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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 6: The Nature of Salvation
Part 2

Grace is operative in our lives, but it is also co-operative with us. This is the basis of the distinction between justifying grace and merit. God doing what we cannot do make evil will become righteous will is the work of operative grace. In his justifying activity, operative grace works on our very being. But as Augustine says, grace is needed not only for the beginning of bonum velle but also for its continuance. Co-operative grace enables us to do the good with love (without love it would be an intolerable burden). Such grace makes it possible for us to act rightly, moving towards our end. In other words, co-operative grace works not on our being but on our doing. Though we cannot claim salvation for what we have done, our acts must have a significant connection with our salvation. In the New Testament there is, in this sense, a concept of reward. Our deeds "earn" a place in the kingdom, making us into the kind of person who is able to live under the rule of God. Such continuance in grace can be merited, for, thanks to his covenant, God can be relied on to fulfill his promises. Though we cannot merit the grace that moves us, once moved we can merit the end. It is only fitting (congruent) that a man or woman who has done good should not be abandoned by God.[16]

The distinction between operative and co-operative grace (like that between justification and sanctification, justifying grace and merit) can also be expressed in terms of a distinction between healing and elevating grace. On the one hand, grace is God's restoration of us from a state of sin to a condition of righteousness, delivering us from the dominion of darkness, transferring us to the kingdom of his beloved Son (Col 1:13). Grace, in affecting us inasmuch as we are sinners, is gratia sanans, "healing grace." In addition, and without direct reference to sin, grace can be thought of as the work of the Holy Spirit making us adopted children of God, raising us up to share the divine life: gratia elevans, "elevating grace." The grace that "makes us gracious" (gratia gratum faciens) for Aquinas includes both a habitual gift, orienting us to the Father by the love we have received freely in Christ, as poured out by the Spirit, and also what he terms the "gratuitous moving of God" (gratuita Dei motio), what later generations would call "actual grace," grace to help with particular acts that the ethical and spiritual life calls for at different times, impulses that enable us to express our new nature by living as befits the children of God. Habitual grace has the lion's share of sanctifying grace, however, for by the latter the descendants of Adam recover habitual friendship with God, finding themselves once more habitually attuned to their supernatural end.

Actual and habitual grace are both aspects of "created grace," the transforming effect on us of the presence of God himself. God not only comes personally to human beings, to be present to them, but also raises their personality and capacities above those of a creature. His presence is a transforming presence, such that we become a "new creation" (Paul) undergoing a second birth (John). God's presence (uncreated grace) supports us from within our personalities, and this explains how gracious actions can be both our's and God's: they flow from a grace-filled personhood.

Created grace must never be conceived apart from the divine in­dwelling. It is not something between God and ourselves, a ladder or path into his presence. Created grace's very being is union. Created grace is at once the fruit and the bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualisation of the indwelling on earth and in heaven.[17] Grace's two poles, uncreated and created, mirror the apparent paradox that the divine essence is incommunicable, for God "alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see" (1 Tim 6:16) yet there is from that essence a true communication of life, which is sharing, not manipulation: "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom 5:5).

Even in the heart of the free spiritual person, the turning to God which enables our reception of salvation is prepared at all points by divine grace. For Catholicism, justification (the individual person's incorporation within the justice, righteousness or right order, of God) happens on the basis of Christ's atoning sacrifice in baptism, by which we are included in that saving reality. This concerns the admission of Christians into the favor and covenant of God, not their final forgiveness and title to everlasting happiness, which turns on a lifetime of continuing responsiveness to grace, or at any rate in limit cases on "death-bed conversion." Those whom God in his foreknowledge knew would remain true to membership in Christ's mystical body, the Church those who would remain faithful to the privilege of professing the gospel are described as "elected." But the number and identity of the elect is known only to God, and Catholicism hopes (though cannot, on the basis of Scripture and Tradition, confess or teach) that it may include all human beings. The spiritual grace (regeneration) given in holy baptism suffices, when renewed by the collaboration of our freedom, to institute a holy life, and there may be gracious surrogates for baptismal regeneration in the case of non-Christians, as we shall see in Chapter 7, where I speak about the mystery of the Church.

The Fathers and medievals centered their doctrine of predestination on Christ and the Church. It is Christ, the man assumed by the Logos, who was eternally intended by God for the salvation of the human species. It is the Church, symbolized in the immaculately conceived Mary, that was predestined in dependence on Christ as his preordained instrument. But this is not to say that Catholic theology is wholly silent about any extension of predestining grace to individual persons other than Jesus and Mary.

Although the issue had already been raised by Augustine, and caveats against a deterministic form of the doctrine were promulgated by various local councils of the Church in opposition to extreme Augustinian theologians of the Carolingian period, it was the sixteenth-century Reformation that put the issue at the head of the doctrinal agenda. The Reformers tended to a voluntarist understanding of the "decree" of predestination: the divine will is righteous merely by positing itself, proposing itself as determining such and such. (An alternative theology of God holds that it is the divine essence as subsistent goodness that is the measure of God's willing.) They also accepted the conviction of Augustine in his more pessimistic moments that human nature is thoroughly depraved, drawing from this the conclusion that human beings cannot deserve salvation nor damnation, for deserving eternal punishment implies the possibility of choosing against evil, which a totally depraved creature cannot do. So the only possible explanation of damnation is that this too is God's eternal decree.

