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April 4, 2006

What the Church Says

Last night there was a comment to the effect that Universalism is heresy, undefined, but heretical nevertheless. For those for whom the Catechism of the Catholic Church is meaningful, we can settle the issue of Universalism definitively.

1821--We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere "to the end" and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God's eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ. In hope, the Church prays for "all men to be saved."

Now, it is clear that if the Church prays for an end that end must not be impossible in itself--it may be improbable or unlikely, but to pray for that which is impossible is to lie to yourself and to God. We don't pray that night be made day or that black be made white--there's no point to it. Here we learn that the Church prays for "all men to be saved." It is clear, she believes this to be a possibility.

Now, that said, while the Church prays for this, I do not think that any individual is bound to think precisely in the same way. That is, the Church prays in HOPE, not in knowledge. She does not say that this is the way things are, only that this is a way things MAY be. Hence, if one is disinclined to the concept of universalism, if one holds reservations against it, I don't think that there is any harm there, so long as the prayers follow the HOPE of the Church.

I want to keep emphasizing, the Church has NOT said that all will be saved. In fact, I do not say this. I say only that I hope that all will be saved. I have no assurance, and indeed, I have many of the doubts expressed by others. It's just that I do have a vibrant and lively hope because of the God I have come to know and love.

The Church has not stated that universalism is a fact. She has anathematized certain forms of universalism in the past (a nod to Mr. Sullivan to acknowledge that the authority of that is questioned by some.) BUT she has not bound us all to believe that this is the end which all will come to. Instead, she binds us to the hope that it may be so--however improbable, however unlikely, we have the hope. And when we consider our God, the God of the improbable and unlikely, is it beyond Him who parted the sea and made dry land to walk on, or Him who with the consent of a Virgin brought forth the savior of the world, is it beyond this God to effect this possibility? I would say that it is not. Is it probable? Here I will simply demur and keep in my heart the hope I have--there's no point in trying your patience further.

Posted by Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 10:55 AM

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I can't speak for everyone, but you are certainly not trying my patience. You once quoted William Barclay on your blog -- whatever it was about escapes me -- but you must be familiar with him. Here is a link to an interesting article on Universalism written by him. http://www.godstruthfortoday.org/Library/barclay/barclay.htm

Barclay relies greatly on Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, as do many of the proponents of Universalism.

As an aside, von Balthasar was accused of heresy by some of his contemporaries for his hope that all men will be saved (he certainly seemed to have circled the criteria for heresy) which left him embittered in his later years. Whether or not it was heresy, I don't know and, as you quoted from the Catechism above, it appears it was not. What was the final verdict on Origen?

Thank you for your responses to me below which I have read, but didn't find time to respond to them.

God bless you.

Posted by: psalm 41 at April 4, 2006 11:45 AM

Dear Psalm41,

Origen was directly anathematized at one of the early ecumenical councils, but I have read of some controversy surrounding this declaration. His particular version of the apocatastasis is the one that was singled out for censure. In what ways it differed from that of St. Gregory of Nyssa, I honestly don't know. However, Origen, possibly because of these views, despite being by all accounts a very Holy Man, was not named a Saint of the Church. Jamie, one of the Blosser clan, at Ad Limina Apostolorum was at one time doing some research and posting some info on Origen.

Given my protestant background and my deep fear of falling into heterodoxy, I have often avoided the writings of both Origen and Tertullian--probably at great loss to myself. I'm beginning to feel as though it may be safer now to approach the writings of these great Holy men.

Thank you for the kindness of your words and your considerate attention.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 11:58 AM

Dear Psalm41,

Thank you for the link. I went to read the article and found it beautiful and thought provoking. Mr. Barclay, being a scholar and a student of the Word, and having a stronger sense of what scripture means speaks far more strongly that I would about the matter. While I agree on the vision, that vision for Barclay is reality--for me it is ardent hope. I am convinced that the things he says here are correct, and yet he has addressed only one of the numerous times in which Jesus mentions the possibility of turning away from God. I must stay within the carefully defined boundaries of the Church and say that I hope what Mr. Barclay proclaims is indeed the truth. I find Mr. Barclay convincing, and yet I cannot say that this will be the end, because that would be presumption on my part and disobedience to the teaching of the Church.

Nevertheless, as I said, my heart is touched and persuaded by Mr. Barclay's vision of God and God's love. He certainly sees clearly the God I am only beginning to see at all. What he says of God appears to be consistent with the nature of God as I have come to understand it. But human understanding is weak, and among human understandings, I am coming to see my own as among the weakest. It's amazing how intelligent one can be and how little one can really see or understand.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 12:10 PM

Dear Steven,

I think you put into words here my exact feelings on the matter. In fact, this belief was one that I came to independantly of the Church, if you will, and when I arrived at the Catholic Church's doorstep and discovered this is what she taught, it was just another small proof for me that I would have to join her members. If I have ever made it seem otherwise in other postings, I apologize and place the blame on my poor command of the language to say what I mean.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 12:14 PM

Dear Brandon,

I don't think you've ever been unclear on this. In the spectrum of things, I am probably your buffer with Mr. Sullivan, but I think we all think similarly on the matter from what I've seen expressed. Mr. Sullivan is stronger in his convictions than I am, but I am very cautious about any possible straying having come in from error and not wishing to rebound to error.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 1:08 PM

Let me suggest a couple of things about that sentence from the Catechism, "In hope, the Church prays for 'all men to be saved,'" which Kevin Miller has mentioned as something of a vindication of Balthasar.

First, the interior quotation is, of course, from 1 Timothy 2:4. The meaning of the statement in the Catechism, then, is intimately related to the meaning of the statement in Scripture, and the meaning (in the sense of doctrinal import) of the statement in Scripture is debatable. The Catechism, then, can't be used to settle a question Scripture does not. (Which, when you think about it, is how you'd want it.)

Second, there is a sense of "the Church prays for" in which what the Church prays for, God grants -- specifically, the sense in which the Church is the Body of Christ living by the Holy Spirit.

If this strong, narrow sense is the one intended by the Catechism, it would follow that all men are saved. In other words, the statement would be an affirmation of universal salvation. It seems unlikely that such a thing would be snuck into the middle of one paragraph in the Catechism.

But if another sense of "the Church prays for" is intended, then the import of that statement is... well, not altogether clear, I'd say.

Posted by: Tom at April 4, 2006 2:16 PM

Dear Steven,

I am probably your buffer with Mr. Sullivan

From our mutual conversations on this topic, I think this is only because I am overly cautious not to lead another into error, and I have seen a lot of error with regard to something closely related to this topic (predestination) in my Protestant days.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 2:26 PM

I didn't see that my comment had merited a post and so left a reply in the previous comment box. Here it is:

""Go as your conscience leads you, but please refrain from using the word "heresy" in conjunction with a hope which, through her prayers, the Holy Catholic Church has declared licit."

I think the force of this prayer is that we may pray for all men living and dead whose fate is not yet decided. Even when Our Lady showed a vision of Hell filled with numberless souls to the young Seers, she told them to pray that God would "lead all souls to heaven." To take these words as evidence of some kind of universalism is a perversion of language.

I do not agree, I CANNOT agree that it is perforce some kind of sin against charity to suppose that there are heresies not yet defined and to say so. I know this attitude is common today, but I think it is deeply mistaken.

