely committed to seeking and living by the truth, then they are implicitly committed to seeking Jesus Christ and living by his commands; they just don’t know that he is the Truth they’re seeking (cf. John 14:6).
In the last century, this has been denied by certain radical traditionalists—for instance, the followers of Fr. Leonard Feeney, or “Feeneyites,” as they are sometimes called. They deny not only that one can be saved through baptism by implicit desire, they also deny that one can be saved by baptism of desire at all.
The pretext for holding this belief consists of certain statements made by medieval popes and councils emphasizing the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla sallus (“outside the Church, no salvation”).
With this doctrine as a starting point, radical traditionalists use a simple chain of reasoning: No one outside the Church is saved. All unbaptized persons are outside the Church. Therefore, no unbaptized person is saved.
The problem with the argument is its second premise—that all unbaptized persons are outside the Church. It is true that baptism is required for full incorporation into the Church (CCC 837), but it is not true that all of the unbaptized are unlinked in any way with the Church.
This is something the Church has always been aware of. For example, in A.D. 256, Cyprian of Carthage stated of catechumens who are martyred before baptism, “They certainly are not deprived of the sacrament of baptism who are baptized with the most glorious and greatest baptism of blood, concerning which the Lord also said that he had ‘another baptism to be baptized with’ (Luke 12:50)” (Letters 72 :22).
Likewise, in the thirteenth century, and in response to the question whether a man can be saved without baptism, Thomas Aquinas replied: “I answer that the sacrament of baptism may be wanting to someone in two ways. First, both in reality and in desire; as is the case with those who neither are baptized nor wish to be baptized; which clearly indicates contempt of the sacrament in regard to those who have the use of free will. Consequently, those to whom baptism is wanting thus cannot obtain salvation; since neither sacramentally nor mentally are they incorporated in Christ, through whom alone can salvation be obtained.
“Secondly, the sacrament of baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire; for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized but by some ill chance he is forestalled by death before receiving baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for baptism, which desire is the outcome of faith that works by charity, whereby God, whose power is not tied to the visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen, ‘I lost him whom I was to regenerate, but he did not lose the grace he prayed for’” (Summa Theologia III:68:2, cf. III:66:11–12).
As these passages indicate, Catholics have historically understood that what is absolutely necessary for salvation is a salvific link to the body of Christ, not full incorporation into it. To use the terms Catholic theology has classically used, one can be a member of the Church by desire (in voto) rather than in reality (in re).
This is necessary background for understanding the papal and conciliar statements radical traditionalists appeal to when trying to deny the reality of baptism of blood and desire. The popes and councils of the Middle Ages who emphasized extra ecclesiam nulla sallus had no intention of overturning what was standard teaching in their day regarding catechumens and baptism of desire.
The fact that certain radical traditionalists today do not understand this shows—ironically—how out of touch with Catholic tradition they are, since they do not understand the basic theological assumptions behind the magisterial texts they quote.
When confronted with such passages from Church fathers and doctors, radical traditionalists sometimes try a blocking move: “I don’t deny that those fathers and doctors said those things, but they were not infallible. The statements I quote from popes and councils are infallible, and so you should stick with what’s infallible and not pay attention to the non-infallible.”
There are a couple of reasons this argument is bad. First, when the Church defines something, it tends to define only a single point, which it does not intend it to be understood in a theological vacuum.
That’s why, for example, when Pius IX and Pius XII defined the Immaculate Conception and Assumption, they didn’t simply issue single-sentence documents containing only the definitions. The definitions they issued did consist of only single sentences, but they were contained within much larger documents that explained and prepared for the definitions so that everyone would understand what was being done.
Context is also the reason why ecumenical councils such as Trent would prepare for the canons (in which they infallibly defined certain points) by writing decrees that expounded at more length the points of theology that would be defined in the canons.
Similarly, whenever the Church issues a definition, it intends that definition to be understood in the context of the standard theology of the day. It intends its definitions to be taken in the sense that the approved doctors and fathers would understand them.
Indeed, magisterial definitions are made to shore up and defend the teachings of the approved doctors and fathers. If it were suggested to Boniface VIII or Eugene IV (the popes Feeneyites cite) that they were overturning the standard teaching on baptism of desire and blood, they would have been stunned and probably replied, “No, that’s not what I’m doing at all!”
