A reader writes:

I recently read St. Augustine’s On the Predestination of the Saints. In De Praed. Sanc. Augustine claims that even the beginning of faith is a gift from God. This, of course, I understand. Furthermore, Augustine asserts that God gives this gift as He pleases, without regard to any person’s merit. Again, understandable. However, God doesn’t give this gift to everybody, although it seems that He could. How does the Church reconcile the belief that God desires all people to be saved, to come to Him, with this Augustinian understanding that God could give the gift of faith to everyone and simply doesn’t? How does the Church understand Augustine’s claims so that we aren’t just left with a Calvinist interpretation of this text?

I have always accepted C.S. Lewis’ claim concerning salvation: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” [from The Great Divorce]. But if the ability of the first type to submit to God’s will is a gift from God that is simply not given to the second type, how can either group really have been said to have chosen anything at all? It would seem that God arbitrarily makes it possible for some people to accept him, but does not do so for everyone, even though He could.

I assume I am misunderstanding Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, so I would greatly appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction, or to put it differently, explain how the Church understands free will and the necessity of grace for salvation.

I know this is a little redundant, but I want to make sure I’ve expressed the issue properly, so here are the claims that I would like to understand how to reconcile:

1. God desires all people to be saved.
2. In order to be saved, one must conform one’s will to God’s.
3. The ability to conform one’s will to God’s is a gift from God, given without regard to any merit.
4. God can give this gift to anyone He wishes.
5. Not everyone is saved. Some people go to hell.

I ask you this question because I’ve greatly appreciated the posts you’ve put up lately about the early Fathers and Mary, which led me to believe that you’d probably have a good understanding of Augustine.

I’m not actually all that much of an expert in Augustine, nor in the Church’s theology on predestination. I think the main thing to realize is that it doesn’t really matter what Augustine taught about predestination. It only matters what the Church teaches. There’s a good summary here, first of the heresy of Predestinarianism and then of the Church’s teaching on Predestination .

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  • Jason Cebalo

    It’s important to keep in mind that there is no one teaching on Predestination which all Catholics are obliged to hold. There are certain truths related to Predestination which all Catholics must believe, and certain heresies on the topic which we all must reject. Withing these bounds, however, there are a variety of different theories which orthodox Catholic theologians have put forward. Historically, there were four majour Catholic schools of thought on this question: the Augustinian, the Thomist, the Molonist and the Congruist, all offering different understandings of the mystery of predestination and all accepted by the church as orthodox.

    • To quibble, it might be better to say they’re all accepted by the Church as consistent with defined dogma on predestination, and may be held without accusation of heresy.

      Strictly speaking, “orthodoxy” is right belief, and two contradictory opinions can’t both be right.

      • J. H. M. Ortiz

        “Tom K.” has a quite good point here. That a theologic opinion is not explicitly condemned by the Church as heretical, does not necessarily mean that it’s not utter nonsense, nonsense of which even a respected author with a flair for writing can sometimes fall into.

      • Jason Cebalo

        Tom K, Thanks for the correction. You are right, I should have chosen my words more carefully.

  • Jim

    My understanding is that being declared a Doctor of the Church is not even close to being declared infallible. Augustine’s views on predestination are interesting, but not definitive. Given the topic (i.e., the nature of God’s relationship to time), the issue may be one that doesn’t lend itself to one definitive understanding.

  • I’m actually finishing up my MA Thesis on this VERY topic, and from what I can tell, for Augustine, it all comes down to Humility, which begins to undo that first fall which was a fall of pride. In Augustine’s understanding (and this is true) we can do NOTHING without grace except for evil. Our will is “free” to sin as it likes, but not to do good. But – God breaks through and infuses his grace into us – willing the salvation of all. At that point we have two options – turn back in prideful abandon like Lot’s wife, or remain in a sort of “neutral”, and allow ourselves to in some sense be towed along by grace.

    One of the most re-occuring notions in Augustine is free will. From his earliest books (Like On Free Choice of the Will) to his last (On Grace and Free Will), he always had this concern before him, and always he asserts that free will is real, and it plays a part in merits both temporal and divine.

    • Fr. William Most does a great job of trying to answer this question in his book, Our Father’s Plan.

      I’m probably oversimplifying, but essentially, the initiative comes from God, and the gift of grace and faith are just that, gifts. However, we are free to reject the gift, or be passive.

      Which essentially is what you just said that St. Augustine said.