I see the dangers of people shouting "heresy" at each other with nothing more than private opinion to go on, but there is a danger, too, in seeing the Faith in juridical--rather than substantial--terms. Was St. Cyril WRONG in calling Nestorius a heretic before he was defined to be one? Surely not. Neither were those people who called Luther a heretic before Trent on numberless grounds. Trent came ABOUT because people already KNEW that Luther was a heretic on many counts.

I think--I stress that I THINK--that what you are saying is heresy. I could be wrong, but I don't think so. I also stress that I direct that first and foremost as a question to MYSELF: COULD I be persuaded of this and still be a Catholic? I think I could not, because I think it's of the essence of the Faith that Hell is a real place for men and that they do go there. One must ask these questions of onesself and not simply ASSUME that because something is not defined it is therefore open for question in any but the most positivistic and juridical sense.

So, I can stress my fallibility and hesitancy on this issue and point out that it is not in origin a personal attack or a judgment of others. But while I cannot judge the subjective state of YOUR soul and wouldn't want to (you seem like a wonderful guy trying hard to be a good Catholic), I also cannot just agree that this is only my opinion BECAUSE it hasn't been defined. Things are defined BECAUSE they are of the Faith, they don't become part of the Faith because they are defined.

I don't at ALL mind if you disagree and try to refute me. But I simply can't accept your request to refrain from putting the question about heresy and giving a preliminary answer as somehow dispostive on the basis of charity and humility. No, there is SUBSTANCE to the Faith and we must defend what we understand that substance to be. We are subject always to the CORRECTION of the Church on this matter. But the idea that heresy is CREATED by definition of the Church is simply a mistake and one that prevents Catholics from defending--perhaps in this case from understanding--the Truth."

Let me add that I think that the REASON one must consider whether this is a HERETICAL idea is that it seems to me to be DANGEROUS to be functioning under the illusion that we may not really go to Hell, or that others may not. I read of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America rushing about in their last moments and baptizing their Huron catechumens who about to be slaughtered by the Iroquois. It seems to me that few would do that today because the SENSE of the immediacy and terrible danger of Hell has been lost, even by otherwise orthodox Catholics. Lost in part through a certain generosity of spirit that shies away from the thought of OTHERS being damned, but lost nevertheless.

Nestorius was by all accounts a fine and sweet-souled man, much more attractive than Cyril. Still, Cyril was RIGHT and a great hero of the Faith, despite his vicious, attack-dog qualities. Von Balthasar was a noble and good man and one who must be read by any educated Catholic today. Nestorius was still an advocate of heresy and on this matter, I reluctantly--and hesitantly--conclude that Balthasar was too.

Posted by: Jeff at April 4, 2006 2:40 PM

Keep trying our patience! It's Lent! (Joke.)

Seriously, I'm sort of interested by how inching close to Universalism allows people to love God more. I was flipping thru the pages of Billy Graham's latest book (I think called "The Journey") and he's pretty much makes a similar connection in terms that believing in a loving God is much more difficult without a personal assurance of salvation of the "once saved, always saved" variety. But of course the Truth is preferable to a falsehood that allows one to feel faux closer to a false conception of God.

Posted by: TSO at April 4, 2006 2:41 PM

Dear Tom,

But what if one does not put so narrow a prescription on the meaning of what the Church prays for? For example, the church prays for peace in times of war, and war lingers on and on and on. There is a meaning of praying for in which that which is prayed for does not occur even if the Church is praying. This could be one of those cases. The Church prays in HOPE, not in knowledge, and so she prays in Charity--loving all of the souls that ever were and wishing for them the very best end; however, she cannot know that end will transpire--that does not preclude her hope that it may.

I think we need to take not so narrow a construction of what it means when the Church prays. I'm sure that the Church prayed that the body of Christ be not divided. Even now she prays that it be reunited. Judging from the tenor of those who hate this one doctrine, that isn't likely to happen even within the ranks of the Church itself. Should she then leave off praying for it? Or must the Church sometimes be like the importunate widow? She prays with insistence, always bringing the matter up with the hope that in His time it will be so.

I think we could conclude that her prayer here is in hope with the constant codicil, "Nevertheless Father, thy will be done, not mine."



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 2:46 PM

Dear Jeff,

And this will stand, despite what I said in reply to you below. However, please read that comment. Thank you.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 2:49 PM

Dear Jeff,

I suppose I should have added that far better thinkers and far holier men than I have been branded with the same brush. St. Teresa of Avila during her time was suspected of heresy.

I've noted that suspicion of heresy lingers around anything we are uncomfortable with.

Finally, you repeat the error of conflating what is HOPED for and may be with the insistence that something is. Were I to say to you that it is certain that all people are saved, you would be absolutely correct, it is a heretical statement. But there is a vast abyss between that assertion and the assertion that we may hope for this end. As you rightly point out, there is abundant evidence to suggest the contrary. But I would contend that a reading of the Bible without prejudice would show an abundance of evidence in favor of the contention. As the matter is not resolved, it is open to discussion, hence my impatience with your attempt to shut it down by constantly crying heresy. When it comes to a matter as serious as a charge of heresy you must prove it--don't assert it. And prove it to me privately first. If you muster up that proof to my satisfaction, I will publish it. The truth is far more important than my opinion. But I have no confidence in your assertions and their net operative effect to to shut down conversation. If you are to accuse someone of an ecclesiatical crime (the definition of heresy) it is incumbent upon you to make more than assertions. And please do not repeat the error of making them here. They will be deleted without further comment. Write to me if you wish, and I'll be happy to discuss the matter with you.

Otherwise, start your own blog to raise the hue and cry--it's your right to do so. ( And I don't mean that to be dismissive--I mean it seriously. If you are that concerned about the issue, then it is something you should trumpet forth with all of your might. I will not host that trumpeting forth, I not sure how much I would attend that trumpeting forth, but I would wholeheartedly support your option to do what you think is in the best service of Christ's people.)



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 2:59 PM


Yes, I think you're right about understanding that part of the statement in a broader sense. Then the question becomes how broadly to understand "all men to be saved," since if it means "every human being ever created, all together," then either Jeff is wrong or the statement should begin "Delusionally, the Church."

At the same time, don't shortchange hope. It, too, has a strong sense, according to which it is "sure and certain." In a statement like, "I say only that I hope that all will be saved," the "only" can take on a tone of ironic understatement the more the hope becomes united to Christ.

Posted by: Tom at April 4, 2006 3:06 PM

I'm not sure that Jeff understands how strong the charge of heresy is. I'm not sure I did before Steven reacted to the accusation.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 4:03 PM

I'm also not sure if Jeff is reacting to what Steven has actually written, or to what he thinks Steven has written.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 4:06 PM


I DID NOT make an accusation of heresy. Let me make it clear: I AM NOT making an accusation of heresy. I'm sure that you are a careful enough reader to be able to see that if you reread my comments in a calmer mood. What I said--VERY CAREFULLY--was that I THINK (I BELIEVE provisionally, though I am not certain of my conclusion) what you are saying is in substance heresy, though I might be mistaken. I also made clear that I don't think it's an intentional heresy or motivated by any sort of arrogance or faithless attitude on your part.

That doesn't shut down any discussion; it merely raises it to a more serious level. If you EXCLUDE that possibility right at the start, then I submit that YOU are the one who is shutting down discussion. And ignoring all the careful distinctions I made in the process. I don't see where I insisted that you or anyone else accept my contention. Rather, I said I would be very happy to listen to you tell me why you disagree, if you like.