Second, the Feeneyite’s blocking move is wrong because there are infallible statements regarding baptism of desire.
Canon four of Trent’s Canons on the Sacraments in General states, “If anyone shall say that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation but are superfluous, and that although all are not necessary for every individual, without them or without the desire of them . . . men obtain from God the grace of justification, let him be anathema [i.e., ceremonially excommunicated].”
This is confirmed in chapter four of Trent’s Decree on Justification, which states that “This translation [i.e., justification], however, cannot, since promulgation of the Gospel, be effected except through the laver of regeneration [i.e., baptism] or its desire, as it is written: ‘Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5).”
Trent teaches that, although not all the sacraments are necessary for salvation, the sacraments in general are necessary. Without them or the desire of them men cannot obtain the grace of justification, but with them or the desire of them men can be justified. The sacrament through which we initially receive justification is baptism. But since the canon teaches that we can be justified with the desire of the sacraments rather than the sacraments themselves, we can be justified with the desire for baptism rather than baptism itself.
To avoid this, some radical traditionalists have tried to drive a wedge between justification and salvation, arguing that while desire for baptism might justify one by remitting one’s sins, it would not communicate to one the state of grace and thus allow one to be saved if one died without baptism.
This is shown to be false by numerous passages in Trent. For example, in the same chapter that it states that desire for baptism justifies, Trent defines justification as “a translation . . . to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God” (Decree on Justification 4).
Justification thus includes the state of grace. It is not a mere remission of sins. Since whoever is in a state of grace and adopted by God is in a state of salvation, desire for baptism saves. If one dies in the state of grace, one goes to heaven and receives eternal life. Justification, and thus the state of grace, can be effected through the desire for baptism (for scriptural examples of baptism of desire, see Acts 10:44–48; cf. Luke 23:42–43).
Trent also states: “Justification . . . is not merely remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man through the voluntary reception of the grace and gifts, whereby an unrighteous man becomes a righteous man, and from being an enemy [of God] becomes a friend, that he may be ‘an heir according to the hope of life everlasting’ [Titus 3:7]” (Decree on Justification7).
Thus desire for baptism brings justification and justification makes one an heir of life everlasting. If one dies in a state of justification, one will inherit eternal life. Those who die with baptism of desire are saved. Period.”
“Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in which we praise as saints and martyrs the children murdered in Jesus’ stead by King Herod, who feared the news of the birth of a rival king.
The biblical basis for this feast is Matthew 2:16, which says that “Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Prudentius (348-c. 413) wrote his beautiful Salvete flores Martyrum in their honor, as part of his larger poem in honor of the Feast of the Epiphany. There are various English translations, but I’m fond on this one by Nicholas Richardson:
Hail, all you flowers of martyrdom, whom, at life’s very door, Christ’s persecutors slew, as storms the new-born roses kill!
O tender flock, you are the first of offerings to Christ: before his altar, innocent, with palms and crowns you play.
But do the Holy Innocents deserve to be called saints, much less martyrs? After all, “martyr” means “witness,” and it’s not as if they were voluntarily witnesses who went to their deaths for the sake of Christ. As Charles Péguy observes, the Holy Innocents were “the only Christians assuredly who on Earth had never heard tell of Herod” and “to whom, on Earth, the name of Herod meant nothing at all.” Even calling them “Christians” seems wrong, since they weren’t baptized and knew no more about Jesus than they did about Herod. Right?
Wrong. Jesus speaks of his own death as a kind of baptism, saying during his public ministry, “I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50). The early Christians picked up on this. Though insisting that baptism is necessary for salvation, Christians like St. Cyprian are clear that “they certainly are not deprived of the sacrament of baptism who are baptized with the most glorious and greatest baptism of blood.”
Similarly, Tertullian describes the blood and water flowing from the pierced side of Christ (John 19:34) as the “two baptisms,” which Jesus gives us “in order that they who believed in his blood might be bathed with the water; they who had been bathed in the water might likewise drink the blood.” He views this “second font,” martyrdom, as “the baptism which both stands in lieu of the fontal bathing when that has not been received, and restores it when lost.” So the early Christians didn’t view martyrdom as an exception to the need to be baptized. Rather, they viewed it as a sort of baptism—in blood instead of water.
