All or Many? The Real Problem

Over at the National Catholic Reporter there is a satirical piece about the new Mass translation. The piece itself is sort of funny, and as one who writes ‘leaden satire’ on this blog I can appreciate it well enough.

What tickles me most though, are the comments–especially ones from priests. Here’s one: he’s having a big grumble and stamping his foot and saying he’s not going to use the new missal…Most of all, he says, “And I for one will not pray heresy….. Christ came for “all” not just “many”.

Is it possible that this Catholic priest does not know that this is a direct quotation from Matthew’s gospel? “Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” Apparently not.

I’ve heard other priests complain about this faithfulness to the actual words of Our Lord. One of them said with a pained expression, “It grieves me when I read those words knowing how so many of our people will feel excluded.” Whaat? If you’re at Mass you’re not one of those who are excluded–if you’re in a state of grace that is. So who’s excluded?  The people who are not at Mass–and they excluded themselves, and geesh—they’re not even there so how are they going to be hurt and excluded?

But anyhow, the word ‘many’ in the canon is balanced by the words the priest says at the introduction to communion, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” Beautiful. It is there at the introduction to communion that the priest declares to the world with John the Baptist–that Christ takes away the sins of the whole world.” Then he welcomes all who will come to him with the words, “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”

The two phrases in the liturgy–both of them direct quotations from the gospels–balance each other and reveal the true Catholic theology: It ain’t that hard: Christ died for the sins of the whole world, everybody is welcome to accept the gift, but not everyone will.

To go off on a tangent a little, we also have to understand the context of Jesus saying at the Last Supper. When he says ‘shed for many for the forgiveness of sins’ the emphasis is actually on his inclusiveness, not his exclusiveness. He is looking to ‘those other sheep’ of the Gentiles, and his word ‘many’ therefore means, “Many, many more than are here present who you apostles cannot imagine right now.” This is an opening up, not a narrowing down.

In any case, this is not the real problem. The quarrel over the words is just a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that the modern Catholic Church is shot through with the heresy of universalism and semi-universalism.

What is universalism? The belief that “everyone will eventually be saved no matter what.” Semi-universalism is “we hope and believe that everyone will be saved no matter what.” In other words, semi- universalism is universalism for those who don’t have the guts to be universalists.

Universalism is a heresy because it is a half truth. Christ did die for all, but the universalist only holds on to that part of the truth. He denies the other half of the full truth, that not everyone will accept that grace and therefore some will go to hell.

It is a sentimentalist heresy because it is based not on clear thinking or logic or the authority of Church teaching or the catechism or the Sacred Scriptures, for there is no support anywhere for universalism in the Catholic faith. Instead it is based on people’s longing to be nice and ‘not hurt anyone’s feelings’ and the syrupy sentiment that, “God is too loving to send anyone to hell.”

The effects of universalism on the church are catastrophic. It’s not real hard to understand. People aren’t dumb. If everyone is going to be saved, then why bother to go to church? If everyone is going to be saved there is no such thing as mortal sin. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need for evangelism. If everyone is going to be saved there is no need to feed the hungry, become a priest, build the church and become a saint.

Of all the various Hydra heads of modernism, universalism is probably the most insidious and diabolical and destructive of them all. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s sweetness and light and sentimentality and underneath it’s poison.

  • Julie Culshaw

    As one priest said here at a mission, "if I'm alright and you're alright, what is He doing up there on that cross?"

  • Ron Rolling

    This post is the kind of catechism the average person needs but doesn't getIs not docility a form of humility?

  • Unknown

    The translation discussions of any type always leave me pretty cold. Translations are close when done properly but they are never exact; had the originals been in English, I might have some concerns; but probably not.

  • Jack

    I researched Universalism for quite a while, and while their case is far more compelling than I imagined it would be, I found myself unable to accept it absolutely. Church history and scripture seem to give a hope of universal salvation in places, but the more traditional view is also there, and cannot be swept aside.One of the best things I read about universalism was that essentially we need both views in our lives. We cannot put any limits on the love and mercy of God, but on the other hand we cannot say that sin has no consequence. Both sides of the equation give us something vital that we need for our lives, and if they do create a tension, then we need to leave it to God to work that out.We may not hold universalism as a dogma, and it may not even be wise to hold it as an expectation, but we are compelled to hold it as a hope and a prayer. As a priest once said to me, universalism is the great prayer of the Church.While I accept that Universalism may pose dangers, I would add something to the second-last paragraph above. Surely we should do all those things (pursue vocations, feed the hungry, go to Church) because we see the good in them and because we want to do them, rather than because there is a gun to our heads? Doesn't it take away the merit if we do something only to save our own skins? Isn't that ultimately a selfish act?When you remove the threats, you lose a lot of people, but maybe the people who are left are the genuine ones??