I very much regret that you insist on taking this personally. Heresy as a matter of canon law and heresy as a matter of substance are not necessarily the same thing; consult any dictionary--even a theological dictionary--and you will see what I mean. When Benedict the Fourteenth preached privately that the souls of the blessed do not enjoy the beatific vision until the general resurrection, his theologians and doctors told him, "That's heresy!" They didn't say, "That's been defined as heresy," because they couldn't. It hadn't been. They didn't say, "Canon law requires this and that," because they weren't speaking canonically; they were talking about the substance of the Faith, not its regulation. But they sure didn't say, "This has never been defined, therefore it's unquestionably a perfectly respectable opinion." I'm saying far less--appropriately--than they did.

Now, if it is really your contention that it somehow transgresses on politeness to raise such an issue, go ahead and delete the comment. But I submit that there is absolutely nothing in my very careful remarks that deserves such a response. I think such a deletion is itself, in a very small way, an argument against your position. If you're quite confident it's NOT heresy a simple, "Bosh and Bollocks" would do quite nicely, it seems to me.

I see the distinction about Hope. But, look, suppose someone said, "The Church has never defined that any human being has SUBJECTIVELY committed any sin. I only say that I HOPE that personal sins have never been committed; there are many objective sins, but subjectively, no one has committed any." Isn't that, in effect, a denial of the reality of sin? I think so. And I don't think an opinion like that is open to a Catholic. Do you?

The question about whether Mary died or not before being raised to heaven bodily is a legitimate difference of opinion that does not involve the substance of the Faith. I'm just saying that this is a different kind of question.

I'm quite satisfied to leave the matter here and give you the last word. If you want to make that last word an ill-tempered deletion, go right ahead!

Posted by: Jeff at April 4, 2006 7:01 PM

Hi, I'm new here. I have a lot to learn about prayer, and about theology, so please correct me where you feel I've made mistakes.

I've always felt that it's somehow wrong and/or futile to pray for a certain outcome for an event which has already happened, whether or not the person praying knows what happened.

To give a fairly trivial example, UCLA and Florida played last night for the NCAA basketball championship, and Florida won. Imagine a UCLA fan who wasn't able to watch the game last night, who prays that UCLA win the game as he reaches for his newspaper this morning. My contention is that his prayer, if taken very literally, is somehow wrong and/or futile, because the fan knows that the final buzzer has already sounded.

(Or, imagine a Florida fan who didn't watch the game and prays this morning for a Florida win. I'd make the same contention about his prayer, even though his prayer "came true.")

Can I articulately and authoritatively defend this understanding of prayer and of time? Not at all, it's just what I've always intuitively felt. I want to learn more about these issues and if I am in error, I welcome the correction.

If I'm not in error, then I agree with Jeff's statement when he writes: I think the force of this prayer [for "all men to be saved"] is that we may pray for all men living and dead whose fate is not yet decided.

And CCC 1021 says that "Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ."

Posted by: Ryan Herr at April 4, 2006 7:17 PM

Dear Jeff,

What I think you misunderstand about Steven's position on salvation of all (I hesitate to say "universalism" because I don't quite know precisely what that word means and it has meant several different things throughout the course of the three discussions on this topic: here, on Disputations, and on Kiwi Catholic three months ago) is that he is puting forth the idea that, at the end of time, the possibility exists that hell be empty (except for the demons and devils). He is not trying to remove the concept of sin, and he has certainly never said that people do not commit sins. What your 7:01pm post has not done is provide any proof of, or even reasonable argument for, your claim that Steven's position is heretical. Committing personal, even mortal sins, and ending in hell are two completely different objects and if you were attempting to argue by analogy then I disagree with your analogy. If you are simply challenging him to delete your words, then I disagree with the spirit of your post.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 7:52 PM


You're welcome to disagree with my analogy. It IS an analogy which says only this: Saying you HOPE for something may effectively be a denial of the REALITY of its opposite.

Stephen insists--very strongly--that there is a distinction between saying there is no Hell and saying you HOPE it may be empty. I think the distinction is illusory.

If you think about, those who disagree with the Balathasarian position have no other argument BUT that Catholics CANNOT believe that, i.e. that is opposed to Catholic Faith. No one WANTS there to be people in Hell. Almost no one would claim certainty that this or that person was actually IN Hell. So, the only argument against Balthasar is that it is not PERMITTED to Catholics to believe that, that it is part of Catholic revelation that the Reality of Hell means that men are there--it is not empty.

To say that something is part of the Catholic revelation, well, that's what's meant by calling the opposite opinion {insert dreaded "h" word.)

So, to deny Balthasar's opponents the possibility of claiming that his opinion is impermissible (i.e., directly and substantively contrary to Revelation) is to say that no one can disagree with him. There are no other grounds on which to disagree!

When I think about this issue, I conclude that as a Catholic, I MAY not believe it. That, unfortunately, has implications for others. How should one politely say that one concludes that something is contrary to Divine Revelation and that therefore one may not believe it? This is the point that gets swallowed up in the Hurt Feelings/Insulted by Terminology thing.

Posted by: Jeff at April 4, 2006 8:13 PM


As one who was trained in the "once-saved, always-saved" school of Protestantism, I see Steven's form of 'universalism' (see my comment above on why I encase the word in quotation marks) as quite different. Once-saved, always-saved is a refusal to acknowledge that your actions have any worth. According to that teaching, by "putting on the robe of salvation", you are absolved in advance from any effect of your sins. Apostacy is explained by "it wasn't a real dedication of your life to Jesus in the first place" rather than address the logical contradictions in the world-view. (Further irony of their position lies in their collective aversion for indulgences). But, the way I understand this concept of universal salvation it is simply the possibility that all souls will be saved. To understand it, start from the perspective that any soul can be saved (certainly a matter of faith that the Church demands: no one is has wandered too far away from God's love or of His mercy), leading to the idea that perhaps all souls can be saved. How could this lead souls to love God more? One example that springs to mind is St. Therese's prayer for the condemned prisoner who before he was executed reached for and kissed the crucfix. Certainly she believed that man could be saved, and she devoted prayers to that effort. She wanted to save the most un-savable in hopes of freeing that many souls from the devil. The children at Fatima also expressed ferverent desires to save souls of the poor sinners, not because there is no hell, but because they were working to keep as many people out as possible. Does that imply that they believed hell could be empty? No, I don't think so. But I do think that's one way that inching closer to universalism can draw someone to love God more.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 8:19 PM


I agree that saying you hope for something may be a denial of the reality of the opposite. I disagree that it has an analogous element from an argumentative standpoint to what you were trying to say.

I disagree with you that the distinction between "Hell might be empty of people" and "Hell does not exist" is illusory. You are correct in protesting modern society's rejection of hell, I fully agree
with the sentiment, but I don't think that particular sentiment is to be found on these pages.

I am not familiar with Balthasar to have an opinion on the Balathasarian position. (Full disclosure: I also have no preconcieved notions about Jesuits or Jesuit theologians).

What would provide an argument would be an exposition on why, as a Catholic, you conclude that you may not believe Steven's position. That would also clear up the question of whether or not you fully understand Steven's position. It also eliminates the need for politness because then we are not talking about "he concludes, she concludes", we're talking about the theological realities present in the subject.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 8:31 PM

Hi Ryan,

As far as praying for events that have already occurred, a priest told me once that one of his friends had a strong devotion to St. Lucy and she prayed for St. Lucy to have strength during her martydom. It was something along the lines that the holy Spirit is outside of time, and so prayers can be applied backwards in time.