The Catholic response to this position, at the Council of Trent and during the struggle with Jansenism (a Catholicized version of Calvinistic predestinarianism), insisted that God predisposes no one to evil, but wills the salvation of all human beings. Christ did not die solely for the elect, or the faithful. Moreover, God offers to all sinners a grace that really suffices for their salvation, withholding the grace of conversion from no one even at the point of death. Only those people are deprived of this grace who refuse to accept it; God permits this but he is not the cause of it.

Nevertheless, God has decreed eternal punishment for the sin of final impenitence, and reflection on that caused much theological heartache in Catholicism in the early post-Tridentine era. If the grace of God is sufficient for salvation, should it not also be efficacious in causing the impenitent to become penitent, even, if need be, in the moment of death? How is it that God mercifully grants efficacious grace to some and yet justly refuses it to others?

Here three schools of thought divide up Catholic divinity between them: Molinism (named after the Spanish Jesuit Luis de Molina) is closest to Pelagianism, Bañezianism (named for another Spaniard, the Dominican Domingo Bañez) to Calvinism, with the Congruists (of whom the best-known representative was the Italian Doctor of the Church Robert Bellarmine) attempting a via media. For Molina, God knows all possible beings and all possible world orders in which those beings might find themselves. Willing one such world order, he chooses those human beings to be saved whom he foresees (by his "middle knowledge," scientia media, of future free acts) would make good use of the graces he would grant them in these particular circumstances, persevering and ultimately meriting eternal happiness. Since God's choice of the world order in which they would thus merit salvation is itself entirely gratuitous, Molina believed he had done justice to the orthodox doctrine of predestination, Pelagian or semi­Pelagian overtones notwithstanding. God shows to these human beings, so placed, a special predilection he does not show to others.

Molina's belief that for God causally to determine human freedom (even to the good) destroys that freedom, since every person must determine on his or her own power not only to withhold co-operation from God but also to furnish it, necessarily brought him into conflict with Thomists and indeed with all those who accepted the normal interpretation of the conciliar tradition of the West whereby the will to respond to grace is itself graced. Banez took up the cudgels. For him predestination to glory is decreed ante praevisa merita, "before the prevision of any merits" whatever. By his absolute dominion over creatures and his inscrutable counsel (note the voluntarist-sounding language), God elects some to glory and gives them in their lifetime graces that are intrinsically efficacious, that infallibly predetermine their wills to salutary actions, actions that appropriate his salvation. Though God does not reprobate others to damnation he nonetheless does exclude them from such efficacious election, granting them merely "sufficient grace," " and so permitting them freely to sin and to perish unrepentant.

The Congruists, fearing that this was but Calvinism by the back door, argued that, by scientia media, God could foresee how souls would react to particular graces, and on this basis conferred on the elect those graces he saw would be efficacious ("congruent" with salvation), while on others he simply bestowed sufficient grace thereby excluding them from an efficacious election to glory. The Jansenist crisis, which this kind of debate prepared in its own fashion, led to a deep revulsion in many parts of the Catholic Church from any attempt to provide a theological explanation for reprobation (i.e., the divine role in permitting final impenitence). What is known with certainty, from the work of Christ, is that only the divine Goodness moves the Father's will.

Predestination is for all Catholics subjectively uncertain short of some private revelation. There are nonetheless held to be probable signs of predestination which exclude all excessive anxiety: purity of heart, delight in prayer, patience in suffering, the frequent reception of the sacraments, love of Christ and the Church, devotion to the Mother of God who is the epitome of human responsiveness to the Word. Yet none of this guarantees us against a failure finally to persevere hence our need to work out our salvation continually in fear and trembling. The question Are you saved? can only be answered by asking in, turn, Do you mean past perfect, present, or future conditional? I have been saved by Christ's life, death, and resurrection into which I am plunged in baptism. I am being saved by daily sharing in the life of Christ. I will be saved if I endure to the end (Matt 10:22).

How are we to reconcile the universal salvific will of God with a possibly restricted predestining grace? Reconciliation can only be sought in the incomprehensible union of infinite mercy and infinite justice with the sovereign divine freedom. If God grants final perseverance to one, this is by his mercy; if he does not accord it to another it is by a just punishment of previous faults and final resistance to his last call. This is an immense mystery, in which these three attributes (mercy, justice, freedom) are only united in the unsearchable Godhead itself. J. B. Bossuet wrote:

From all eternity God has foreseen and predestined all the particular means by which he was to inspire in his faithful their fidelity, their obedience, their perseverance. That is what predestination is. The fruit of this doctrine is to put our will and our liberty in the hand of God, to pray him to direct them in such a way that they do not go astray, to thank him for all the good that they do and to believe that God works this good in them without either enfeebling them or destroying them, but, on the contrary raising them, strengthening them and giving them their own good self-use, which is of all goods the most desirable. . . . We must believe that no one perishes, no one is reprobated, no one is left aside by God or by his aid, except through his own fault. If human reasoning finds a difficulty here and cannot conciliate all the parts of this holy and inviolable doctrine, faith must not abandon the effort to conciliate them wholly, expecting that God will make us see everything in the Source [18]

Here if anywhere apophasis the simultaneous recognition of the limits of our knowledge and the unlimitedness of God's essential mystery must prevail.