    Father, excellent warning; thank you. It could be said we all suffer from universality on occasion!

  • George @ Convert Journal

    I think Universalism is dangerous and wrote about it in Is hell empty?. Ignoring the evidence, the sentimental and some thologians seem drawn to it.Included in my piece is a good list of quotes from a dozen Church Fathers (all Saints and most Doctors of the Church).Then of course, there is Matthew 7:13-14 and CCC 1033 (to name only 2 references on the topic).

  • Steve

    Father, NCR's satire piece is indeed funny, and like any good satire it hits at some truly important points. This line from the NCR piece made me laugh:"Why, these new prayers were translated straight from Latin, the language Jesus spoke when he talked down to the crowds and his disciples."That is, sadly, all too close to the attitude that many traditionalists display. (Who are the traditionalists, really/ They who would privilege faithfulness to all things Latin as being next to godliness.) If it's Latin it must be holy! As though that was the language of Christ, rather than the language of the oppressor regime — the Roman Empire — which first tried to crush Christianity and then ended up trying to co-opt the faith in the later years of the empire. Yet we are told repeatedly that Latin is better than the vernacular; the prayers composed in Latin are better than the prayers that make more sense to those who populate the pews in English-speaking countries.Yes, Latin is a beautiful language, and many beautiful things have been written in Latin. But some in the church are more in love with Latin, I fear, than with the quality of the liturgy in the vernacular. Latin is only a language; it's not the secret code that enables one's prayers to reach God's ear.

  • Tom

    Ohhhh this contempt for Latin . . . the scourge of the Modernists!! The Church is centered in Rome and Latin is the universal, ecclesial language of our faith.At least Jesus heard Latin from his Roman persecutors . . . quite a delicious irony that Latin became the language of the Church. English did not even exist until the 11th century or so, and not in a form we can generally understand today, until the time of Shakespeare.So if Latin is a language "foreign" to Jesus, what does that make English?

  • Bryan

    What an interesting post.Of course, one wouldn't want to make a fetish out of any language. On the other hand, the Western liturgy is a creature of its own language — which really was Latin. I'd differ with Steve, above, about this point: the Latin prayers are superior not because Latin is superior, but because that is the original language of the liturgy. Being more faithful to the original language of the work is simply an effort to convey accurately the thoughts intended. All that commentary about Latin being the language of a regime that "co-opted" Christianity is, well, let's just say it's bside the point.As for semi-universalism: was this not the position of Hans Urs von Balthasar? If I recall, there was a very spirited debate on this question in First Things a couple years back.

  • StevieD

    A famous priest recently said that "we can reasonably hope that all will be saved" since the Church does not exclude the possibility. Judas was told that it was better had he "never been born" which would not be true if he is destined for heaven even after a long delay. In addition we have the words of Our Lady at Fatima that "Many souls go to hell because they have no-one to make sacrifices and pray for them" It would seem, at the very least,unwise to be optimistic in this matter.

  • Svoboda

    Just found your blog and website. Thanks for your very thoughtful commentary. Can learn from your even-handedness, as I am bit of a cowgirl when my choleric streak offsets my melancholy! Will be tuning in for more. God bless.

  • JM

    "we are compelled to hold [Universalism] as a hope and a prayer."I'd disagree. We are essentially told all will NOT be saved. We should hope for the broadest possible number, but also realize ALL will not be. That is not Universalism. We don't need the tension of both truths. And I'd suggest this idea about needing tension is a leftover of Modernist caveats. The older churchmen had plenty of love and zeal without hoping ALL would be saved, Balthasar notwithstanding. Also, doing something to avoid punishment is sane. It may not be the best reason, but it is certainly a good one. Some Universalist arguments ARE compelling, but they are wrong, whether Balthasar or Rob BEll be preaching.