As far as praying for the outcome of sporting events... I don't know about that at all. I'm sure it's not the worst use of your time and energy, but I'm pretty sure it's not the best.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 4, 2006 8:46 PM

Dear Jeff,

You have clarified your use of terms to a degree that I'm somewhat more comfortable with what you are saying, but I disagree with the lightness with which you feel you can use so heavily laden a word.

If you think about, those who disagree with the Balathasarian position have no other argument BUT that Catholics CANNOT believe that, i.e. that is opposed to Catholic Faith. No one WANTS there to be people in Hell. Almost no one would claim certainty that this or that person was actually IN Hell. So, the only argument against Balthasar is that it is not PERMITTED to Catholics to believe that, that it is part of Catholic revelation that the Reality of Hell means that men are there--it is not empty.

Show me where it is written or defined. You have said that you cannot because it is simply your feeling, impression, intuition, undersanding of the revelation of faith. Well, then, you have no argument at all other than subjective impressions of what constitutes faithful Catholicism. I'm glad we're done with that.

Subjective impressions are insufficient to make any argument that aims at the truth. I can't address what you think constitutes the revealed Catholic faith, when that revelation is no where made manifest. How am I to address an argument of that sort? Be reasonable. You present a subjective view of what the faith entails and then compare yourself to Athanasius speaking against Nestorius. Don't you think that if there were something dreadfully wrong with the universalist position I have articulated one of those vocal old Church Fathers would have taken St. Gregory of Nyssa to task for it? Indeed, would he ever have become St. Gregory of Nyssa.

There have been those who have agreed and disagreed with the position--there are very good reasons on both sides. Perhaps the better position is with those who disagree, when I try to be truly objective in the matter. But those arguments have been precisely of the nature of the debate about the dormition. It is only with the reconciliation of all that there has been any movement toward suppression.

In sum, there is nothing to debate here. Your subjective impression of the faith leads you to announce to the world at large that you think I'm spouting heresy. What can I say except, where's the evidence? Where is the meat that surrounds this bone of contention? I can't argue or defend myself against your impressions. You are entitled to them. But I do think they are wrong, and I do think that it is wrong on the basis of nothing more than these impressions to speak out against a doctrine about which the Church has said nothing in a millenium and a half or more.

One last point: who in the world ever said Hell was empty?



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 9:31 PM

Dear Ryan,

Thank you for your comment and welcome. I will gently disagree with you and go no further. Brandon said it better and more reasonably than I have devised a means to do. But I do appreciate that you have joined the conversation. Thank you.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 9:42 PM

Hello Brandon, I followed the link on your name, and while I was hoping for a blog, I was pleased to discover that it's a small world after all ... I graduated from ISU last spring and the Newman Center there is still home. I always love hearing Msgr Swetland speak, and our community is very grateful that yours sent Fr. Victor Mosele our way.

Brandon and Steven, let me begin by clarifying my position and my scope a bit.

I'm not really chiming in on the great universalism debate, or at least I don't mean to. I'm merely speculating about what CCC 1821 means when we read that the Church prays for all men to be saved. My inquiry is really much more about prayer than salvation - I hope you don't mind the tangent terribly.

I agree with Jimmy Akin when he writes that there are multiple ways of parsing the phrase in question.

Re: praying for sporting events ... I was hoping to avoid potential complications or distratctions by coming up with a scenario with only two possible (or reasonably probable) outcomes, with both outcomes morally neutral. My students were buzzing about NCAA today and it seemed more fun than praying about a coin flip.

Brandon, thank you for your story of a woman who prayed for St. Lucy to have strength during her martyrdom. That does challenge me to expand my conception of prayer.

But, you correctly state that you're talking about "praying for events that have already occurred." What about praying against events that have already occured?

What if a person were to pray today that God would miraculously save St. Lucy from death?

What if a person were to pray today for Lucy's murderers, that they would not do their deed?

Should we hope that these prayers be "applied backwards in time"?

Or do we not pray for these things, as Steven said "we don't pray that night be made day or that black be made white"?

Steven, you wrote that "I do not think that [the line from the catechism] is limited in time, else the communion of the Saints becomes meaningless."

I would want to abandon any line of thought which renders the communion of Saints meaningless. However, I do not yet see how that inevitably follows from my position. Please explain further for me.

Thank you both for your time and thoughtfulness. -Ryan.

Posted by: RyanHerr at April 4, 2006 11:15 PM


"to accuse another of speaking harm to the Church. And while you insist that you do not (and I'll aceept that it is certainly not your intention to do so), nevertheless, the words do say exactly that--here is a person who seeks to harm the church."

This is not true. In fact, it is nonsense. Lutherans, for example, teach things that are, in theological terms, heresy. I doubt many of them "seek harm to the Church." If a Lutheran asks me angrily, "Well, do you think consubstantiation is a heresy?", I have to answer, Yes, I'm afraid I do. But that doesn't mean they are seeking harm to the Church. Just that their position contradicts something fundamental in Christian revelation. A heresy may often be a MISTAKE, sometimes one that people are led to for good motives.

I doubt that Nestorius sought to harm the Church. I doubt that Benedict XIV did. I'm sure von Balthasar didn't. So, no, it's just not true that proposing that someone's opinion is objectively a heresy is saying that they want to harm the Church.

I'm not sure that your notion that what you call the "subjective" understanding of Christians on questions of heresy makes sense. I think, for example, that simple people often understand the necessity of the Physical Resurrection of Jesus much better than fancy theologians do. Heidegger once preached on the unimportance of the Bodily Resurrection for Christianity. A pious old woman heard his lecture and was asked to comment. "They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have put him," was her reaction. A better conviction of heresy could not have been penned by a theologian. But I would not call that just her "subjective impression." And you certainly couldn't say, Subjective Impression, Therefore No Heresy. That isn't the way it works. Hell for Men without any people that really go there makes about as much sense to me as Resurrection without any Body. You can call it "subjective" if you like, but there it is.

I would very much LIKE to believe that I could hope all men may be saved. It appeals to me on so many levels. But when I put the question to myself, I always find that I cannot honestly say that, "the damned will depart into eternal fire" really just means, "IF there are any damned." The whole presumption of the Christ's mission in the world is that the general condition of humanity is ABANDONMENT by Divine Presence. As Newman puts it, we have been cast out of His presence. This is what MOTIVATES men to seek Salvation. The whole tenor of the New Testament and the History of the Church is that it takes something special to AVOID damnation and I cannot reconcile that with the notion that it does, but in the end everyone has got it.

To posit a real possibility of Hell, but no Damned Souls just seems to me to be saying, Even if you cast away all thought of Salvation, you may be saved anyway, because God's Mercy is too great. Why on earth should I worry about it then, will be the reaction of vast numbers of people. God threatens us with the possibility of Damnation, but it's all just a ruse because we get Salvation anyway. We'll all choose him in the end. Why threaten us with an empty possibility then? This seems the most cruel possibility of all. Imagine all the people who TOOK the words seriously and agonized about themselves and others. And to cure their agony, you propose that they need not worry! They can hope instead!

Christ far more often warns us to fear damnation and speaks of Judas and Herod as if they are damned.