      • A Philosopher

        But can one remain neutral of one’s own capacity? If not, then there’s no solution yet. But if so, it’s unclear why one would limit the non-sinful acts one is intrinsically capable of to that single act of neutrality.

        • I think that one IS capable of other non-sinful acts other than that single act of neutrality. One is capable of any number of good actions under the influence of Divine grace. However, only that action we are discussing above is relevant to initial justification.

          • A Philosopher

            “Intrinsically capable” was meant to rule out the influence of divine grace. I take it the puzzle is this. We start with the thought that one cannot perform good acts absence divine grace. Thus, no justification without grace.

            There are now three options. One option (call it “the correct option”) is that all will be justified. A second option is that some will be justified and others will not be. Within the second option, we can identify two suboptions.

            The first suboption is classic strong predestination. God delivers irresistible grace to some but not all, and those some, by virtue of that grace, achieve justification. This suboption has the rather unpalatable consequence that God could have justified all, but chose not to, which makes God evil.

            The second suboption is some form of cooperationalism – God’s grace is not irresistible, but requires some form of cooperation from the receiving agent. You’re suggesting a very mild form of cooperationalism, in which the cooperating act is a failure to resist, but it’s still a cooperationalism. The problem with cooperationalism is that it requires that there be some good act (namely, the act of cooperation) that’s available to the agent without divine grace (otherwise, it collapses into an irresistible grace picture).

            • I’m not sure that failing to resist can be called cooperating. If you are unconscious, and somebody scoops you out of the lake and brings you up to a boat, you have been saved. You failed to resist, but I don’t think you cooperated.

            • “This suboption has the rather unpalatable consequence that God could have justified all, but chose not to, which makes God evil.”

              The conclusion doesn’t follow; the creature is not due justification from the Creator.

              I think, incidentally, that we need to be particularly careful when we say God “could” do something He has not, in fact, done (setting aside the question of whether He has, in fact, delivered irresistible salvific grace to all). An act which, in itself, is within the unconstrained power of an omnipotent Being may be contrary to the Being’s end, so we may be saying that God “could” do something contrary to His will, which is a problematic statement.

              • Mercury

                “The conclusion doesn’t follow; the creature is not due justification from the Creator.”

                No, we are not. God owes us nothing, and he could send us all to hell now if He wished. However, we also believe that God IS Love and Mercy, and hold dogmatically the notion that He wills all men to be saved. So then it becomes a question not of “how can God be so mean?” but “if He wills all to be saved, then …?”

                Certainly, we do not believe with the Calvinists that He really *wants* some people in hell, do we?

                • “Certainly, we do not believe with the Calvinists that He really *wants* some people in hell, do we?”

                  No, you’re right, that sort of double predestination is one of the doctrines Catholics aren’t free to hold.

                  The “wills all to be saved” vs “wills some to be saved” vs “wills some to be saved and some to be damned” question is distinct from the “irresistible grace” vs “resistible grace” question, although how you settle the one question raises problems when settling the other.

                  The one thing the Church tries very hard to do, I think, even as her theologians are multiplying categories of Divine willing and grace, is to insist on two truths: God is sovereign, and man is free. And when to that you add, as you say, that God is love, it’s a pretty sweet deal for us.

                  • Mercury

                    Yes, but isn’t “wills all to be saved” dogma?

                    • Sure! “God our savior… wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3-4) ” Bonus verse: “The Lord… is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pt 3:9)

                      The theological difficulty is that “God wills all to be saved” is dogma, but “all are saved” is not.

              • A Philosopher

                The creature is not due justification from the Creator.

                Well, yes, he is. It’s wrong not to prevent harm to someone when you could prevent the harm. That’s just as true for God as it is for us.

                I think, incidentally, that we need to be particularly careful when we say God “could” do something He has not, in fact, done.

                Sure. One should always be careful in saying that anyone could do something they have not. But I think I was properly careful – there’s no argument against the claim that if God offers irresistible grace, he could offer it to all, and there’s a clear “permutation” argument in favor of that claim.

                • Jason Cebalo

                  Philosopher, I’m sorry, but this isn’t true. It’s arguably the case that one has a moral obligation to prevent harm to an innocent, but as fallen sinners, we are not innocent. Actually, your position taken to it’s logical conclusion would seem to undermine the very basis of the faith. One of the essentials of the faith is that we are saved by Grace. But, by definition, grace is not something we are owed. To suggest God had an obligation to offer salvation is, therefore, to deny that his act was truly gracious.