  • Jack

    The way I see it is like this:Can we believe Universalism is definite? No. That's heresy.Can we believe it's likely? It's probably not advisable. Not sure it would definitely be heresy though.Can we believe it's possible? Yes, I think so.JPII said that we can't be sure anyone is in hell – not even Judas. While certain apparitions have shown Hell, Ratzinger reminds us (c.2000) that private apparitions and visions are not literal TV pictures and do not necessarily show definites. And in any case, they are not dogmatic. Indeed it is not currently de fide that anyone is in hell, or ever will be.But, yes… scripture and tradition would suggest that it is at least likely. As I said above, I am not a universalist, but I do most certainly believe that we must hope and pray for it. Why would we not?I've always found it interesting for instance that the Fatima prayer (even after the vision of Hell) has us ask that God 'lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of your mercy.'My point about the tension above isn't a modernist fad (I'm no modernist!) but simply an affirmation that we need both sides of the equation. We cannot deny that God's love and mercy are infinite, and we cannot limit them at all. But equally, we cannot discount sin. You cannot run from either assertion or play either down. The two do create a natural tension, which I think it's okay to recognise. Not as an intellectual get-out clause, but as a humble trust in God. He will in the end do what's right, even if we're not exactly 100% sure that will look like.As for Rob Bell and von Balthesar, I don't like lumping these two together. Rob Bell is a fairly lightweight protestant who has made a few videos. Von Balthesar, though was JP2's favourite theologian and the current Pope also has a very high respect for him. He is very much a heavyweight. Indeed, Ratzinger said at his funeral that 'he is right in what he teaches of the faith.' And Ratzinger is certainly no modernist!So, I think we can hope and pray for it. I think we must. Even if we don't think it's that likely.

  • Tom

    “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment. He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death’” (Rev 21:5-8, RSV-CE).“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” God created all things in the beginning . . . and he calls them back to himself in the end.This is Man’s choice and his vocation in union with God. It is our universal calling, but not our universal fate.

  • Athelstane

    Hell Fr. Longnecker,I have read a great many defenses of the new translation of pro multis – many of them quite good – but I think this may be the best, most pastoral I have ever come across. Thank you for posting this.And you are right to diagnose universalism at work. Too many times to count have I heard comments which are some stripe of semi-universalism, if not the real thing: Often it amounts to: "Pretty much everyone is saved, except possibly for Hitler and Ted Bundy."

  • JM

    Jack,I can't really disagree with your propositions. But all the speculation about an empty Hell is clearly that. JPIIs statement is in his rambling "Crossing the Threshold," for example. Conversely, the entire emphasis of the Church up until the 1960s has been that some people go to Heaven, some to Hell. Universalism proper has been condemned, so I think hoping it is true is sort of flying in the face of that. If Universalism is condemned, how can we even begin to think everyone is saved? And if it is true, the Church really has been sending false signals since its founding on a most primary issue. I think HvB is far above Bell as well, but Bell really just echoes HvB's ideas on the Hell scorecard. And HvB simply tried to interpret away what has been clear and uncontested teaching for centuries. I like a lot of his stuff, but he is a speculative theologian all the way. And his teaching on Hell has hurt the Church immeasurably — witness the total retreat form questions of judgment. My two cents. But appreciate your arguments as well.

  • Sprezzatura

    Tom, it's not at all certain Christ heard Latin from His Roman persecutors. The exchange between Pilate and Christ probably occured in Greek, for a start.

  • Tom

    Sprezzatura, whether Jesus specifically heard Latin from Pilate . . . or even understood Latin as a spoken or written language . . . is not really the point. But Jesus most certainly heard Latin spoken by some of His Roman persecutors.Latin was a language of His time and place . . . before English even existed as a language.

  • Agnikan

    The Church has not declared any one person to be damned, nor has the Church declared that any one will definitely be damned. That in itself allows for the non-heretical option of hoping that all will, voluntarily and without imposition, accept the gift of salvation.

  • Quovadis7

    "we can reasonably hope that all will be saved" ???How can one reconcile von Balthasar's heterodox novelty with this passage from Holy Scripture:Jude 1:7 – "Likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual promiscuity and practiced unnatural vice, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire."Yes, as Our Lady of Fatima urged us, we should make every effort to pray for persons who are putting their souls in eternal peril – i.e. those amongst the living. No, we can't reasonably hope that ALL of humanity will be saved. That would require God to contradict His Holy Scripture above, and that is utterly impossible….

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  • Ella

    “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” -Matthew 7:13-14

    I think universalism is an excuse for laziness and fear.

  • newenglandsun

    I have to agree. I was reading Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” this summer as one who was hoping universalism was true and I had a tough spill to swallow when it came to chapter 4 – “Does God Get What He Wants?” Bell’s answer – No. But people do.