So it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Holy Innocents—who died for Christ, and even died in Jesus’ place—were baptized in blood. We can be assured of their salvation, since Jesus promised that “whoever loses his life for My sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:34).
And all this despite their young age. St. Irenaeus, writing c. 180 AD, says that God
suddenly removed those children belonging to the house of David, whose happy lot it was to have been born at that time, that He might send them on before into His kingdom; He, since He was himself an infant, so arranging it that human infants should be martyrs, slain, according to the Scriptures, for the sake of Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of Judah, in the city of David.
This is an important detail: St. Matthew presents the death of these children not simply as a tragedy, but also as a fulfillment of “what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:16-18). So these infants are martyrs in a unique way, since their death helps to prove that the child Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Their death also reveals Christ as the New Moses. Prudentius makes this connection in his poem:
’Mid his coevals’ streams of blood the Virgin’s child, alone unharmed, deceived the sword, which robbed these mothers of their babes.
Thus Moses, savior of his race, and Christ prefiguring, did once escape the foolish laws which evil Pharaoh made.
So there are biblical reasons for understanding the Holy Innocents as martyrs in the sense of “witnesses.” Their death tells us something about Jesus Christ.
Cyprian, writing in the middle of the third century, describes the Holy Innocents not only as martyrs, but as a sort of prototype for all martyrs:
The nativity of Christ witnessed at once the martyrdom of infants, so that they who were two years old and under were slain for His name’s sake. An age not yet fitted for the battle appeared fit for the crown. That it might be manifest that they who are slain for Christ’s sake are innocent, innocent infancy was put to death for His name’s sake. It is shown that none is free from the peril of persecution, when even these accomplished martyrdoms.
By their death, the Holy Innocents also teach us something of the ruthlessness of the Enemy, as well as something about the Christian life—namely, that we’re not promised it will be easy. After all, if even these pure and innocent children should suffer such a fate, why should we expect to be spared hardship or persecution?
But Cyprian also highlights where we tend to go wrong in our thinking about martyrdom. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of martyrdom as a kind of good work that the martyr does for Christ. But the early Christians warned against this. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written within a year of Polycarp’s death in 155, contrasts St. Polycarp’s martyrdom with the failed martyrdom of Quintus, who “forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily” to trial, in an attempt to be martyred, only to end up apostatizing and offering sacrifice to the pagan gods.
Instead, martyrdom is a grace that—if need be—we receive from Christ. As Cyprian says, “the cause of perishing is to perish for Christ. That Witness Who proves martyrs, and crowns them, suffices for a testimony of His martyrdom.” So it’s not the Holy Innocents who make themselves martyrs. It’s ultimately Christ Who makes them saints and martyrs.
Just as Christ makes saints of babies in water baptism every day, He gave the Holy Innocents the grace of becoming saints and martyrs through the baptism of blood, so that (in Péguy’s words), those “who knew nothing of life and received no wound except that wound which gave them entry into the kingdom of heaven.”
“One thing that divides Catholics and some Protestants is the understanding of justification, a theological term that’s generally used to signify a Christian being in a right relationship with God—meaning he is no longer subject to condemnation on account of sin.
The Council of Trent taught that “not only are we reputed [that is, considered “righteous” or “just” by God] but we are truly called and are just, receiving justice within us” (emphasis added). The late R.C. Sproul, however, denies the latter part of Trent’s teaching, stating, “It is not the change in our nature wrought by regeneration [Trent’s ‘justice within us’] or even the faith that flows from it that is the ground of our justification [being declared justified]. That remains solely the imputed righteousness of Christ.”
What Sproul is saying is that God considers Christ’s righteousness as our own (“the imputed righteousness of Christ”) and thereby declares us just, and that’s the only way we can consider ourselves just. Whatever interior change happens within us—a change from a state of ungodliness to a state of godliness—it plays no role in our justification. That interior change would be regeneration, which results in a state of sanctification, something that Protestants like Sproul see as essentially different from justification. No, we’re justified only on God’s say-so.
So how can we defend the Catholic Church’s teaching on justification as regeneration? In other words, how can we back up our insistence that the interior change that happens within us when we become Christians plays a role in us having a right relationship with God?