                  • A Philosopher

                    It’s arguably the case that one has a moral obligation to prevent harm to an innocent, but as fallen sinners, we are not innocent.

                    …from which it would follow that we, too, have no moral obligation to prevent harm to people. But we do have such an obligation, so your restriction on the obligation principle must be mistaken.

                    But, by definition, grace is not something we are owed.

                    Given a choice between rejecting this view of the meaning of “grace” and endorsing a rather unappealing picture of God as not being obligated to help those in need, I’d think you’d be better off endorsing the first.

                    • Jason Cebalo

                      I’m sorry. There really isn’t any serious debate amoung Catholic theologians about the fact that grace is, by nature, something undeserved. Read any seriouse Catholic theologican on the question.

                      As for your statement that you find the notion of God not being obliged to save us unappealing, I can only say that you are, once again, placing yourself in oppostion to 2000 years worth of Catholic thought on the subject. From St. Paul onwards, it has been seen a something glorious that God saved us not from some obligation to save us but rather as a result of his love for a us, a love we could do nothing to earn.

                • “It’s wrong not to prevent harm to someone when you could prevent the harm.”

                  That’s not a true statement, unless you’ve bundled the various conditions necessary to make it true into the meaning of “could.” As it applies to God, is is thoroughly contrary to the Christian faith (again, without begging the question by weighing down “could” with unexpressed meaning).

                  ” there’s no argument against the claim that if God offers irresistible grace, he could offer it to all”

                  The argument against making the claim is that the meaning of “could” that makes the claim true makes it uninteresting, and the meaning of “could” that makes the claim interesting makes it unproven.

      • antigon

        The problem, intellectually insolvable in se it would seem, is that Grace is also necessary in order positively to respond to Grace. If my own will is finally no way mine, either in the response to Grace nor ultimately to my salvation, then ‘I’ as such, am not really involved with the matter – even fretting about it is determined, & without influence.

        But herein Pascal’s Gambit seems applicable: for if I conclude the above & am wrong, I lose, well, everything, not least my own created essence. If, however, even without a full intellectual grasp, I conclude my will & choices do matter, either they don’t & my illusion changes nothing; or I am right that they do, which, depending upon how I exercise said will, & always with the help of Grace (& if I but ask & keep asking), could very well lead to the Land that has been promised.

  • Mercury

    What I do not understand is this: Augustine and other theologians say that no one can do actual good, i.e. meritorious acts on their own, that all good acts are possible only through grace. Is that what the Church teaches?

    Or are people naturally capable of doing both good and evil, but cannot perform any acts that will contribute to our salvation or to our merit in heaven without grace? I ask this because we all know people who have no use for religion, who at least objectively commit mortal sin quite often, and yet who here has not had the experience of charity or other virtuous acts of such people that surpass the good works of many Christians and put us to shame?

    Or what about neutral acts that simply are a part of life – eating, working, procreating, etc.? Are we capable of doing these acts non-sinfully without grace? And if not, why are there again so many people on the outside who are able to show moderation, diligence, etc. in this regard to a degree that surpasses many professed Christians?

    I find the Protestant notion espoused by both Luther and Calvin to be absolutely disgusting – that man cannot do ANY good, to the point that even the good acts of the reprobate are accounted as sinful in the eyes of God. To a Calvinist, when a non-saved person performs and act of mercy, this is accounted as a sin by God. This is revolting, and based on an entirely unreasonable and horrific notion of God.

    Or is the answer that God provides *actual grace* to all people from time to time?

    Anyway, the notion that faith is a gift, and that faith is necessary for salvation, yet God, who wills all men to be saved, only gives it to certain people — that IS a difficult thing to grasp. Some say maybe it’s because God knows that some people will have faith then fall, thus making hell even worse, but I always find these explanations to be difficult to accept. The same idea is in “well God cut down that sinful teenager in the prime of his life so that he wouldn’t experience as much of the pains of hell as he would have if he’d lived longer and sinned more” – I get it, and it does have Biblical precedent, but it’s hard to accept.