But what of the public, historical dimension of this personal salvation? A philosophy of history becomes a theology of history if it accepts that the source of history is the Father, that the norm of history is his Son, Jesus Christ, and that the fulfillment of history is the work of the Spirit, whom the Father and Son send forth. Balthasar wrote of the Spirit's work in world history:

The work which he undertakes, the shaping and fashioning of what the Son bequeathed to him, is a work of supreme divine freedom. He is presented with two data: the life of Christ, and "world history"; and it rests with him so to dispose of the infinite wealth in the life of Christ that it can blossom out in the variousness of history, and that at the same time, history, thus made subject to this norm, shall be able to discover the fullness within itself.[19]

As this account suggests, Balthasar stresses in the first place the transcendence of the Son and Spirit vis-à-vis history. They do not simply uphold the structure of history as it develops, via nature, from the Creator's hand. As divine persons, they are capable of relating history in a new manner to the God who is not only its source but its goal. As Balthasar puts it:

"The Spirit . . . makes history into the history of salvation . . . prophetically oriented towards the Son," while the latter's "action is what history is for; his uniqueness sets it free to attain its proper character."

Yet at the same time, Balthasar is careful to underline that the redemptive action of the Holy Trinity does not just disregard, much less ride roughshod over, the natural pattern of history. The Spirit

"leaves history its own immanent laws and structure, but orders it and all its laws in subjection to the laws of Christ."[20]

The relation of history's natural structure to its supernatural pattern as disclosed by Christian faith is like the broader relation of nature to grace. Grace builds on the historical expression of nature, elevating it in the process. It does not overthrow it. The Spirit operates in the order of created spirit not, Balthasar insists, as "another," but rather, echoing Nicholas of Cusa, "as One exalted above all otherness." The Spirit is so transcendent that he can be wholly immanent, his divine creativity so utterly indifferent to maintaining its difference from our human creativity that his sovereign work can go undetected by the secular historian. Yet what he achieves is a real transformation, for he uses the natural structure of history as a means by which to attain his goal. The key to an appreciation of that goal is, for the Christian, the life of Jesus, since the Son made man is history's "norm." If the distinctive form of Christ's temporality, his participation in history, lay in his unique receptivity to the will of the Father for the world, which enabled history to reach its anticipated fulfillment in him as its personal norm, then the proper content of that norm lies in those exemplary responses to the human challenges of Christ's environment in which the divine will was concretely expressed. Seasons of grace in the public life of society are always for Catholicism breaths of air from the springtime of the gospel: moments of repentance, reconciliation, feast-making.

The salvific lesson of the mysteries of Christ's life for the public history of the world is not only, however, a matter of the qualitative transformation of time. As his resurrection and ascension, the climactic events of the Christological cycle of the liturgy, show, the ultimate issue of Christ's life is the throwing open of humanity's time, now and in the future, to God's eternity.

De novissimis: The Last Things

The scope of grace includes this world, but reaches more fundamentally beyond it.

This is the sacrament, the hidden meaning, of the Old Testament, where the New Testament lay concealed. In the Old Testament the promises and gifts are of earthly things; but even then men of spiritual perception realized, although they did not yet proclaim the fact for all to hear, that by those temporal goods eternity was signified; they understood also what were the gifts of God which constituted true felicity.[21]

The blessings of the new covenant are above all eternal blessings even though there be one single gracious purpose which disposes in order both earthly and eternal felicity.

In treating of life after death, the Catholic Christian will tread warily. For on the one hand, overemphasis on the unity of the human being as a body and soul composite (the Council of Vienne taught that the human soul is itself the vivifying principle of the human organism) may make the meaningful assertion of the person's eternal destiny very difficult. On the other hand, upholding a destiny beyond death by endowing the soul with the prerogative of immortality may seem to impair the original dogmatic affirmation of the unity of the human person. The Fifth Lateran Council, presided over by Pope Leo X (once a pupil of the philosopher Marsilio Ficino) went further: Though the soul is the form of the body it is still naturally immortal. Philosophical reasons may be found for crediting such immortality; at any rate, according to the disciplinary measures attached to the decree, Catholic lecturers in philosophy must show the non-groundedness of any arguments to the effect that the soul is naturally mortal. This is an example of theological doctrine serving as a "negative norm" a determination of what at least can not be true for the secular sciences. The strongly Christian-Platonist Pico della Mirandola, layman and Dominican tertiary, who was present at the council, may have assisted it to drink from those ancient springs.

