Do Catholics Believe in Predestination?

Blog submission from Richard Bernier for NCSS

Do Catholics believe in predestination? And if so, does that mean God loves human beings “unequally”?

These are heavy questions, for if the answer to them is “yes” or even “maybe,” it may leave us wondering where we sit on the spectrum of God’s love and on the spectrum of salvation. That kind of uncertainty certainly doesn’t feel like “good news”, which is what Jesus said He came to announce (see, for example, Mark 1:14 – εὐαγγέλιον means “good news”, and when we translate it “gospel” we are just using a fine old-timey English word that means “good news”). Where’s the good news in wondering if God loves me more or less, wondering if I am predestined or not?

First things first. Spoiler alert: None of us is predestined to be lost. Though I am giving away my punchline, this is not the sort of worry that Christ’s Church is in the business of sowing; it is the worry that drove poor William Cowper mad, and who knows how many other lesser-known but no less God-loved souls besides.

No human being who has ever been created was created for damnation, created with no possible fate except to be lost. Not Judas, not Mao, not me, not you, not the guy who invented spray cheese, none of us was created with the inexorable fate or destiny of being lost. “God our Saviour… desires all [people] to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4, RSV). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, shortly after using the word “predestination” (more on that later!), cites and makes its own the blunt affirmation of the ninth-century local Council of Quiercy:

The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all [people] without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (para. 605).

In the richest sense of the wry and threadbare phrase, there is hope for us all. Why is there hope for us all? Because our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate, and lived, and died, and rose again for every person. He came to destroy death for every one of us. He came to conquer sin and the enemy of our souls, he was made flesh and dwelt among us, so that we might all “have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). God’s love for us is not a grudging concession; it is, rather, what God does because He is God. Bonum est diffusivum sui, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (Summa theologiae, I, q. 5, a. 4): the good is diffusive of itself. The cosmos exists, being is, because God in His Godly love has created this immense and magnificent cosmos in a diffusion of His Godly goodness. The Incarnation makes communion with the Holy Trinity – eternal life, to call it by another name – a possibility for every soul, from the newly-conceived zygote or embryo whose own mother is as yet unaware of his or her existence, to Jean Vanier or St Edith Stein, to the most heinous and far-gone villain you can imagine. A possibility, I say, not a certainty: we are not inexorably predestined to damnation, but we are not even inexorably predestined to salvation either. Salvation is a possibility for all of us because God loves us all, and Christ lived and died and rose for us all; perdition is a possibility for most of us, because most of us are free. (The Church baptizes babies and the profoundly disabled because they too are called to the eternal life that begins at Baptism, but they are not free at the present time, they are not in any position to reject God – and therefore they are in no danger of perdition).

So it really makes no sense to think of God’s love for creation or for humanity or (more precisely) for each human being as “equal” or “unequal”. Love is not quantifiable, so what does “equal” love even mean? Yes, it is part of the human condition to have much more affection for some people than for others; even a parent or teacher will have a soft spot for this or that child, a secret (or even not-so-secret) warmth for one more than for another. The Incarnate God, Jesus Christ, in His humanity, was no exception to this very human trait: He had a soft spot for the disciple John (see John 13:23), and looked “with love” on the rich young man in his confusion and struggle (Mark 10:21). This asymmetry of affection is not the same as loving unequally: a good dad who secretly and quite naturally has a soft spot for one of his children in particular still genuinely wants and wills what is best for all of his children. In that sense, love is not measured primarily by the feelings associated with it but by the decisions it motivates, and a good mum or dad will act for the genuine good of all his or her children. God is not subject to the vagaries of human changes of affection; He is not petty, or cold, or resentful, so we need not fear any of the fickleness or whim that can make human love treacherous or unpredictable. By the only measure that matters – the measure of will – God’s love for each of us is beyond quantifying. Does God want eternal life for me? Yes. Does He want eternal life for you? Yes. Does He want it for everyone? Yes. Welcome to the club, where all are “equally” loved beyond measure – literally beyond measure, beyond any yardstick of equality or inequality that could possibly matter. The effects of God’s love are as different as human beings are different, I suppose, and we won’t grasp the whole drama of human and salvation history until the final fulfilment of things; but in the meantime, “equality” or “inequality” of God’s love is a meaningless measure.