A full refutation of Sproul’s view would require us to do two things: 1) show that the Bible sees the interior change that is wrought by regeneration at least as grounds for our justification, even if not the only grounds, and 2) show that the grounds for our justification are not the imputed righteousness of Christ. This would suffice to refute Sproul’s claim. Further argumentation, however, would be needed to fully prove the Catholic position that the interior change wrought by regeneration (via sanctifying grace, given initially in baptism) is the sole ground for our justification, or what the Council of Trent called the “single formal cause.”
Due to the limited space that we have here, we’re going to focus only on the first of the two parts of our refutation of Sproul’s view. The passage to focus on is Romans 6:17-18:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
The first thing to note is that the Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosunē, which is related to the verb (dikaioō) that Paul uses throughout his letter to the Romans when he talks about Abraham “being justified [Greek, dikaioō] by faith” (Rom. 5:1; see also 4:2), a faith that God reckoned as “righteousness” (Greek, dikaiosunē—4:5). So, for Paul, the state of being “slaves of righteousness” is a state of being justified, like Abraham.
Now, according to Romans 5:1, the justification that we Christians have in Christ is another way of describing the “peace” that we have with God—again, a peace similar to what Abraham had with God. Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith [like Abraham], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
What does it mean to have “peace with God”? It means to be in a right relationship with him. It means we’re no longer subject to condemnation from him.
So the state of being “slaves of righteousness”—the state of justification—is a state of being at peace with God, or having a right relationship with him.
The next thing to note about the above passage is that Paul describes two states, both of which are preceded by and contrasted with the same state of slavery to sin. First, he speaks of becoming “obedient from the heart,” as opposed to being “slaves of sin.” Second, he speaks of “slaves of righteousness” who were “set free from sin”—which is to say his addressees went from being slaves of sin to being slaves of righteousness.
Given this “common denominator” of slavery to sin, it’s reasonable to conclude that Paul is describing in two different ways the same state that is opposite of being a slave to sin. This being the case, Paul doesn’t see a hard divide between the state of “obedience from the heart” and the state of being “slaves of righteousness.” In fact, he conceives of them as one and the same.
Here’s where the Catholic understanding of righteousness (the interior change wrought by regeneration) comes into play. Consider that obedience to God (“obedience from the heart”) entails the mind and the will being rightly ordered to God’s will—being disposed to believe as true what he says and to do what he commands. That’s an interior state, a state that’s constitutive of our character.
It’s this interior state of the heart and mind, a state that God brings about within us by grace, that Paul identifies as the state of being “slaves of righteousness,” which, as we saw above, is a state of justification, like that of Abraham. Therefore, interior righteousness at least is a ground for our justification.
This interpretation of associating the interior state of “obedience from the heart” with the state of being “slaves of righteousness” is further supported by verse 7 of this same chapter. Paul writes, “For he who has died [the death of baptism] is freed from sin.” The Greek verb for “freed” is dikaioō. So, the text can be literally translated as, “he who has died [the death of baptism] is justified from sin.”
Here, Paul explicitly ties this freedom from slavery to sin, which, as we saw above, is the interior state of “obedience from the heart,” to the state of being justified. It follows, therefore, that in Paul’s mind the state of being justified is not divorced from the interior state of “obedience from the heart,” a state where our hearts and minds are rightly ordered to God, or what the Council of Trent called the “justice within us.”
We can agree to some extent with those Protestants who, like Sproul, say that God declares us just. As Trent states, “not only are we reputed [righteous, or just] but we are truly called and are just”—the implication being that we can affirm that God reputes or declares us just. It’s just that, according to Paul, such a declaration corresponds to an objective reality: our interior state of righteousness that God brings about within us—what Paul calls “obedience from the heart.”
Again, as mentioned above, it takes further argumentation to establish that the interior state of righteousness constituted by sanctifying grace is the sole ground of our justification, or the “single formal cause.” But at least we can say that Paul doesn’t draw a hard divide between our state of being justified (being at peace with God and thus having a right relationship with him, whereby we are no longer subject to condemnation) and our interior state of being rightly ordered to God in obedience. In fact, he conceives of them as the same. And if that’s how Paul conceives of justification, then so should we.”
“The Catholic Church has condemned what is sometimes called strong or hard universalism, the idea that we know that everybody is saved. Perhaps weak or soft universalism may be true, which is to say, perhaps everybody, at the end of the day, just so happens to be saved, though it could have been otherwise. So far as I’m aware, Catholics can maintain the soft or weak (or hopeful) universalist view. Whether there are good reasons to is a debate I will not enter now.