    • Ghosty

      Different theologians have different answers to this question. Aquinas, for example, said people are naturally capable of some good without grace, such as caring for children and building houses. I’m going from memory here, but I believe Aquinas said that these natural goods acts were diminished by original sin, as we tend towards selfishness, but they are still possible and naturally good. He also said, however, that natural good does not bring supernatural merit; the good of Grace is on a whole different level than what humans are capable on their own, even without Original Sin. Adam and Eve, without falling and without Grace, would have been incapable of meritorious good. In other words, attaining God is something that only the power of God can bring about, and so only by God sharing Himself and His Power with a person can they do anything to merit attaining God.

      So people can’t attain God without Grace, and that is a given and a strict natural law. Natural good doesn’t merit Grace, because Grace is on a different level, and God doesn’t give Grace based on natural good. We can believe that God gives the initial Grace to all, but that many reject it, or we can believe that God gives the initial Grace to some.

      Peace and God bless!

      • Mercury

        Oh, clearly *supernatural merit* is something that must come by grace only.

        I just really wonder if, while we are in sin, are there good things we can do, – naturally good things – giving money and time to the poor, for example, that God would be pleased with. Or do even these things come from actual graces given by God?

        For example, a guy I went to high school with was apparently a homosexual. He lived in a rough area and had a reputation for giving freely and frequently to the poor, until one day, two of the guys he often helped came to his house and stabbed him to death in an attempt to take his money.

        Granted, his good deeds do not amount to supernatural merit, and his salvation would rest only in God’s Mercy; and I know that no matter what good one does, mortal sin is mortal sin. But the question is – does one actually do good? Did this guy do good on his own, or was it the grace of God? And if it was the grace of God, why give him the grace to do good things, but not the grace to repent?

        Sometimes I get the impression that all WE can do is enrage God – or actions are either neutral or sinful, but there is nothing we do on our own that He smiles upon, or that is actually right. I get this idea that God is just seething with rage at all times, because every venial sin is an immense offense against His majesty. We often hear of images where Jesus is holding back the anger of God, or Mary is holding back the hand of her Son – hence the strict satisfactory atonement view which sees Jesus as essentially taking on His Father’s redirected rage. As if all humans can do on their own is make God angry – if that is the case, what of the just men and women outside of the Church?

        And don’t even get me started on how so many saints and Catholic tradition has always, until recently, viewed Purgatory as involving positive punishment (not just the effects of our sins and attachments) – which makes it hard for me to believe that God “forgets my sins” after Confession …

        • He does “forget” our sins, but the effects of those sins are still there, and “nothing impure can enter Heaven” (Rv 21:27). I think “punishment vs. effects of our sins” is just two sides of the same coin.

          Of course, people can do good works while in mortal sin. It just doesn’t have any good effect as far as salvation, since being in mortal sin means that, in a serious manner, they knew that God either commanded or proscribed a certain action, and yet did it anyway, and they are not (as yet) repentant. So they can do good works in many ways, but as long as their overall state is that of having rejected God in that one (or more) area, the good works will not avail.

          • Mercury

            Yeah, I see what you mean, and understand it conceptually, but there is just SO MUCH in tradition that sees Purgatory as basically temporary hell, and it was long the majority opinion that the sufferings there are far greater than any on earth, and last much, much longer.

            So it’s hard to read Jesus’ parables about the Father – the Prodigal Son, for example, and wonder how the two notions square with one another. I mean, did the father in the story have the son put on a regimen of flogging for the next several months?

            I also see what you men about good works for people in mortal sin. And I know our good acts are not what gets us into heaven. But at the same time, we are urged to treat people with compassion even when, perhaps especially when, they are obviously sinful people. For example, I’m 30, and most people I know live in some sort of sexual sin or another, and many regularly smoke pot or do harder substances. I am under obligation NOT to judge them, and some of them are people I love very much.

            But if I am supposed to only look at the good in them and not judge them for the evil they do, or at least primarily see the good in them and encourage it, does God not do the same? It seems that the way it all works out with grace and action, etc., that God the Father only sees the evil we do – the good doesn’t matter, since it won’t save us, but the evil sure can get us damned.

            And yet, “charity covers a multitude of sins.” I guess that’s why they call it “mystery!”

            • If this is what you’re getting from reading the saints, you need to read better saints.

              Try the prayers of St. Catherine of Siena for a truer picture of the God Who loves you.

              • Mercury

                Tom – the problem is mine – I focus like a laser on the negative, on the rigor, etc. I’ve read some of Catherine of Siena, and it scares me because of her severe austerity and her aversion to lay life, etc. I managed to worry myself sick with fear even reading St Therese! Clearly, the problem is mine, but I am under spiritual direction, though it has been a while since I have been able to meet.