I don't anyway see how the notion that God won't damn human beings but HAS damned to eternity whole hosts of angels is any more merciful than his damnation of numbers of human beings EXCEPT that it somehow lets us and our friends off the hook. And the fact that he undoubtedly HAS damned angels eternally removes the basis--ostensibly the Mercy of God--for hoping that all men may be saved. Why should we be any more the recipients of His Mercy than the Angels?

"Hell exists and is a real possibility for men" means "people get damned," I just don't see any other honest interpetation of it. Maybe many, maybe few. We can hope that it is few, but we had best ALSO FEAR that it is many. And particularly, we ought to fear that it may be us, it may be our loved ones, it may be our neighbors that we are too lazy or timid to evangelize.

We all obviously have difficulty with Hell and want to find some way around it. Finding some way around seeming intellectual problems, "How can Christ be man AND God?", "How can bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Christ?" is the wellspring of error. We try to "solve" the problems rather than just accepting them. We ought to suspect rationalization in ourselves when we explain Hell away with verbal circumlocutions.

Suppose *I* --not you, you have to decide for yourself -- suppose I tell people that it's okay for them to Hope that all men may be saved. Suppose, then, that Christ's and the Father's insistent warnings about damnation are meant as real warnings about a real possibility and that many are in fact damned. Mightn't I be responsible for lulling people into a false sense of security, helping them to clutch at straws and not wean themselves away from sin, deadly difficult job that that is these days? Might I even be responsible for their damnation?

All that seems at least as lively a possibility as the comforting notions of an ineffective Hell.

And with that, I depart and leave the thread to those who want to accuse me of various kinds of malfeasance. I won't check back lest I be tempted to more. May Christ, the Light of the World, enlighten all of us and bring each one of us before the Face of His Father at the End of Ends. And may He in his Lovingkindness forgive me all my many sins, which are no doubt greater than any of yours. God bless and Happy Easter in anticipation! He is Risen! Now we can all agree that those are words of Fathomless Hope and Endless Joy.

Posted by: Jeff at April 4, 2006 11:50 PM

Dear Ryan,

In all frankness, it is what is hyperbole, a rhetorical trope I'm entirely too enamored of and probably overreaching. What I meant by it is that the communion of the saints is the continual prayer of all the Church that all might be saved (as this must have been the prayer from the very earliest times). As a result, the implication that the statement of the catechism is timebound suggests that the prayer in the communion of Saints is somehow less efficacious. It's a poorly phrased notion and only half-thought at this point. Ultimately, I guess I simply cannot read "all" to mean some portion of those now alive or otherwise not disposed of. To my mind when the church says all, even in this passage, I interpret that all to mean ALL. If they had meant to hedge it about, they could easily said, "that all persons who have died in the aroma of grace," or "that all persons whose fate has not already been decided." The writers of the catechism tend to much more precise language that I usuall use. Thus, I would prefer the looser interpretation of what it means for the Church to pray for the salvation of all men,that Tom and I have discussed, as over and against the narrower interpretation Jeff would place over the words themselves. There may have been a clarifying footnote in what I quoted that I would need to consult; but I do think all is intended to mean all.

So let me address "praying against what has already happened." People better informed on Padre Pio can either refute or support what I am about to say. I have heard it said of him, and this constituted mere private revelation, not doctrine, that he often prayed for souls who had already died, not that they be freed from purgatory, but that they make the right choice for God before death.

I think I am with him, It seems to me that in the economy of salvation God can use our prayers for those who do not know Him where they do the most do in the present or the past. For example, how do we know that the prayers for the soul of Oscar Wilde did not so affect him during life that he made his famous conversion. So too with Jean-Paul Sartre and Wallace Stevens. But these are resolved cases. What about the cases of souls about whom we do not know the disposition? Then it would seem to me that it would be possible to affect the outcome because it isn't already decided. But I honestly don't know. I believe praye works "out of time" and in whatever way God sees fit to have it work. The prayers that the Church prays during the liturgy of the hours that God be reconciled with all of His people may be efficacious in changing what has already occurred, not in the sense of altering it, but in the sense of laying the groundwork for what we do not know.

But this is sheer speculation and it was a fantasia that occurred to me when I heard this statement about Padre Pio. If he believed that prayer could effect backward change, then perhaps it could. His belief does not constitute proof, but it is suggestive.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 4, 2006 11:54 PM

Ryan and Tom,

I went looking again, and the phrase from 1 Timothy is in many places in the Catechism. I found this statement provocative:

1058 The Church prays that no one should be lost: "Lord, let me never be parted from you." If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God "desires all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him "all things are possible" (Mt 19:26).

I note that the first portion of the sentence is in the conditional tense which in itself transcends time. I'd have to see the Latin to be certain but the implications are not limited to the present. Again, one can argue around the authority of it or perhaps even the meaning, but it is clear that God desires (although does not necessarily will) that all people come to Him. I find it interesting in this regard that the Church points out that "with God all things are possible." If it is possible now, then it has been possible through all of the history of the Church, and as the Church has been praying this from her foundation the possibility has been implicit in the prayer.

Perhaps I'm making too much of a small thing. But I do think it is fairly clear that the catechism is saying that it is not impossible that all will be saved, that it IS God's desire that it happen, and that the Church does and has prayed for this eventuality.

This comes not one white closer to solving the problem of universalism, but I would suggest that a careful combing through of all of these references and related sections may be useful. It is an interesting study in wording to see how the church balances this hope against the reality of the existence of Hell and the very real possibility of going there.

I think it is equally interesting the emphasis placed on God's desire that all be saved. The question comes to mind, what does this mean? How does God's desire differ from His will? If God is not a God of part, if He is simple and uniate, one substance, how do His desire and His will which are both expression of the same simple Him reach fulfillment outside of the salvation of all? Again, only a question to which any answer must be speculation. Although, Tom, if you are aware of one or even a means of reconciling the difference, I'd appreciate the reference. The teaching of St. Thomas on eternity this afternoon was enormously enlightening and helpful.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 12:19 AM


Since it doesn't appear that Jeff will be reading this thread any further I address this to you. I think he is making one of the errors in understanding that Chris argued against the last time we had this argument: that the possibility of universal salvation means that I don't have to do anything. I fully agree with Jeff that it is problematic to teach that we don't have to do anything. But I think he comes at it from the wrong direction. He also shows some of the same argument that I made with regard to apokatastasis, namely that a spiritual realm without any inhabitants is non-existant. For Jeff, the possibility of Hell empty of souls would mean its non-existance, whereas I allow for fallen angels as "place-holders". However, I think he misunderstands the distinction between "the possibility of" and "it's gotta happen this way". Or maybe it is we who misunderstand. Certainly this distinction has come up in both conversations that I've had a part in, so it must be an important one. He and I also share in caution against discussing the issue (which has only been re-inforced in me by his misunderstanding), something that I have expressed before, he completely against, myself with caution.

But perhaps his most drastic misunderstanding is of the nature of your blog. That is certainly his loss.


Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 12:19 AM

Dear Jeff,

In case you do check back. You responded to an earlier version of the response I finally crafted. It's a problem that I can't draft a response and keep it in a "draft area" to allow myself the opportunity to revise and to tone down things I might have said. I apologize that that was the one you happened to read.