On the other hand, there is “infernalism,” a pejorative term for the traditional doctrine of hell. But how can hell be compatible with an all-good God? Let’s see.
Some universalists suggest that hell is impossible because of infinite opportunities for people to repent. In other words, in some sort of war of attrition, God will inevitably win us over. But this ignores a classic position—namely, the postmortem fixity of the will. The idea is that we eternally separate from God and thus eternally will the consequences and punishments thereof. Thus, properly understood, hell is not an infinite consequence for a finite sin, but rather an eternal consequence for an eternal act (orientation) of the will.
In simple terms, the account of postmortem fixity is this: to change our minds, we must either come across new information or consider the information we have from a new perspective. But a traditional understanding of the human person maintains that neither of these conditions attains upon death, when the intellect is separated from the body. In effect, we “angelize” upon death, and the orientation of our will at that point remains thereafter. Nothing “new” or “different” is going to come along to get us to consider things afresh. Although God could perform a “spiritual lobotomy” on everybody who makes the faulty judgment of willing against Gain, God—in His perfectly wise governance—orders things toward their end in accord with their nature. And our nature is one of a fallible liberty—we are free, and we are free to make mistakes, which we do.
God is not going to constantly override our faulty (though culpable) judgments, as that would amount to the constant performance of something on the order of a miracle, which would make nonsense of generating nature (particularly human nature) to begin with. And God isn’t the business of nonsense.
In my experience of introducing the concept of postmortem fixity to universalists, several of them have not only seemed unaware of this traditional teaching, but responded by calling it “strange.” The teaching, however, is not strange; rather, it follows straightforwardly from a traditional metaphysical understanding of the human person, as Edward Feser explains in this lecture. It appears to be a highly probable, if not inevitable, consequence, of good philosophical analysis of the human person.
Now, I said that our nature is one of a fallible liberty, and this too is an important point. Only God (who is subsistent goodness itself) is his own rule; God alone is naturally impeccable, always perfect. Nothing else—neither man nor angel—is like this, and so every being of created liberty must be capable of failing to consider and subsequently apply the moral rule in every instance of judgment, and therefore be capable of sin. In other words, God could no more have created an infallible free creature than he could a square circle.
To appreciate this fact is to appreciate why God, if wanting to bring about creatures like us, necessarily brings about the possibility of our sinning and turning from him. In this sense, love—which requires the uniting of free independent wills—is inherently risky, especially when only one will (God’s) is incapable of sinning.
Now, if we apply the notions above—fallible liberty and postmortem fixity—to God’s mode of governance, we can see why God not only permits our moral failures in this life, but would continue to permit our moral failure to love him in the next life. God is under no obligation to override our moral miscalculation, even if he could. Nor is God any less perfect for not doing so, since it is a matter of Catholic dogma that everyone receives sufficient grace—that is, everything he needs to love God and reject sin. Nobody fails to love God because of what God doesn’t give him; people fail to love God because they indulge in voluntary and therefore culpable ignorance (that is, fail to consider what they habitually know, and really could consider), deciding instead to love some inferior good. If that is the final choice they make, God respects it.
Again, it is not enough for the universalist to dismiss these notions as seeming archaic or strange or what have you. The claim of many universalists, after all, is that universalism is necessarily true, but these notions show that that is not the case. If we have strong independent reason to think universalism is not true—say, from Scripture and Tradition—then all we need are possibilities (not certainties) for why God allows hell and its compatibility with God’s goodness. My suggestion is that a proper understanding of finite fallible liberty, God’s being a perfectly wise governor, and the possibility of the postmortem fixity of the will provide the necessary conceptual resources we need to show the compatibility between an all-good God and the doctrine of hell.
Let me address two other arguments. I’ve heard it said by universalists that God could not be perfectly joyful if anybody were in hell, but God is perfectly joyful; ergo, there can be no one in hell. But if this argument proves anything, it proves too much. After all, if God cannot be perfectly joyful if somebody is in hell, then how can God be perfectly joyful in light of any sin or evil? The answer, obviously, is that he cannot be, and so the position makes God dependent upon creation. If that’s the case, God is no longer really God , who should be in no way dependent upon creation for his perfection. So that argument is not a good one.