                It’s hard to turn off my mind and all my scrupulous fears and just trust God. When I am in fear every time I’m attracted to a woman because such and such saint did or said such and such thing, the problem is mine. I hope something comes from this trial.

                • I call St. Catherine my spiritual director, but of course all the direction is conducted in writing. If I had to meet her in this life, I’d be terrified. She baffled her own spiritual director — at least until he was demoted, to serve as Master of the Dominican Order.

                  But St. Catherine’s prayers, if you can find them, are love poems to the Beloved about how loving He is. “Gentle Jesus! Jesus love!”

        • Scripture and the saints talk of “God’s wrath,” not because God actually gets angry but because when He acts in our lives it can *feel* like wrath. My favorite analogy is St. John Fisher’s: if you’re healthy, sunshine is delightful, but if your eye is diseased sunshine can feel painful and punishing.

          • Mercury

            Yeah, I understand the Orthodox have a view of heaven / hell that is similar: the fiery, bright love of God shines in full force, which is great for those who love Him, but hellfire for those who have not turned to him.

        • Ghosty

          It really depends on what you mean by “doing good”. Again, according to Aquinas at least, virtue is natural to man (at least the cardinal virtues are, which regard the right use of reason, as opposed to the supernatural virtues which are wholly Divine), and man must have some capacity for whatever is natural. We are capable of temperance and fortitude without Grace, for example, but we are not capable of perfect living without Grace. I may be virtuous some of the time, but I will not be able to fully avoid falling short without Grace, and this is because my nature is weakened and damaged by sin.

          If we were wholly corrupted by sin we wouldn’t even exist or act, since all existence and action is based on some good. We aren’t capable of being wholly “good people” without Grace, but we aren’t necessarily absolutely evil without it. I don’t know of any Catholic theologians, including Augustine, who would say that we can only do evil without God’s Grace, though some do emphasize that we are not capable of being truly good without it.

          Peace and God bless!

          • Mercury

            I remember reading Francis Schaefer’s “Escape from Reason” a while back and how certain he was, as a Reformed Protestant, that the Scholastics ruined Christianity by “overlooking” man’s completely depraved nature.

            In reality, for many Protestants, the Fathers begin and end with Augustine, and then it’s only his writings against the Pelagians that seem to get any support.

            The idea that man’s intellect is so utterly depraved as to be incapable of finding truths on its own is, to me, a horrific notion. For, rather than honoring the majesty of God, it turns faith into nothing but subjective inner feelings and convictions. But how can one engage the world unless what we are saying is demonstrably true (and they know it)? I think THIS is the main reason why the Catholic Church is hated the most by the “right-minded” folk.

            • “The idea that man’s intellect is so utterly depraved as to be incapable of finding truths on its own is, to me, a horrific notion. ”

              It’s also false, and anathematized.

        • Lawrence King


          (1) Clement XI’s constitution Unigenitus (Denz. 1351-1451 = DS 2400-2502) condemned several propositions along the lines of the ones you find objectionable. These include a condemnation of the following propositions:

          “2. The grace of Jesus Christ, which is the efficacious principle of every kind of good, is necessary for every good work.”
          “5. When God does not soften a heart by the interior unction of His grace, exterior exhortations and graces are of no service except to harden it the more.”
          “29. Outside of the Church, no grace is granted.”
          “41. All knowledge of God, even natural knowledge, even in the pagan philosophers, cannot come except from God; and without grace knowledge produces nothing but presumption, vanity, and opposition to God Himself, instead of the affections of adoration, gratitude, and love.”

          He was mostly thinking of the Jansenists, who used Augustine to defend the view that only grace-filled Christians could perform meritorious works. In fact, a few years earlier the Holy Office condemned the following proposition: “When anyone finds a doctrine clearly established in Augustine, he can absolutely hold and teach it, disregarding any bull of the pope” (Denz. 1320 = DS 2330)!

          (2) It is true that many saints have viewed Purgatory that way. But Catherine of Genoa’s Purgation and Purgatory clearly teaches that the souls in purgatory are joyful as the remnants of their sins are burned away; she compares it to rust being removed from metal. She died in 1510, was beatified in 1675 and canonized in 1737. When the Holy Office examined her writings, they stated that her doctrine alone would have sufficed to prove her sanctity! That doesn’t give them magisterial weight but it’s a very striking thing. It is true that the more common view at the time was one of purgatory as a punishment due in justice for our sins, but if the Holy Office had believed that this common view was even close to a doctrine of the Church, they surely would not have been so impressed with her teaching.