The resurrection of the human being under his or her bodily aspect would not be a supernatural fulfillment of the humanum were there not something in humanity, by virtue of creation, that made us apt for everlasting life. The positive possibility of human immortality is a metaphysical implication of the soul's non-material nature. If the soul is spiritual, then nothing would seem to induce its corruption. Everything we know of human spirituality the way our intelligence, in its activity, transcends the material conditions of our senses signals a continuing existence for the soul beyond biological death. In Thomas More's Utopia, the sovereign decrees that none should conceive so poor and base an opinion of human dignity as to think that souls perish with the body.

From one aspect the soul can be seen to be our formal principle (forma substantialis), but from another it forms the ground of what is eternal in us (forma subsistens). As a spiritual being, the human person lives by way of an immortal soul; and yet this same immortal soul can simultaneously vivify a material body. For Aquinas, the separated soul lives and acts eternally on that acquired material of knowledge and habits which it possessed in its union with the body. Aquinas's notion is prolonged in modern Catholic thanatology (the theology of dying) which treats death, over and above its classical description in terms of the separation of body and soul, as an existential act of the human person. And so the human spirit's post-mortem being would be what it has made of itself, not least in its final self-determination, "at the hour of our death."

The doctrine of the indestructibility of the soul must be completed by the doctrine of the resurrection. Because ultimate bliss also means the perfection of the blessed, and because the soul does not possess the perfection of its nature not even the Godlikeness it is capable of achieving except in conjunction with the body, the indestructibility of the soul seems actually to require the coming resurrection. But since, conversely, what exists by nature (i.e., owing to creation) is always primary, and is the basis for every divine gift that may be accorded to creatures, if the soul were not by nature indestructible there would simply be nothing and no one able to receive the immortality that truly conquers death. Hopkins's sonnet "That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection" acknowledges the unique place of mind in nature yet finds in the resurrection of the body the only warranty for the transfiguration of the whole human being:

Million-fueled, nature's bonfire bums on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark

Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.

Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary work; world's wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he is what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.[22]

The awareness of the prospect of dying is, for Christian spirituality, something to be cultivated by preparation for a "good death," and the frequent prayer that we will be delivered from death sudden and unprovided. The behavior of some saints appears neurotic, because they have not put up the "normal" defenses against awareness of human finitude, the dread of death, the ravages of sin and time. Not surely­seated in the body, such saints appear to humanist sensibilities to have failed in their humanization; in more candid terms, however, they have failed confidently to deny our real situation on this planet. In confronting death, we confront not only the biological fact of mortality but also our failure to develop our potentialities in lost opportunities, our incompleteness, and the unfinished nature of things. We either die too soon or too late, while we are still asking questions or when we are too tired to ask any more. We never realize our full capacities to be alone and to be together.

For many people it is death that establishes the serious quality of life, that forces them to explore the deeper, darker depths of human experience, the wider dimensions of sorrow, sadness, pathos, and poignancy. There most of all we meet the depths of the God who entered Gethsemane in his incarnate presence amongst us. Death is a merciful provision by God to prevent aimless or Godless existence perpetuating itself indefinitely without ever coming face to face with the realization that all is not well. The tradition of the desert saints knows this:

Abba Pachomius thought always on the fear of God, the judgement to come and the tortures of the fires of hell so that his heart became like a solid copper door made to resist all thieves. He told the brothers: "When it is time for you to go to bed, turn and address yourself to each part of your body. O feet, before you can no longer walk, stand and work diligently in the presence of your Lord. O hands, there will come a day when you will be joined together unable to make the slightest movement, so now before that hour comes work for your Lord. O body, before we leave one another, I to remain for ever in the shades of hell and you to return once more to dust, stand and then prostrate yourself before your Lord . . . begin to feel as I feel in the midst of my tears ... be submissive to your master, be alert, seeking neither rest nor health. If you obey me not, what a misfortune that you were ever linked with me; because of you I too will be condemned. Penetrated by this spirit you will become a true temple of the living God.."[23]

John Climacus remarks that, as bread is of all foods the most indispensable, so death is of all considerations the most important.

"The remembrance of death is painful to the undisciplined, or rather to the unscrupulous and pleasure-loving, but to the disciplined it brings freedom from anxiety, prayer unceasing and vigilance of spirit."[24]

Catholics "practice" dying by acts (great or small) of mortification, willingly sacrificing good and legitimate things so as to learn the art of giving oneself away. Every Christian death must be a self-surrender to the love of God. Death as we know it is always painful, a fragmentation of our being, which God wished to spare us. But Christ, in going before, has made this way redemptive. If we follow him in trust, our death, while remaining painful, also becomes beautiful: un mort chrétien, a "good death."