Finally, justice and punishment. Part of what motivates universalists are faulty (or at least non-traditional) notions of both. Traditionally, punishment, even eternal punishment, has been seen as itself a good, itself an act of mercy and justice. Boethius stressed this point strongly: it is objectively better for a perpetrator to be punished than to get away with his crime.
As put in The Consolation of Philosophy, “The wicked, therefore, at the time when they are punished, have some good added to them, that is, the penalty itself, which by reason of its justice is good; and in the same way, when they go without punishment, they have something further in them, the very impunity of their evil, which you have admitted is evil because of its injustice . . . Therefore the wicked granted unjust impunity are much less happy than those punished with just retribution.”
If Boethius is right, then hell could—perhaps even should—be seen as God extending the most love, mercy, goodness he can to someone in a self-imposed exile. Ultimately, what would be contrary to justice (giving one what he is due) would be for somebody to eternally reject God and get away with it.
There is a “joke” that goes a missionary was evangelizing an indigenous native and the native asks ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ Priest: ‘No, not if you did not know.’ Native: ‘Then why did you tell me?’
“2. Accordingly, We first of all declare that all Catholics have a sacred and inviolable duty, both in private and public life, to obey and firmly adhere to and fearlessly profess the principles of Christian truth enunciated by the teaching office of the Catholic Church…
3. These are fundamental principles: No matter what the Christian does, even in the realm of temporal goods, he cannot ignore the supernatural good. Rather, according to the dictates of Christian philosophy, he must order all things to the ultimate end, namely, the Highest Good. All his actions, insofar as they are morally either good or bad (that is to say, whether they agree or disagree with the natural and divine law), are subject to the judgment and judicial office of the Church.”
CCC 846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:
Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in his body which is the Church.
He Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.
Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336
“In the beginning of the book of Isaiah, God declares, “Sons have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me” (1:2). It’s a succinct description of the nature of sin: having seen the goodness of God, we have turned against Him in rebellion. But the person who does something wrong innocently and ignorantly isn’t a rebel; he’s just making a mistake. This idea—that for an evil to be a sin, it has to be chosen knowingly—is present from the first pages of Scripture. It’s not for nothing that the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden is from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:9). Prior to this kind of moral knowledge, you may act poorly, but it’s not sinful, just as it’s not sinful when a baby hits you and pulls your hair.
Of course, no one is totally ignorant. For instance, “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man” (CCC 1860). You can’t murder your neighbor and pretend you had never heard that murder was wrong. But “ignorance of Christ and his gospel” (CCC 1792) certainly exists. How shall such people be judged? Jesus lays out the basic principle in Luke 12:48: “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.” Everyone has been given something (at least the principles of moral law), and we will be judged based on what we know or should have known, not on what we didn’t know.
Knowing the demands of the gospel means that you can’t claim “ignorance” of them on the Last Day. Of course, we can’t willfully stay ignorant of the gospel, since that’s the kind of “feigned ignorance” that actually makes our sin worse. But can’t we at least not preach the gospel so that other people can live and die in invincible ignorance?
Then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described his shock at hearing “a senior colleague” who “expressed the opinion that one should actually be grateful to God that he allows there to be so many unbelievers in good conscience. For if their eyes were opened and they became believers, they would not be capable, in this world of ours, of bearing the burden of faith with all its moral obligations. But as it is, since they can go another way in good conscience, they can still reach salvation.”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this error is literally the anti-gospel. It treats the gospel (which literally means “good news”) as bad news from which we need to protect people, rather than good news that we need to share with the world. Logically, “faith would not make salvation easier but harder.” As the future Pope Benedict XVI observed, “in the last few decades, notions of this sort have discernibly crippled the disposition to evangelize. The one who sees the faith as a heavy burden or as a moral imposition is unable to invite others to believe.”
Where’s the actual error in reasoning in this anti-gospel? It’s in the assumption that those who have not heard of Jesus will live and die in invincible ignorance. Remember, “no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man” (CCC 1860). There are basic moral truths, including truths about the existence of God, that are knowable to everyone, even the desert islander who has never heard of Christianity or the Bible. And it would be dangerously naïve to assume that everyone has responded to even these limited glimpses of God’s revelation sufficiently to be saved. Contrast this naïve optimism with St. Paul’s description of paganism in Romans 1:18-21:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
Paul knows that the pagans don’t know everything. They probably don’t know about the Torah or the moral law, or that there’s been a recent preacher in Galilee by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But they do know (or at least should know) about certain truths about both morality and God’s “eternal power and deity.” And they responded to them, in large part, by “suppress[ing] the truth,” and choosing darkness over light. In short, the desert islanders who have never heard of Christ are in the same spot as the rest of us: God reveals truth to us, and we rebel and choose sin over him. It’s why Paul goes on to say that “all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” and that “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 2:12, 3:22-23).