          • Mercury

            Wow, thanks. Fr. Groeschel loves to talk about Purgation and Purgatory. In fact, he always says he looks forward to it. I even read his book “After this Life” that seemed to explain it well. But then I heard Fr. Andrew Apostoli kind of joke that he didn’t know what Groeschel was talking about, that Purgatory is something to fear very much – and this view, that we should be scared out of our minds at Purgatory, or that it is essentially a mini-hell, seems to be prevalent. Of course, the Magisterium itself seems to be moving more towards the view of Fr. Groeschel.

            Recently I read something by Fr. John Hardon, one of teh last great Jesuits, and he said, about “deliver us from evil”:

            Thus we pray that the penalties we have to suffer may be truly medicinal and corrective … We pray to be delivered even in this life from those dreadful punishments that God’s anger is justified in sending for our own and others’ sins…

            … We pray to be delivered from the fires of purgatory, deserved for our many sins. It will be no comfort that purgation after death is not eternal; it is more grievous than any sufferings we shall ever experience on earth, and should be considered God’s retribution for those who had sinned and failed to expiate the penalty by salutary penance and prayer. When God punishes a man in this life, or moves him by grace to punish himself, He means to spare him in the life to come. No one is ever punished twice for the same crime.”

            See? The notion is that Purgatory is going to be some SEVERE active punishment by God, not just us being allowed to suffer the consequences of our sins, or being stripped of our bad habits.

            Also, when we speak of asking to be spared God’s just punishment – it’s that which I understand, but have a hard time processing – I think my notion of God is not a loving Father, but a master who is ready to strike at his miserable servants at any time, who sees every little tiny infraction we make, and whose rage is only held in check by His Son, who bears the brunt of it, and the Son’s rage is only held back by His Mother (according to some apparitions).

            This is false, I know. A father wants what is best for his children, but a human father is willing to overlook the foibles of his children and love them for the good int them. But in our case, from God’s perspective, we do no good in his eyes except that which he gives us the grace to do, and each and every minor infraction is deserving of his everlasting wrath.

            It’s just hard to understand.

            • Anna

              I remember John Zmirak once describing Purgatory as being like showing up to a dream job interview – and wetting your pants. It wouldn’t take any extra shaming by the interviewer – you’d do all the shaming yourself knowing how wretched you just made yourself look.

              • Mercury

                See, THAT I understand, an it fits in with what one often hears nowadays. But look at that quote by Fr. Hardon (who actually knew John Zmirak). It seems to represent the much older, much more pedigreed tradition that Purgatory is God’s wrathfully punishment for our sins. So which view is better? Which is more accurate?

                • Mercury, again, my view is that Purgatory as “punishment for sin” and Purgatory as a “process of purification” are both one and the same, seen from a different perspective. I believe that it is true that one of the doctrinal developments in recent times is that what we saw as “punishment” before, we now see as God’s gentle hand purifying us. It appears to us as punishment or the “wrath of God” because it hurts! But from God’s perspective, He is only ever acting for our own good, to bring us closer to Him and to others.