But I will respond nevertheless:

"Hell exists and is a real possibility for men" means "people get damned," Quite simply--no it doesn't. The two are not even remotely equivalent. That hell is a very real possibility, that it is the penalty for certain transgressions is fact. That people must perforce go there because they must commit those violations is speculation--reasonable speculation, but not fact in the way that the definition of Hell is.

Suppose *I* --not you, you have to decide for yourself -- suppose I tell people that it's okay for them to Hope that all men may be saved. Suppose, then, that Christ's and the Father's insistent warnings about damnation are meant as real warnings about a real possibility and that many are in fact damned. Mightn't I be responsible for lulling people into a false sense of security, helping them to clutch at straws and not wean themselves away from sin, deadly difficult job that that is these days? Might I even be responsible for their damnation?

You keep coming back to this point and it seems to be a very real and present danger to you. But I ask you, how does saying that all MAY be saved in any way remove the notion that some COULD be lost? We never say all ARE saved. We say simply that it is permissible to think that all MAY be saved. There is no laxity here. The church teaches that if you are in mortal sin that perdures until the end of your life, you will go to Hell. Period. There is no question. What this speculation entails is that it is entirely possible that no one perdures in such.

I keep coming back to the fact that God desires all people to be saved. Is His desire so small a thing that it should be overlooked? How is His desire related to His will? How does a God of no parts reconcile a desire that all be saved with a certain knowledge that a great many shall be lost. Is God's desire irrational? If He is already aware of a Hell stuffed to the gills with unrepentant sinners, how can He reasonably desire that all return to Him. It is an impossibility. Now, I suppose we could interpret the phrase to mean "all of those who haven't already been lost" but honestly, that simply isn't what it says. So you have your concern that Hell without people encourages others to their damnation. And I have the quandary of a God who desires that all be saved but who knows for a fact that it ain't happening.

There is room to hope--not to say ever that it is inevitable, but to hope.

And once again, I apologize both for the hastiness of some replies and for the fact that you stumbled on to the unrefined response to your own query. It eventually got better as I tried to take more and more of the language I composed in haste and frustration out. I am sorry for having offended you. And I may make a larger point of this in a different post.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 12:34 AM

Dear Brandon,

I know you've expressed doubts about talking about this; however, there are many difficult things in doctrine that we need to face--there are many hard puzzles of meaning that we must try to wrestle with. I don't mind talking about it and I don't think the danger is nearly as great as it may be in some other arenas. But there will be misunderstanding in any conversation--does that mean it should not be had? Tom is a really bright, really logical, really straightforward thinker. If I bring this up often enough, he will dredge up enough of Thomas Aquinas for me to read that I'll either be convinced one way or the other or have a headache. I think the conversation is important. I think it particularly important in light of the many people I know who have been wounded in one confession or another by the doctrine of Hell. When I was growing up it was the chief topic of sermons. Hell, and then the list of the many sins that would send you there--playing cards, going bowling, co-ed swimming, dancing, drinking wine, and consorting with those idol worshippers at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. If Hell is a reality, it should be discussed and it should be made clear what the church does and does not teach about it. She does teach that it exists and it is a very real possibility for every person. She teaches that one arrives there by perduring in mortal sin until death. She teaches that Jesus spoke of it often. What she does not say a word about (with the exception of the fallen angels) is the population of Hell. She is completely silent on the matter except to say that all who persist until death in mortal sin will arrive there. How many is that? She isn't concerned--she's more concerned with the realilty that entails--work to keep yourself out. Cooperate with grace and realize that salvation is a gift freely given.

I won't speculate as to what Jeff may have thought. But there is a very real fear in encountering for the first time, or even in repeated times an idea that seems antithetical to all that you hold dear. I would insist that it is not so. And had we not gotten off on such a bad footing perhaps this would have come to a different end. As it is, I have an apology to write and it's late, so more later.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 12:44 AM


It's great to meet a real-life neighbor on-line! I've been to your Newman Center a couple of times, I think I even spent the night there once, because a friend of mine was living there (in one of the back rooms). I'm pretty sure that I did, because I think I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the church, right in front of the Tabernacle. That was several years ago, and I was there for a wedding, and the details have grown fuzzy because wedding choirs tend to blur together when you've played as many as I have.

(Actually, I think it was Fr. Caster, who was stationed there several years ago who originally told me the story about St. Lucy. But it might have been someone else).

My personal feelings about prayer are not doctrine, but I am of the opinion that God can apply prayers in the way He wants them applied. Prayers that a particular someone fall in love with you, for example, might get applied to your future spouse instead of your high school crush. Prayers at all serve to draw us closer to God, so if you set out on a crusade to storm heaven with prayers for a particular outcome, and that outcome was not one that corresponded with God's will, then I would suspect that in drawing closer to God by means of your prayer (improper prayer? I hesitate to use that word) you would come to realize what God's will really was.

As for praying against a done-deed, I don't know. My initial thought is that a prayer that St. Lucy's tormentors not murder her might be applied to their conversion after the fact? Like the centurion at the foot of the cross. Certainly a prayer against certain things that happened can turn into a prayer of "why did you let this happen?" when prayed consistently. (E.g.: The "please bring my dead grandmother back to life" of a young child will eventually turn into "why did you let my grandmother die?" and be a step closer to resolution in the child's mind). If prayer is communication, you can ask a friend to change the past for you, but you will quickly see the futility in that, if lines of communication are open and healthy. I suspect it's like that with God, if you keep praying, even if what you're praying for is not possible, He will use that to draw you closer to Him, and eventually you will be conformed to His will in that matter. It's not always what you are asking for that matters, just like when you talk with a friend the topic of conversation doesn't always matter.

Is that a cop-out? Perhaps. But it's the best I can come up with.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 12:56 AM


It is late here as well, but I like to think I have expressed that the conversations should be treated with caution. As Jeff has demonstrated, it is easy to misunderstand the point of the topic. Perhaps this is why it should be brought up, because the more frequently we bang our heads together, the more clear the others' positions become and the more likely we are to come to a collective understanding of God.

I certainly don't think the topic should not be discussed. I just think that it requires caution, especially in this media. If we could all sit down together with cold drinks and hash out our differences in my back yard, less precision would be needed. I'd provide the drinks... except that I can't afford the sort of liquor that Tom drinks. :)

peace and good night,

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 1:04 AM

Dear Brandon,

Just as I was laying down to sleep, I sprung back up because i'm having a real problem with DST adjustment this year. Fortunately I realized that in all the fuzzy headed gabble-gabble I wrote in the last comment, I neglected to thank you for the kind words, and I spent much to the time addressing something you had never said but which is in my mind. Please accept my apologies for that. But as I said, head fuzzy, late night, and just generally being stupid. You know, that just happens sometimes. I suppose I am also overly concerned and precoccupied about my simple lack of courtesy. Well--live and learn. Perhaps God will rescue me from myself some time.

Anyway, thank you very much for your kind words and for your contribution to this conversation. I'm sorry I neglected to thank you before.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 1:24 AM

Brandon, thank you for you post with many examples of how "God can apply prayers in the way He wants them applied." I found it helpful. And, funny you should mention Fr. Caster - I'm here on this blog because remind me of his homilies - A high compliment, Steven.

Steven, thanks for additional CCC quotes and for the enlightening and challenging Padre Pio anecdote. I confess that at times, I'm quite ashamed to be ashamed of Saints like Padre Pio - I mean, sometimes I long for modern day miracles, and then when I'm confronted with them, my first inclination is to casually deny them: "Outside of space and time, mind reader ... gotta get me some of that!"