God loves us all in the Godly way of loving, which is beyond human comprehension; and He wills that we should all have eternal life, pending our free acceptance of that unmerited gift. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, echoing I Timothy 2:4, speaks of the “universal saving will of God” (para. 1256). Every day, each of us is the recipient of countless gifts that vary widely from person to person – health, insight, friendship, strength, cheerfulness, opportunities, and so forth – that the Catholic tradition thinks of as “created graces”. A “grace” is simply an unmerited gift, and we all receive created graces by the sheer fact of existing. I have received much more than some, and less than others; but without wasting time on comparing my lot with anyone else’s, I have plenty to be grateful for, starting with the startling fact of my very existence. Besides these created graces, however, the Catholic tradition also speaks of uncreated grace, also called sanctifying or habitual grace, which is really the gift of God Himself: communion, friendship with the Holy Trinity, the gift of God’s presence and action in my being, inaugurated at Baptism and Confirmation, healed in Confession, and nourished and renewed by His real presence in the holy Eucharist. Eternal life consists of this uncreated grace, this communion with God, extended beyond death and the ravages of time, into the resurrected body to which we may all look forward.

What, then, of predestination? In my view, it is (with all due respect to the distinguished theologians who have used the term) a red herring. The only version of predestination that is compatible with the Catholic faith is so much unlike what we naturally understand “predestination” to mean that I think it would be much better not to use the term at all. Right off the bat, the Catholic faith rejects any notion that anyone is “destined” to be damned. That notion of predestination is, to my mind, frankly monstrous. So if we use the word “predestined”, we have to exclude any notion that anyone is “destined” to be lost; but that idea merely seems like the most logical flip-side of the claim that some people are “destined” to be saved. It begins to look like the only version of being “pre-destined” that is compatible with the Catholic faith must exclude any notion of being “destined” at all. It’s as if I chose to describe a certain bird as a mammal; “But wait!” you object; “doesn’t a mammal by definition have mammary glands? Does this bird have mammary glands?”. “No,” I answer cleverly, “it does not. It is a mammal in the non-mammalian sense”. Right. Perhaps another word would be better, no?

So where does this Catholic use of the term “pre-destination” come from? It comes, in my view, from a classic and vexing problem in Christian philosophy (and even theistic philosophy generally): if God knows what I am going to do, how am I free to do differently? If God knows today that tomorrow I will choose the soup over the salad, then it seems like I am not really free to choose the salad. Thus (the puzzle continues) if God knows the future, and therefore the future cannot be otherwise, then He must know if someone is saved or lost; but someone who is saved is only saved by the grace of God, which is unmerited; therefore God must have willed to give that person the necessary grace from all eternity, which may be true enough. By extension, however, it has been argued – quite wrongly, I think – that grace is wasted on a person whom God knows will reject it, so perhaps He doesn’t offer it, thus sparing the person the tragedy of digging himself an even deeper hole.

I have very little patience with such logical contortions. There is an immense literature on the problems of God’s knowledge of the future, on freedom, on the distinction between “God predicting the future with high accuracy” versus “knowing it as a present fact because He is outside time”; I will not attempt to summarize the issues here, largely because I have a hunch that they are mostly irrelevant and unsolvable. What does it mean for God to perceive as a present fact that which is, for me, merely a future possibility ? How does God perceive in eternity (which encompasses the present and the future) a future that does not yet exist, at least as far as I can see? To be frank, I don’t even begin to understand what it means to be “outside time”. Without intending any irreverence, I am tempted to observe this: I grew up with cats, and I am very fond of them, but I have not the faintest idea of how cats perceive the world and time; so how can I possibly expect to understand how God interacts with time? If I cannot understand the feline mind, then understanding the divine mind is definitely above my pay grade. This is not meant to be flippant, but to point out that grasping even human knowledge, grasping even animal knowledge, is a longstanding and thorny puzzle for the philosophical discipline of epistemology; we ought to be exceedingly hesitant to make sweeping claims about what God’s knowledge is like, especially if scurrying down that rabbit hole means losing sight of far more fundamental and certain realities, such as the goodness of God, and the foundation of our hope.

Instead, the Scriptures and the Catholic faith, while acknowledging the troubling mystery of sin and rebellion, largely consign “predestination” in most senses to the dustbin, because they clearly and vigorously affirm these far more important pieces of good news instead:

  • God definitely loves you (no matter who you are) and wants you to be in communion with Him for eternity; in a word, He wants you to be saved.
  • Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and the sacraments, and the free work of the Holy Spirit, you (no matter who you are) have available to you everything you need to be saved – simply because God loves you beyond measure. You have no need (or even any possibility) to try to earn it.
  • The only thing that can thwart God’s plan for your salvation is the freedom He Himself gave you – for you are free to sin and to reject eternal life. Even if you have done so, you still have the chance to return to Him; but if you finally, ultimatelyresolve to reject Him, He will not force you to accept Him. However, there is nothing forcing you to reject Him, so entrust yourself to His grace each day and be filled with hope.

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