"Death, as the offspring of sin, is evil, but by the grace of Christ, who deigned to undergo death for us, it has been rendered to us in many ways useful and salutary, lovable and desirable."[25]

The greatest Catholic poem of death is Newman's Dream of Gerontius (especially in its oratorio form, composed by Edward Elgar). Just as in the Apologia pro vita sua Newman records his belief that God had "called" him to his youthful conversion, to the reform of the Church of England, and, finally, to the Roman communion, so in the Dream God "calls" the old man (the ) to death and judgment:

"Jesu, Maria: I am near to death, / And thou are calling me; I know it now."[26]

Whereas in his youth, as a Calvinistic Evangelical, Newman had believed himself sure of salvation, in 1865 as a Catholic he could only trust that, since he had followed the light given him, God would save him. But the first step of that salvation would be one of purification through the fire of God's love. While in the Apologia Newman had appointed the English reading public to be judges of his honesty, and his Catholic views were sometimes judged unfavorably by fellow members of the Catholic community, now in the Dream only God's judgment matters. The Apologia recounts how Newman left home his position in Oxford, the Anglican Church, and English society for Catholicism; but even that Church could not be a final home. The human being's home is heaven, with purgatory its antechamber. This is the burden of the first words of the angel to the separated soul in the Dream, and of the last words of the angel of the agony. The guardian angel is a motherly figure, despite its masculine pronoun (Elgar rightly gave its part to a mezzo-soprano).

The doctrine of purgatory is at the heart of the Dream. In Naples, Newman had been disturbed by seeing images of souls in flames, and wanted to eliminate what he regarded as popular misunderstandings of the doctrine. In the Dream he focuses on the soul's spontaneous realization of its unworthiness in the presence of God, and on pain with hope. The "fire" of purgatory is the burning presence of the love of God which an unpurified soul cannot yet endure. The Dream makes use of the Roman liturgy for the last rites, and notably of the great prayer of commendation for the departing. Indeed, even Gerontius's friends take on a liturgical significance at his bedside, becoming "assistants," ministers at a rite. For while in one sense death is the moment when I am most utterly alone, in another I am then least alone, most suffused by the presence of the Church which lives from the Passover (through death to life) of Christ.

The doctrine of purgatory stems from the Church's practice of prayer for the departed.

"Remember, Lord, those who have died and have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, especially those for whom we now pray. . . . May these and all who sleep in Christ find in your presence light, happiness, and peace"(Roman Canon).

Among the Eastern liturgies, the Coptic Rite may stand for all:

"Remember all those who have fallen asleep, of the priesthood and of the order of laity, and grant them rest in the bosom of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, in a green place beside the waters of repose, from whence pain, sadness, and groaning have fled."

Again, in a Mass of Requiem,

"In the first place, remember your servant N., for who today we offer these gifts. Let him be well remembered at your holy altar and pardon him' his sins and transgressions."

United to the sacrifice of Christ and to his intercession, then, the Church offers prayers for the dead. She does this during the Mass, but also at funeral services and other liturgical commemorations of the dead. While the fundamental personal situation of the departed, vis-à-vis God's judgment, cannot change, since their earthly existence has ended, the Church expects the "holy souls" to pass from a condition of nonenjoyment of the blessed life (resulting from the effects of sin) to one of joy and peace in Christ. Such prayer bases its efficacy on Christ's victory over the death-dealing powers, and his gift of life to the world, but also, thanks to the work of Christ, on faith in the Spirit's activity in the communion of saints the intimate union of all the baptized in the body whose head is Christ. Though such prayer does not alter the eternal destiny of the dead, by the intercession of the Church as united to the Lord's sacrifice it causes them to benefit more fully from that sacrifice's fruits.

In her dogmatic teaching, the Catholic Church speaks with discretion of this intermediate state. In 1979 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Letter on Certain Questions concerning Eschatology declared:

"The Church believes there may be purification of the elect previous to the vision of God, which is nevertheless totally different from the pains of the damned."

About the "place" of this purification, its duration, and its manner the teaching office of the Church falls silent, leaving the question to spiritual tradition. In that tradition we find a number of images: in the Alexandrian Fathers, Athanasius and the Cappadocians, purification by fire (where "fire" may represent the intensity of desire for God); in the Cappadocians and Ambrose of Milan, an opening of the paradise gates guarded as these are by the cherubim and the flaming sword; in Athanasius and the Desert Fathers, stages along the roads leading to heaven.

The crucial thing to note is that, in the Church's vision, the "holy souls" deserve our prayer because of their goodness. Their presence in purgatory is a proof of their faith, hope, and charity. The alms Christians bestow in the cultus of the dead is par excellence charity to the poor: the holy dead are the most deserving poor of all. The souls in Thomas More's Supplycacyon put it simply:

"Remember, friends, how nature and Christendom [ = baptism] bindeth you to remember us."[27]

The Gaelic tradition of the western isles of Scotland calls purgatory the "Hell of the Holy Fathers," and sees Christ's people purified there

Till they are whiter than the swan of the songs,
Till they are whiter than the seagull of the waves,
Till they are whiter than the snow of the peaks,
And whiter than the white love of the heroes

The Protestant rejection of purgatory (and prayer for the dead) is seen by Catholicism as based on a mistaken interpretation of the mediation of Christ. Christ's mediation of human salvation is indeed unique and all-sufficient, but it is not separated from the prayer of his Church. The head and the body are one, and the head's glory as Savior is the greater in that he encourages the body to share in the communication to the whole human mass of the effects of his redeeming work. What the Lord has done for us in his mighty salvation he grants to us to do ourselves. The continuum of life in Christ is more primary than the biological continuum. As sharers, in via, of the life of Christ who called himself "the way," we (super)naturally wish both to pray for the holy souls and to seek their prayers.