I do disagree when you write "What about the cases of souls about whom we do not know the disposition? Then it would seem to me that it would be possible to affect the outcome because it isn't already decided."

I'm coming to cautiously agree that we can affect the outcome, but not because it isn't already decided. I'm certain that the outcome is already decided: "Death puts an end to human life as the time open to either accepting or rejecting the divine grace manifested in Christ." (CCC 1021)

What I'm not certain about is how it works, how exactly present prayer affects a past outcome. Most probable seems to be that the prayers are outside of time and God chooses to apply our prayer to the past, prior to the moment of death, which seems consistent with Pade Pio's understanding when he reputedly "prayed for souls who had already died, not that they be freed from purgatory, but that they make the right choice for God before death."

(The much less likely possibility seems to be that our present prayers can actually very literally change one outcome to another. Anything's possible with God.)

The discussion has re-opened my whole wonder and awe at the mystery of free will. If by wonder and awe, you mean frustration and confusion. I guess these periods come and go in cycles.

And so I denounce in advance any heresy in my following words.

I found another Catechism paragraph, with both shadow and light. First half of 2822:

Our Father "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." He is "forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish."

And those words seem unequivocal.

My confusion when I think about free will and God's will and I read the second half:

His commandment is "that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." This commandment summarizes all the others and expresses his entire will.

Well, as tricky as it is to harmonize God's will and free will for the next life, it's a lot harder to harmonize God's will and free will for this life. In fact, I only need to look at my own life to see that often God's will is not done, if his entire will is expressed by the commandent that we love one another.

So if we know that God wills that we love one another and what He wills doesn't always happen, then why does God suddenly seem impotent if He wills that we all choose heaven and what He wills doesn't always happen?

As oppressively hard as the mystery of earthly suffering is, the mystery of eternal suffering is even worse. Personally I hope it's a non-issue, except for those fallen angels.

Posted by: Ryan Herr at April 5, 2006 5:37 AM

Dear Ryan,

I do disagree when you write "What about the cases of souls about whom we do not know the disposition? Then it would seem to me that it would be possible to affect the outcome because it isn't already decided."

There's no disagreement here. I was writing hastily and from the point of view of the Earth-bound, not taking into account God's predestination. When I wrote that "it isn't already decided" I was referring to apparent circumstances. Some die in the odor of sanctity, others in what is apparent emnity with God (and I do emphasize apparent, because we may not judge) but most in some place in between. Even those in apparent Sanctity may require the help of our prayers. So you are correct when you point out that the fate is already decided, we simply don't know it-and that is all to the good because it forces us to pray as though the decision rested on the prayer rather than on God's mercy.

In fact, I only need to look at my own life to see that often God's will is not done,

I think we may disagree here, as I have written elsewhere. God's will is ALWAYS done, absolutely nothing can happen without His permission/consent. Even our ability to reject his ordained will for our lives is rooted in this permission. (Rejecting God is the only thing the free will is capable of doing on its own.) However, even when we reject God's Ordained will in our lives, He allows us to do so and what transpires and grows from that is His will. Nothing that is, is without His permission. Nothing that happens happens without his direct attention. God's will for you may not be accomplished when you reject Him, but God's will as a whole is unstrained by that rejection. It's another mystery--but God's will is always done even in the rejection of His will.

if He wills that we all choose heaven and what He wills doesn't always happen?

We must be careful here, and I have tried to be. God does not will (or at least we don't say it in this way) that all choose Heaven. God desires that all choose Heaven. Is there a difference between these two? I honestly can't tell you.

What strains my mind is, how can God desire what He knows for a fact is not the case? Does this "desire" know a kind of timeliness in which his desire is an ongoing action that does not take account of past loses? A kind of ever-present tallying--a desire for each person as that person passes through life? Or is that desire something stronger and deeper, a real heart-intention--the aching longing of a Father who loves His children and wants the best for them?

Again, I don't know, but I honestly don't think that the desire spoken of is merely an ever-present desire. When God desires, I think it is the desire of the ages, the desire of eternity. Whatever it is, I would not say that He wills it because then it must be. I would say rather that He wills that we make our own choice in the matter, He desires that each person choose Him and He desires that all be saved. That this desire is so expressed gives me some fuel for the fire of hope expressed in your last paragraph:

As oppressively hard as the mystery of earthly suffering is, the mystery of eternal suffering is even worse. Personally I hope it's a non-issue, except for those fallen angels.

In this, you have beautifully summarized my thought as well. I hope it's a non-issue. I know that it is a very real possibility that it is not a non-issue. Nevertheless, I couldn't agree more with the idea expressed so beautifully in this final paragraph.

I hope this makes more sense than last night's sleepless ramblings. I won't even read them for fear of what idiocy I came up with. I hope also that I have clarified my intent, if not necessarily rectified the expression of it.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 9:27 AM


The discussion has re-opened my whole wonder and awe at the mystery of free will. If by wonder and awe, you mean frustration and confusion.

I echo this sentiment completely.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 10:57 AM


No apologies necessary and certainly no thanks required. Thank you for hosting this wonderful conversation and for putting up with us commenteers (sort of like mouskateers, but without the silly hats?)

Seriously, there are few places in the blogsphere that I have found marked by serious attempts at dialogue, and I appreciate your hosting one of them. (Tom is another, and I appreciate him too).


p.s. I have not adjusted to the time change yet either. On Sunday, we showed up at the 9am mass to everyone leaving because it was 10am. Luckily I have choir at 5pm mass on campus, so we just went to that, but we were supposed to be there in the morning for the RCIA scrutiny.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 11:03 AM

This conversation is getting away from me, so I'll merely stipulate my disagreement with all the errors expressed and my agreement with all the truths.

And add two points:

First, it may be that certain choices made in the writing of the Catechism were intended as much to counterbalance some of the triumphalistic tendencies that can be found in past writings on the topic of salvation as to express the teaching in absolute, timeless phrasing.

Second, the kind of liquor I drink is amber, or sometimes clear. Ifn I aint payin I aint picky.

Posted by: Tom at April 5, 2006 11:36 AM

Dear Tom,

What you say provides another opportunity for patience and forbearance.

In some ways I am a rigorist. If you will, I really want to know what the rules are so that I know the boundaries--how wide and deep the field I am playing in is. I don't want to go too close to any of those boundaries.

Words to battle triumphalism as opposed to instruct with precision, give me pause. Not that there's anything you can do about my hesitation, but I prefer to think of the Catechism as "the rule book." Here are the boundaries of what you can say and remain a faithful Catholic. If some of those boundaries are obscured with other intent, it seems to make the work less useful for the instruction of the faithful.

However, that said, I will take what you say under advisement and use and more critical eye when scrutinizing the passages I read. Thank you.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 11:58 AM


That counter-triumphalism bit is just a thought about how pendulums can swing when it comes to expressing the Faith (and, for that matter, to common beliefs that nestle in next to the Faith).

I certainly don't mean to undermine your confidence in the Catechism as a valid expression of Church teaching. But Church teaching is a human activity, and it depends on language, which means countless editorial and semantic choices were made in compiling it. Just as you'd expect a difference between catechisms written by a Dominican and a Carmelite, you can expect differences between catechisms written by Sixteenth Century and Twentieth Century bishops, not all of which can be put down to development of doctrine.

