A reader asks about predestination

She writes:

I know many Catholics are critical of Calvinism and its doctrine predestination, but don’t they also believe in it? That God foreknows or ensures that whoever gets to heaven does-free will doesn’t exist when it comes to salvation. To me, this seems logical if God is all-knowing and all-powerful. I have asked Catholics about this, and they tell me that while they believe it, their predestination belief different from Calvinism. I am a little confused and was wondering if you could explain more clearly.

I’m no expert on this, but the basic point of contention appears to be that the Catholic approach preserves both God’s sovereignty and human choice while Calvinism sacrifices human choice to God’s sovereignty.  This is a common theme in the history of the Church and heretical reactions to her.  The Catholic tradition typically preserves a both/and approach to the data of revelation while heresy virtually always picks some one or few bits of revelation, privilege the favorite bits, and uses them to  attack the rest of the Tradition.  Chesterton describes the process:

Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed “Psalms” or “Gospels”; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.

Again, the Calvinists took the Catholic idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God; and treated it as a rocky irreducible truism so solid that anything could be built on it, however crushing or cruel. They were so confident in their logic, and its one first principle of predestination, that they tortured the intellect and imagination with dreadful deductions about God, that seemed to turn Him into a demon. But it never seems to have struck them that somebody might suddenly say that he did not believe in the demon. They were quite surprised when people called “infidels” here and there began to say it. They had assumed the Divine foreknowledge as so fixed, that it must, if necessary, fulfil itself by destroying the Divine mercy. They never thought anybody would deny the knowledge exactly as they denied the mercy. Then came Wesley and the reaction against Calvinism; and Evangelicals seized on the very Catholic idea that mankind has a sense of sin; and they wandered about offering everybody release from his mysterious burden of sin. It is a proverb, and almost a joke, that they address a stranger in the street and offer to relax his secret agony of sin. But it seldom seemed to strike them, until much later, that the man in the street might possibly answer that he did not want to be saved from sin, any more than from spotted fever or St. Vitus’s Dance; because these things were not in fact causing him any suffering at all. They, in their turn, were quite surprised when the result of Rousseau and the revolutionary optimism began to express itself in men claiming a purely human happiness and dignity; a contentment with the comradeship of their kind; ending with the happy yawp of Whitman that he would not “lie awake and weep for his sins.”

Now the plain truth is that Shelley and Whitman and the revolutionary optimists were themselves doing exactly the same thing all over again. They also, though less consciously because of the chaos of their times, had really taken out of the old Catholic tradition one particular transcendental idea; the idea that there is a spiritual dignity in man as man, and a universal duty to love men as men. And they acted in exactly the same extraordinary fashion as their prototypes, the Wesleyans and the Calvinists. They took it for granted that this spiritual idea was absolutely self-evident like the sun and moon; that nobody could ever destroy that, though in the name of it they destroyed everything else. They perpetually hammered away at their human divinity and human dignity, and inevitable love for all human beings; as if these things were naked natural facts. And now they are quite surprised when new and restless realists suddenly explode, and begin to say that a pork-butcher with red whiskers and a wart on his nose does not strike them as particularly divine or dignified, that they are not conscious of the smallest sincere impulse to love him, that they could not love him if they tried, or that they do not recognize any particular obligation to try.

It might appear that the process has come to an end, and that there is nothing more for the naked realist to shed. But it is not so; and the process can still go on. There are still traditional charities to which men cling. There are still traditional charities for them to fling away when they find they are only traditional. Everybody must have noticed in the most modern writers the survival of a rather painful sort of pity. They no longer honour all men, like St. Paul and the other mystical democrats. It would hardly be too much to say that they despise all men; often (to do them justice) including themselves. But they do in a manner pity all men, and particularly those that are pitiable; by this time they extend the feeling almost disproportionately to the other animals. This compassion for men is also tainted with its historical connection with Christian charity; and even in the case of animals, with the example of many Christian saints. There is nothing to show that a new revulsion from such sentimental religions will not free men even from the obligation of pitying the pain of the world. Not only Nietzsche, but many Neo-Pagans working on his lines, have suggested such hardness as a higher intellectual purity. And having read many modern poems about the Man of the Future, made of steel and illumined with nothing warmer than green fire, I have no difficulty in imagining a literature that should pride itself on a merciless and metallic detachment. Then, perhaps, it might be faintly conjectured that the last of the Christian virtues had died. But so long as they lived they were Christian.

So, to give some other examples, Judaizers emphasized the Chosenness of the Jews at the expense of the Chosenness of all in Jesus. The Docetists emphasized the divinity of Jesus at the expense of his humanity.  Arians emphasized the deity of the Father at the expense of the other two Persons.  Process theology emphasizes human free will at the expense of God’s omniscience, so that God himself is wondering where it will all lead and how it will end.

And Calvinism sacrifices human freedom to the freedom of God.

Meanwhile, Paul tells us “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17).  In other words, God is not the opposite of human freedom but the ground of our freedom.  His free creative act creates our freedom and takes into account the free choices we make.  He sees us act in his Eternal Now since there is no past, present and future for him.  God is, says Thomas, “pure act”.  There is nothing potential and unrealized about him.  He is fully God in every square inch and millisecond of time-space and is not losing part of himself into the past, nor hoping for the rest of himself to be fully realized in the future.  All of his creative act is fully known to himself in eternity because he dwells outside of time (which is just another of his creatures).  So he sees us and our free choices.  But to see a person doing something is not to make him do it.  Indeed, all his acts are ordered toward our salvation, not our damnation.  The Calvinist asserts a God who deliberately creates people in order to damn them.  Jesus died, in that scheme, to save us from God who wants to destroy us but also, schizophrenically, wants to save the Elect.

In Catholic understanding, we are damned by, not for, our sin.  God’s whole will is to save us.  Period.  The damned (assuming there are any, which we don’t know) damn themselves.  God’s whole will from all eternity is to save his creatures and to do it he will endure the utmost horror from us to achieve it.

So the Catechism tells us:

1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:

Father, accept this offering
from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.

I wrote a little sonnet to try to express what I’m saying here this past Easter:

Sonnet for Easter

We are not damned for, but by, our sin.
It was not God, but Judas, in pride,
who twisted the straight rope, making his skin
proof against mercy, bottling inside
it a god of self who dealt out the curse.
Peter, thrice the traitor Judas had been,
sick unto death with cowardice and nursed
with the gall of shame, would not take God’s pen
and strike his own name from the Book of Life.
Christ risen owed him naught but worm and fire.
But he would face Him. Though Isaac’s stone knife
be whetted on his throat, Him he desired.
And in the morning, when he saw His face
Peter found only Yes, Mercy, and Grace.

Hope that helps!

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