The eternity of hell is for the Church a consequence of human inward obduracy. It springs from one aspect of the essence of freedom, which is the possibility, while we are yet wayfarers, of a constant revision of our decisions. Eternity is in this perspective the definitive achievement of history.

"The just God is 'active' in the punishment of Hell only insofar as he does not release man from the reality of the definitive state which man himself has achieved on his own behalf, contradictory though this state be to the world of God's creation."

In Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the last judgment, whereas at their encounter with the Son of Man, the good go to a place intended for them, thus fulfilling their destiny, the bad go to a place never intended for human beings at all. This parable reflects other parables of Jesus, of which Mark 9:43-45 may stand as representative. Here, just as the refusal to amputate a diseased limb may result in the corruption of the whole body, so the refusal of self-denial may result in the total corruption and dissolution of the personality. Jesus evidently believed final impenitence to be a possibility: it is possible to lose the capacity for seeking truth, for recognizing justice and mercy. But equally clearly, Jesus believed that all were capable of salvation: the "many" of Mark 10:45 does not mean "not all" (cf. 1 Tim 3:5-6).

The Catholic Church does not in fact pronounce either on who may be damned or even on whether the category "the damned" contains any human individuals at all. Neither, however as the affirmation of the real possibility of hell demonstrates does she teach universalism. In this ambivalence (not contradiction) her teaching reflects the witness of the New Testament itself. Thus Paul, for example, sometimes speaks of all creation as coming to a glad acknowledgment of God, and at other times doubts his own salvation (as in Rom 9:27). Yet some would hold that it is precisely because God will not torture us or violate our personalities that he is bound in the end to break down our resistance. Over against the more usual interpretation of Christ's descent into Sheol in 1 Peter 3, namely that he made his proclamation to those who long ago had refused obedience, giving them a second chance of salvation, Balthasar revived Nicholas of Cusa's notion, sharpened by Luther, that Christ endured the torments of the lost, thus, in principle -or so one might argue annihilating hell by redeeming it via his own atoning work a speculation hard to reconcile with the doctrinal tradition's firm stand against any presumption of exceptionless salvation.

The lesson of hell is not the cruelty of God, but, rather, the awful responsibility of human freedom, and the darkness and agony into which our daily acts may be insensibly leading us. The doctrine of hell warns us of the horror of life without God and the torture a daily turning from light to darkness will bring. Hell is the self-made judgment whereby we confirm the inherent outcome of a refusal to remain and grow in divine friendship.

The goal of God's salvific self-involvement in his creation heaven is that we should know him as he is and enjoy him for ever.

"We shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully" (1 Cor 13:12).

In enabling us to know him as he is, God invites us to share his own happiness.

"This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God" (John 17:3).

Our filiation as "sons in the Son" will at last be manifest for what it is: an adopted share in the mutual love of the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.

"See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. Beloved, it does not yet appear that we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:1-2).

Appropriately, then, the vision of God will be mediated to us (as is the whole of our salvation story) by the humanity of the Savior, the Lord of the thorn-crowned head and the five wounds. In the Revelation of John, the last book of the Bible, the central figure of the heavenly tableau is "the Lamb that was slain": a crucified man bearing the marks of wounds that have not healed, yet in no way diminish his radiance. No book of Scripture, unless it be the Psalter, has been illustrated more often, and none has inspired so many works of art (sculpture, painting, etching, not to speak of tapestry and stained glass). The Christian imagination seized on the notion that the picture­space of heaven is organized by a figure where God is seen in the human, and the human in God, for the sevenfold Spirit of the Lord has anointed Jesus as the Savior, and flows from the victorious sacrifice of the crucified Christ. The "sharing in the divine nature" which the Second Letter of Peter holds out as the foremost of God's "precious and very great promises" (2 Pet 1:3-4) has of necessity a Trinitarian dimension. Furthermore, it involves a loving understanding of the will and plan of the only God: a perfect gaze on the Christological and pneumatological structure of redemption history.

After this I looked and behold a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb."And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen" (Rev 7:8-12).