Posted by: Tom at April 5, 2006 12:55 PM

Steven writes: God's will is ALWAYS done, absolutely nothing can happen without His permission/consent. Even our ability to reject his ordained will for our lives is rooted in this permission. (Rejecting God is the only thing the free will is capable of doing on its own.) However, even when we reject God's Ordained will in our lives, He allows us to do so and what transpires and grows from that is His will. Nothing that is, is without His permission. Nothing that happens happens without his direct attention. God's will for you may not be accomplished when you reject Him, but God's will as a whole is unstrained by that rejection. It's another mystery--but God's will is always done even in the rejection of His will.

I'd like to learn more about ordained will versus permissive will. I found this post of yours, but I did not find those specific terms in the Catechism, or on disputations or jimmyakin.org. I read the paragraphs in the Catechism's index under "Will of God," but they do not seem to make a distinction between types of wills. I searched the Catechism for "permit" and also "secondary cause" and came up with these paragraphs to read more closely: 304, 308, 311, 324, 395, 412, 600, 608.

Until my research turns up some more authoritative words and I spend some serious meditation time with them, I've only got your writing and my own speculation to go on. While I very much enjoy your insightful writing, unfortunately (or rather fortunately in my case) neither of us enjoys the charism of infallibility. Disclaimers aside, please bear with my line of thought:

It's mysterious enough to me that an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God allows suffering - Am I wrong to intuitively reject the notion that an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God could desire suffering?

Steven writes, Is God's desire irrational? ... I have the quandary of a God who desires that all be saved but who knows for a fact that it ain't happening.

If God does not desire suffering, and suffering is real, isn't that about the same quandary? Or does God allow and even desire suffering (while not causing it)? Or, how I can be set straight on this? I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I'm making any number of fundamental errors. (If you see them, please point them out.)

Posted by: Ryan Herr at April 5, 2006 3:41 PM

whoops, I messed up my html. Let's see if my link works this time.

Posted by: Ryan Herr at April 5, 2006 3:43 PM


Regarding the relationship between an all-loving God and suffering, Tom has written this. I don't know that it helps you, but it's something more to ponder.

Posted by: Brandon Field at April 5, 2006 3:55 PM

Dear Ryan,

The language I use may come out of protestant tradition, I'm not certain. I was sure that I had read it in Catholic Sources as well. They refer to "permissive will" and "perfect will."

For example Oswald Chambers says: "Always make a distinction between God's perfect will and His permissive will, which He uses to accomplish His divine purpose for our lives." (See My Utmost for His Highest. I don't think this is a reformation innovation, but I couldn't tell you for certain. I glanced at the Summa on-line and gets at what I am saying using different terminology (I think). St. Thomas refers to this aspects as "expressions of will" which include, prohibition, precept, couonsel, operation, and permission. But I will admit that he may be thinking of slightly different aspects than I am.

I think that as you continue looking, you will find in Catholic thought the equivalent of perfect will and permissive will.

Actually, if one reads the Saints, it seems as though God does desire suffering, not for the sake of the suffering itself, because suffering is a bodily evil; but for what is born out of suffering. Suffering appears to be an outgrowth of love. If Jesus himself tells us that we must "Take up our cross," and so forth, I would suggest that the implications are that taking up a cross is part of the suffering God ordains for us, not suffering qua suffering, but only suffering as it leads to purgation, thus a kind of "fevering out" of the bad. (Again an opinion.) One other cautionary note--the writings of the Saints, good though they may be on matters are strictly private revelation and thus cannot be said to add to what is already present in the Bible. But Jesus often enough points to the inevitability of suffering and the "need" for it to accomplish good--taking up one's cross, laying down one's life for one's friends, better to cut off a leg and enter lame than to be cast into the fire--all of these things obliquely touch on the suffering necessary to love.

But I would have to think through the question. My initial impression is that we are directly told that God desires that all men be saved. We are perhaps not so directly told that God does not desire/require people to suffer.

Any way, I'll continue to search for Catholic sources on matters of God's will. However, I think we must agree that no action is possible without, at a minimum God's permission for the action. Sin is only possible because God allows free will, and free will is thus incorporated into His larger will. If so, all of the consequences of free will must also be bundled up into that will.

Suffering on earth though, is quite a different matter from suffering for eternity, so I don't know that your comparison compares equivalents.

Honestly though, all you're getting are opinions, and your thought is so far beyond my own in this matter that I can't really help. I'm sorry.



I can't think of any scripture quotations that assure us that God doesn't desire suffering at least in the larger sense of the suffering caused by love and by longing for Him. But I've been wrong about many, many things.

Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 4:21 PM

Dear Ryan,

Sorry to inundate you--here's a passage that uses the concepts

In the same way, since God has placed you in this world only to do His holy will, and your salvation depends upon this, it is, therefore, extremely necessary that you should easily know God's will in all that must be done. So, He has made it easily recognizable, manifesting His holy will in five chief ways which are very certain and evident:

1. by His commandments;

2. by His counsels;

3. by the laws, rules and obligations of our state in life;

4. by the authority of those placed over you or directing you;

5. by events, since every happening in an infallible sign that God so wills, either by absolute or by permissive will.

So, if you would but open the eyes of faith even a little, you could easily, at all times and in every situation, recognize God's most holy will, and this knowledge would lead you to love Him and to submit yourself to Him.

Excerpted from The Life and Kingdom of Jesus in Christian Souls, St. John Eudes

If you go to this page and look at the second footnote, you'll see study notes to the NAB that make reference to "permissive will."

Here's another excerpt:

His will that all of them shall be dutiful and happy, is called His antecedent, or conditional, will: but after taking account of their free choice, He determines that they shall be rewarded or punished by His consequent, or absolute, will. His permissive will consists simply in refusing to hinder their free acts; in this sense, He willed, for instance, the persecution of Nero.

This is from a work titled A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion by Fr. Charles Coppens SJ.

My apologies, none of these are from infallible sources, but they all have far greater authority than my word alone. And right now I'm wiping my forehead from the sweat of thinking that I was slipping back into my old protestant ways. :-D

Google "permissive will" Catholic and you should come up with a fairly large number of references. I hope this helps.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 4:24 PM

Dear Ryan,

Just an interesting note. Nearly everyone agrees on "permissive will" but there seem to be as many terms for it's counterpart as there are people. I was used to the word "ordained." But in searching I've seen perfect, absolute, decretal, and probably several others. It becomes a hot topic in the Calvinist v. Catholic discussions.



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 5, 2006 4:40 PM

I see you've got something like 40+ comments on a post about T.S. Elio- er, I mean salvation. Those are Kreitzbergian numbers! Twould seem that your tranquil tidepool is less private than I thought. One has the sensation of privacy over here but you must have a lot of lurkers.

Posted by: TSO at April 6, 2006 3:21 PM

Dear TSO,

I like to think of it as intimate, inclusive, and relatively small. But for certain events, I have people coming from all over the blogosphere. Never fear, the tranquility has returned, the tide pool has once again regained its composure. All is quiet again.

(Yours is the first comment of the day.)



Posted by: Steven Riddle at April 6, 2006 4:03 PM

Steven wrote, Sorry to inundate you

No need for apologies! I haven't gotten that much theological "homework help" in a long time, if ever. Thank you, and I will be digging through it slowly. Thanks again, Ryan.

Posted by: RyanHerr at April 6, 2006 5:12 PM

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