                  “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

            • Lawrence King

              I think it depends on what kind of a grip we hold on our sins. Here is an (imperfect) thought experiment: Suppose there is some sin or sinful tendency that you have struggled with for a while. And suppose that you are given a magic potion that, if you drink it, will remove this from you forever. How scary would that be? Speaking solely for myself, there are things about me that I don’t like and which I would gladly without hesitation have removed, and others that I don’t like but which, given the chance to remove them, I would vacillate. That is, sinful tendencies that I want to get rid of, and yet some part of me (and I do mean “me”!) hangs on to. What if you come up with the perfect put-down to really put that jerk in his place, and you know it would be wrong… how hard is it to give up even the daydream of delivering this put-down to his face? To the extent that I keep hanging on to that daydream, and thus keep attaching myself to such sins, it will be painful to remove such sinful tendencies from me, and it can rightly be termed “punishment”. But to the degree that I find such sinful tendencies to be like flies buzzing around my head, and would honestly be relieved to be rid of them forever, purgatory would be like a vigorous cleansing that nonetheless is joyful. — Just a thought.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    Let’s face it: Augustine, and Aquinas after him, opined that most humans will end up in hell. But in a talk given in 1963 in Toulouse (published as “À propos de l’Église du Ciel” in his posthumous book Approches sans Entraves, “Untrammeled Approaches”), the 20th-century Thomist Jacques Maritain has argued on the contrary that Jesus’s broad way toward perdition and narrow way toward salvation applies to how people are living here on earth, not to where they will end up hereafter.
    Further, the Church’s Magisterium holds out the concrete possibility of salvation for all humans. For instance, Vatican II’s Constitution Gaudium et Spes states in section 22 that “since Christ died for all [humans] (Cum … pro omnibus mortuus est Christus), and since man’s ultimate vocation is in very reality … divine (cumque vocatio hominis ultima revera … sit … divina), we ought to hold that the Holy Spirit offers to ALL [humans] the possibility (tenere debemus Spiritum Sanctum CUNCTIS possibilitatem offerre) that, by a manner known to God, they be associated with this paschal mystery (ut, modo Deo cognito, huic paschali mysterio consocientur).” (My emphasis and literal translation; this material is readily available at the Vatican’s website.)

    • J. H. M. Ortiz

      For the sake of accuracy, I’ll note that for Augustine and Aquinas, “hell” included that conjectural state called in English “limbo of the children”, a state which for Aquinas was one of full human happiness, but without supra-human vision of God’s beauty.

  • Anna

    A couple of thoughts in relation to this:
    First, the discussion seems to be framed in terms of “grace VS. free will.” But in a class I took with Michael Waldstein he brought up non-competitive causality. We are used, since the rise of Nominalism, to thinking of action in terms of power: if I do x, it isn’t God doing it, and if God does x, it can’t really be me doing it. But Waldstein said this is a false view and causality of our good actions is non-competitive between us and God. The answer to “who is the actor, me or God?” is “yes.” And due to this we can’t draw any kind of line between where our action/free will ends and grace begins, so it will always remain something of a mystery. Gabriel Marcel would say it will remain mystery because anything we are so intimately involved in remains somewhat of a mystery because we can’t step outside it to analyze. Not that we can know nothing, but that it won’t ever turn out like a geometric proof.
    Secondly, regarding the questioner’s point #5, Peter Kreeft reminded our class that God is a Father, not a statistician. If your 19 kids are skating on thin ice and one falls through and drowns, that’s pretty good, mathematically. But to your heart it will always be “few” who were saved. So trying to work out why “nearly everyone will go to hell” if God gives grace (per some citations above) forgets the Fatherhood of God and also isn’t, ultimately, very helpful because it’s so completely speculative.

  • J. H. M. Ortiz

    “The answer to ‘who is the actor, me or God?’ is ‘yes’.”
    Indeed. This squares happily, I think, with mainstream Scholastic philosophy, which holds that insofar as it’s good, a good human action is entirely from God as first cause, and entirely from the human as from a second cause under God; IOW, it’s from God thru the human.
    At grace before a meal, my father used to say sometimes (in Spanish), “Thanks be to God and to Priscilla” (his wife): to God as first cause of the delicious and nutritious meal, and to Mom who, as a second cause under God, cooked it.

    • Anna

      Thank you for the excellent example. That’s where I thought some of the discussion above was getting bogged down: natural goodness vs. supernatural goodness and whether anything we do is good apart from God’s grace or are we just crummy on our own. But we *aren’t*, on our own. A well-cooked meal is a natural good, but your mom wasn’t peeved at the thanks being given to God because He wasn’t competing with her for who was doing the good cooking. The cooking really was due to her action, and not “only insofar as it wasn’t due to God.”

      • I think what Anna says is worth repeating:


        • Anna

          And I meant it in both ways: that God doesn’t leave us to flounder *and* that we really are not, we don’t even exist, if we are totally on our own. That nominalist idea of seeing everything in terms of power gives us this notion of feeling like we are powerless worms if God’s grace is acting in us – and we rebel against that because God did create us to be free creatures with a will of our own. We’re somewhat infected with the notion that if God increases His work in us, we will decrease and cease to be – and He made us for being and so we fight against Him for our existence. But that is like an unborn baby trying to grow strong on his own by tying off the cord; he doesn’t then grow on his own power, he withers. So with us: if God’s grace is at work in us, we are more ourselves, not less.