In God, as the origin and goal of all reality that is not God, all other reality will be known and loved by the saints, in the manner and measure in which it concerns them. In knowing the holy mystery which grounds the world and the world's incorporation into the divine life of Father, Son, and Spirit, knowledge itself will be raised into the bliss of love. With Aquinas, we may speak of the very, essence of God providing the form in which our minds may know his mystery (which otherwise infinitely exceeds them). By way of the sacrament of Jesus' humanity, we come, in the Word, to share God's self-knowledge, being related to him as the Son is to the Father. With his intellectualist emphasis Aquinas considers this as a transformation of our minds: as in everyday understanding concepts through which we know the world give the mind shape and structure, conforming it to the realities of things, so here at the climax of our journey of understanding we receive God himself as the structuring form of our intelligence. Of course at the same time (and here the Franciscan school's characteristic emphasis usefully supplements that of the Dominican) our wills need divine strengthening, if they are ever to be attuned to their almighty object. Not the light of the glory only but the fire of the kingdom must set human powers ablaze. We are like packets of seeds, or boxes of fireworks, as Chesterton said of the Thomist doctrine of beatitude. In the fruition, the trees burst into flower, the rockets into flame.

But just as the personal, interior history of God's predestining grace is not without its correlate in the public, exterior narrative of world history, so here too: the fulfillment of the gift of grace lies not only in the personal, interior eschatology of the beatific vision, but also in the public, exterior transformation of the world which is the Parousia, the "end of history." With the Lord's parousia this world will come to its end in the universal judgment. If we ask what "the world" is, the answer must be that it is the total set of relations of which we form part. The Church, making her own the voice of Scripture, prophesies that this total set of relations will come to an end, and a new set take its place. What this new set will be like is foreshadowed in the sacraments of the Church, where the onset of the kingdom is anticipated.

The world inaugurated by the general judgment will be a world of wholeness and holiness, a world healed and restored; it will also be a world with bitter knowledge of the judgment on sin, of excommunication, and gifts that were fruitless because the human person was not open to profit by them. It will be, then, at once a more wonderful world, and a more terrible one: heaven and hell. Scripture speaks of it both as a banquet where all the nations will feast together in the presence of the Most High, and a day of lamentation when the tribes of the earth will wail for him whom they have pierced. Its common factor, therefore, is that it will be a world of the most lucid moral and spiritual clarity where the mercy and the justice of God are freely revealed and the thoughts of all hearts laid bare. As the final revelation of the victories of Christ's grace, it will be the disclosure of the personal economy of the Spirit who enabled these victories, of his unique hypostasis in the multiform faces of the saints.

And yet even here there is still a deficiency: we have hardly touched on the resurrection of the body.

The life everlasting experienced as the resurrection of the body (not simply for the individual but for the entire communion of the redeemed) is the ultimate Christian hope. Bodily death in its hideousness is not only punishment for sin; it is also the dreadful symbol of sin's essential deformity. It is not just the repulsiveness of decomposing flesh that makes death ugly. The separation of soul from body mars the beauty of human nature which God made as a matter-spirit unity.

The divine bridegroom's aim in assuming human nature, and in dying and rising again in it, is to draw the Church, his bride, into his own beauty first in soul by grace, then in body in glory. The Word, "the Beauty that beautifies the universe" (Bonaventure) in creating the world, is now the world's "Re-beautifier" in redeeming it. Christ rises from the dead as "the first fruits of them that sleep" (1 Cor 15:20). What Christ as God can originate (the raising up of the dead to everlasting life), he wills as man to mediate (for it is through his human voice that the dead will rise [John 5:28]). And since what he as head exemplifies his members are to become, when he returns in the glorious parousia he will shape our lowly bodies, as our crown of beauty, into the likeness of his lovely one. In Christ rose the whole reality of human nature, all that goes to make up its comeliness.

"This corruptible and mortal must put on incorruption and immortality through configuration to the glory of the body of Christ, who is our head. It would be unbecoming for the head to be beautiful and immortal while the members were corruptible and ugly."[30]

The final and complete redemption of the human being is the resurrection from the dead. Even in heaven, the faithful departed long for this consummation.

And I heard in the divinest light
Of the smaller circle a simple voice
Perhaps like that of the angel who spoke to Mary,

Answer: "As long as this festivity
Of paradise shall last, so long our love
Will shed around us such rays as clothe us.

When our flesh, then glorified and holy,
Is put on us once more, our persons will be
In greater perfection as being complete at last:

Because there will be an accession of that light
Which is freely given us by the highest good,
Light which enables us to see Him;

In this way the vision must grow clearer,
And the warmth produced by it must grow too,
As well as the rays which shine out of it.

But, like charcoal which gives out a flame
And yet glows more brightly than the flame itself
So that it keeps its outline and appearance,

So the radiance which surrounds us now
Will be outshone by the brilliance of the flesh
Which now lies buried in the earth;

Nor will so much light weary us at all;
For the organs of the body will be strong
To everything able to give us pleasure."

One and another chorus seemed to me
So quick and eager to say "Amen!"
That it was clear they wanted their dead bodies;

Perhaps not just for themselves,but for their mothers,
For their fathers and others who were dear to them
Before they turned into eternal flames.