Everyone you meet—assuming he’s over the age of reason, and not counting serious mental disabilities and other extraordinary mitigating factors—is a sinner like you. Regardless of how much or how little God has revealed to him, he has chosen sin instead of God. If he has any self-awareness, he may even know this. To such people, the gospel isn’t a new burden. It’s the good news that their rebellion from God isn’t the end of the story and that a remedy exists, “through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The anti-gospel, rather than preserving people in a blissful state of innocent ignorance, rather damns them by leaving them with only their sin and not the cure.”
“Augustine occupies a privileged place among the Western Church Fathers that Aquinas invokes. Despite their affinity, some have proposed a division between these great theologians. Augustine’s theology is often characterized as “affective” while Aquinas is labeled merely “rational.” This distinction is misleading in many ways, and it implies that Augustine’s theology lacks reason or that Aquinas’s theology is lifeless.
For both of these theological giants, affection and reason belong together. Theology is not just something nice to think about. It matters what you think, precisely because our salvation is mediated through the mysteries of the faith.
We can see this approach in both Augustine’s and Aquinas’s writings on the mystery of the Trinity. Bridging the “gap” between reason and affect, Trinitarian theology is both an intellectual and spiritual exercise. Augustine and Aquinas both modeled this, as Father Gilles Emery, O.P. explains in his essay “Trinitarian Theology as a Spiritual Exercise in Augustine and Aquinas.” Both Doctors show how understanding the complexity of man’s mind and heart reveals an intimate relationship between us who know and love and God who is the Knower and Lover. This theological investigation can be difficult; it “exercises” the soul in a real sense. But it also prepares the soul for communion with the Triune God whose very being is Truth and Love.
For Augustine, elucidating the mystery of the Trinity requires great mental effort, but it also demands devotion. Our efforts to understand God must be informed by love because “the more one loves God, the more one sees Him” (Emery, 7). Because we are seeking the most supreme truth in such an endeavor, our souls must be trained through a kind of “spiritual gymnastics.” This theological regimen strengthens us to rise to the heights to see God and is purified through prayer, penance, and a life of virtue. Moved by God’s grace, theological study prepares us to see God in a limited way in this life and propels us to behold Him in the beatific vision.
In his theology, Aquinas follows Augustine’s approach and builds on it. He delves into the mystery of the Trinity through speculative study, in order to enable believers to grasp the truth of God more deeply. Growing in knowledge of the Trinity both aids our contemplation and provides us with the means to defend the faith against error. Aquinas understands that by studying God, we come to recognize that our own knowing and loving is a mirroring of God Who is Knowing and Loving. This realization gives spiritual consolation to those who dwell in the darkness of this passing world, yearning for the light of the life to come.
As Augustine and Aquinas both demonstrate, true theology requires rational precision, but also an affective inclination to God. As the theologian—indeed any believer—rises to grasp the lofty mysteries of the Trinity he becomes ever more conformed to the God he seeks, and he receives already a foretaste of that vision he hopes to enjoy in glory.
Studying the Trinity stretches our minds. Theology that is both loving and rational lifts the soul in sacred study and puts one in contact with God. The shared theological approach of Augustine and Aquinas—integrating both reason and affection—is a model for teachers and students today. By seeking God through both wisdom and love, our deepest desire for God can be satisfied. God has made us for Himself, and both our hearts and minds are restless until they rest in Him (cf. St Augustine).”
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "And above all, be on your guard not to want to get anything done by force, because God has given free will to everyone and wants to force no one, but only proposes, invites and counsels." –St. Angela Merici, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "We cannot always have access to a spiritual Father for counsel in our actions and in our doubts, but reading will abundantly supply his place by giving us directions to escape the illusions of the devil and of our own self-love, and at the same time to submit to the divine will.” —St. Alphonsus Ligouri, "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom