A reader objects…

to my post about prayer for S.J. Gould:

You state: “However, neither you nor I know that he or anyone else has ever died in mortal sin.” If your position is that we don’t know the destiny of any particular person, I agree. However, if your position is that we don’t know whether there is anyone in Hell, then that is contary to Scripture. Since one has to believe in Jesus to be saved — and not everyone believes — there are obviously people in Hell.

The Bible never tells people to be “open in some mysterious way to the working of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.” The command is simple — believe in Jesus to be saved. So if a person knowingly and deliberately rejects God’s existence, how can he in any sense be “open” to the Holy Spirit (who is after all, God)? Paul’s opinion of atheism isn’t so mamby-pamby. He says that unbelievers are “without excuse,” “vain” and “fools.” (Rom. 1:20-1.)

You trivialize Protestant teaching to suggest that the issue is saying “magic words.” No one has ever said you get to heaven by saying magic words.

I’m speaking here as a Catholic, and one influenced by the dangerously heterodox views of von Balthasar (Dare We Hope), when I say that we know no such thing. There are two things a Catholic needs to understand in this matter. He is not compelled by any dogma to say that we know people will certainly be damned and he is forbidden to say we know people will certainly not be damned. Calvinism makes the first mistake and universalism the second. The fact is, we know nothing. We may suppose or strongly suspect some will be damned. We may suppose or strongly hope nobody will be. But we can’t know for the simple reason that we are not God and we do not know how the story ends.

Scripture, in fact, proposes to us (like a Buddhist koan) a seemingly irreconcilable pair of propositions: 1) that it is really and truly possible to damn your soul to hell by refusal of grace and 2) that the omnipotent God for whom nothing is impossible wills to save all. Both propositions must be held at full strength. Appeals to Scripture by either Calvinists or Universalists inevitably work by submerging one proposition and exalting the other. Von Balthasar essentially reminds us that we can’t do this and are therefore left “under judgement, not over it” and without certain knowledge. The thing to do therefore is to hope, not to claim knowledge of what we do not know. That is why I pray for the deceased, even if he was an atheist. Could’n’t hoit.

As to being sure Gould “knowingly and deliberately rejecting God’s existence”, this too is a dicey proposition. Yes, if Gould or some other atheist really and truly shuts his eyes to what he knows to be true then he is committing a sin against the intellect and its Maker. And such sins do occur. But it is also true that causes of atheism are not nearly so simple as that in many cases and, since I know nothing of Gould’s interior life, I refrain from making such easy assessments. As the Catechism points out: “2125. “Since it rejects or denies the existence of God, atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion. The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. ‘Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.’” And, by the way, Paul isn’t talking about atheists in Romans 1:20. He’s talking about pagans.

Finally, I think you underestimate the “magic word” factor in many expressions of Protestantism. There is most definitely a way in which many Protestant believers (like many Catholic believers) look for code words and shibboleths in order to admit Real Christians[TM] into the guild. As a Catholic, for instance, I constantly hear people say “Sure, I was baptized a Catholic, but I became a Christian when I asked Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior”. Subtext: I said the magic words and now I’m *really* a Christian. My point is simply that life is not that simple. Some people (think Mother Teresa) never have such moments yet are clearly Christian. Others have them a lot. There is, of course, a place for Pauline “conversion experiences” in the Christian life. But there is also a place simply being born and raised in the faith as, for example. Maximilian Kolbe was. There is also a place for people being worked on by the Holy Spirit in unnumerable ways without their even being quite conscious of it. We know where the Church is, we do not know where it is not.

Bottom line: we are, of course, to respond to the call of Christ as best we can. But we are not to presume from this that those who do not respond in ways we recognize as a response are therefore cut off from grace. As Catholics, we believe that “we are bound by the sacraments, but God is not.” Analogously, Protestants would do well to say that “we are bound to profess Jesus as Lord and Savior, but God is not necessarily hindered in working in somebody’s life if they don’t figure that out.” If we really and truly refuse grace we shall indeed be damned. But only God knows who, if anyone, has done this. Meantime, our job is to hope and obey him.