The resurrection of the human body of God's Son is in principle the glorification of the entire visible universe, the regeneration of the cosmos. The sacramental economy of the Church depends on this truth. Matter can be sanctified and sanctifying not only because, through creation, it is good and beautiful and integral to human nature, but also because, through the incarnation and bodily resurrection of the Word, God has raised it to an incomparable grandeur and promised it an indestructible glory. This is how Augustine described the "eternal felicity" of the city of God in its "perpetual Sabbath":

How great will be that felicity, where there will be no evil, where no good will be withheld, where there will be leisure for the praises of God, who will be all in all. What other occupation could there be, in a state where there will be no inactivity of idleness, and yet no toil constrained by want? I can think of none. And this is the picture suggested to my mind by the sacred canticle, when I read or hear the words, "Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they will praise you for ever and ever!"

All the limbs and organs of the body, no longer subject to decay, the parts which we now see assigned to various essential functions, will then be freed from all such constraint, since full, secure, certain and eternal felicity will have displaced necessity; and all those parts will contribute to the praise of God. For even those elements in the bodily harmony of which I have already spoken, the harmonies which, in our present state, are hidden, will then be hidden no longer. Dispersed internally and externally throughout the whole body, and combined with other great and marvellous things that will then be revealed, they will kindle our rational minds to the praise of the great Artist by the delight afforded by a beauty that satisfies the reason.

I am not rash enough to attempt to describe what the movements of such bodies will be in that life, for it is quite beyond my power of imagination. However, everything there will be lovely in its form, and lovely in motion and in rest, for anything that is not lovely will be excluded. And we may be sure that where the spirit wills there the body will straightway be; and the spirit will never will anything but what is to bring new beauty to the spirit and the body.

There will be true glory, where no one will be praised in error or in flattery; there will be true honor, where it is denied to none who is worthy, and bestowed on none who is unworthy. And honor will not be courted by any unworthy claimant, for none but the worthy can gain admission there. There will be true peace, where none will suffer attack from within himself nor from any foe outside.

The reward of virtue will be God himself, who gave the virtue, together with the promise of himself, the best and greatest of all possible promises. For what did he mean when he said, in the words of the prophet, "I shall be their God, and they will be my people"? Did he not mean, "I shall be the source of their satisfaction; I shall be everything that men can honorably desire: life, health, food, wealth, glory, honor, peace and every blessing"? For that is also the correct interpretation of the Apostle's words, "so that God may be all in all." He will be the goal of all our longings; and we shall see him for ever; we shall love him without satiety; we shall praise him without wearying. This will be the duty, the delight, the activity of all, shared by all who share the life of eternity.[32]

In their "clothing" in the garments of incorruption after the resurrection, bodies are protected from natural corruption. To express this in a language less distant from that of natural science (for it is a transfigured biology with which we have to do), their matter would suffer no degenerative change, but since in all material organisms entropic change there must be, the human body would need some fresh source of energy: this could be created by God ex nihilo (the simplest account) or (as some have suggested) there could be a God-given version of an energizing device beyond the capacities of contemporary engineering techniques but theoretically discussed in modem physics that would provide for nutritional needs and the disposal of metabolic by­products. An implanted device with a tiny black hole or naked singularity at its center might be able to exploit the properties of matter or singularity to achieve this. Such a physics of "superradiant scattering" has already been worked out on earth; how much more readily may the divine ingenuity envisage it in the kingdom!

The nature of Catholic eschatology soars up to leave behind the question of optimism or pessimism in regard to the world and its history. Orthodox Christians are more aware than others that human nature has need of purification, to be brought to perfection through Christ's cross and resurrection. They can accept neither a philosophy that would canonize and eternalize a world ruined by sin and condemned to death, nor one that would, in its pessimism, contradict the meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God who came into the world to bring joy, in a life triumphant over death.



16. B. Lonergan, Grace and Freedom. Operative Grace in the Thought of St Thomas Aquinas (London, 1971).

17. E. Mersch, The Theology of the Mystical Body (St. Louis, Mo., and London, 1952) 600-633.

18. From a letter of J. B. Bossuet cited in R Garrigou-Lagrange, "Prédestination," Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 12/2 (Paris, 1953) 3020-21.

19. H. U. von Balthasar, A Theology of History (London and New York, 1964) 98.

20. Ibid., 59, 99.

21. Augustine, City of God 4.33.

22. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie, eds., The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1970) 105-6.

23. The Asketikon of Pachomius 10.

24. John Climacus, The Ladder of Paradise 6.

25. Robert Bellarmine, The Art of Dying Well (1620).

26. J. H. Newman, The Dream of Gerontius (London, 1905) 7.

27. Thomas More, The Supplycacyon of Soulys against the Supplycacyon of Beggars (London, 1529).

28. A. Carmichael, ed., Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations 3 (Edinburgh, 1940) 371.

29. K. Rahner, "Hell," Sacramentum Mundi 3 (New York and London, 1969) 8-9.

30. Bonaventure, Sermons for Passion Sunday 1; see J. Saward, "'The Flesh Flowers Again"': St. Bonaventure and the Aesthetics of the Resurrection," Downside Review 110 (1992) 1-29.

31. Dante, Paradiso canto 14, lines 34-66.

32. Augustine, City of God 22.30.

Copyright ©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 27th April 2010

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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