Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Misunderstanding of Catholic Predestination

There are many people who do not know what the Catholic Church teaches on predestination. Many people avoid the subject because they are afraid of what they might learn about it. I have also heard Reformed apologists tell their audiences that the Catholic position denies God's sovereignty. They tell people that the Catholic position presumes that man chooses his own eternal destiny apart from the sovereignty of God. Catholics are often falsely called Semi-Pelagians, which is also not the case. I wanted to give a basic explanation of the Catholic position on predestination.

There are two basic concepts that must believed in order to hold a Catholic position. They combat the dire sins of presumption and despair. This subject cannot be elaborated on in one small blog post such as this one. There have been volumes written on this subject by great theologians that I am nowhere in the same league with, such as St Thomas, St Augustine, St. Bellarmine and the like. It is a mystery that will never be fully understood until we reach eternity. With that being understood, here is a very condensed summary of the Catholic teaching of predestination. I hope that there will be others who can come by to further expound on this post in the com-boxes.

Here are the two basic premises a Catholic must hold, as I understand them.

Premise one, God's predestination of efficacious and gratuitous grace.

1. Man cannot be saved without the efficacious and gratuitous grace given by God alone. The elect that God chooses are are not chosen because God foresees how the elect will respond to His grace, but because of His grace alone. The Council of Trent tells us that the gift of final perseverance cannot be obtained or merited, but it is given by God as a gift. Complete predestination, which includes first grace, as well as a series of graces up until glorification, is gratuitous and is chosen by God previous to foreseen merits. It is not based upon God's foreknowledge. Finally no man can boast of being better than another, because it is God's grace only that can elevate man to being better than another, not one's own choices or works. If we say that we choose or act better than another apart from God's grace, and as a result we are saved because of that choice or act, then we surely will be able to boast that we are better than another.

Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, " It is impossible that the whole of the effect of predestination in general should have any cause as coming from us; because whatsoever is in man disposing him toward salvation, is all included under the effect of predestination; even preparation for grace."

Canon 20 Council of Orange.
"That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it."

Even prayer is a gift from God.

Council of Orange Canon 3.
"If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle who says the same thing, "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (Rom 10:20, quoting Isa. 65:1)."

The Council of Trent tells us,

Chapter XIII
The Gift Of Perseverance

"Similarly with regard to the gift of perseverance, of which it is written:

He that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved, which cannot be obtained from anyone except from Him who is able to make him stand who stands, that he may stand perseveringly, and to raise him who falls, let no one promise himself herein something as certain with an absolute certainty, though all ought to place and repose the firmest hope in God's help."

Canon 1.
"If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law,[110] without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema."

The second principal is the condemnation of predestination to evil, which concerns man's freewill and God's goodness and will to save all men.

2. God did not predestine anyone to evil, or to hell. The penalty of damnation is a result of man's final impenitence, not caused by God, but only permitted by Him. So when a man commits evil, he does so willfully. When man does good, he is helped by God's grace. God also in some way wills that all men be saved, but not all men will be saved. Man is saved by God's grace, and man is condemned by his own freewill. God did not remove freewill from man. If man had no freewill God's justice would mean nothing. Councils such as Thuzey, Trent and Quierzy affirm that God wills all men to be saved and that God does not predestine evil.

The Council of Quierzy.
"That some are saved is the gift of Him who saves... That some perish, is the fault of those who perish."

Man also can never presume that he is among the elect and that he will never lose his salvation or choose to freely commit evil.

Canon 16 of Trent.
"If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation,[120] let him be anathema."

Man can also co-operate with God's grace. In other words man is not an inanimate object, but is able to freely co-operate with God's grace or even reject it. This however does not upset God's predestination to the elect. It is not as if man is thwarting God.

Canon 4 of Trent.
"If anyone says that man's free will moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God's call and action, in no way cooperates toward disposing and preparing itself to obtain the grace of justification, that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes, but that, as something inanimate, it does nothing whatever and is merely passive, let him be anathema."

These two basic premises are what a Catholic has to work with. They seem to be contradictory at first glance, and they are indeed difficult to understand. There are a few different positions among Catholics on how to reconcile these two truths: God wills all men to be saved, (I Tim 2:4) and God predestines some to be saved. (Rom 8:29). Why God leaves some men to their own freewill destruction and chooses others to be saved is a mystery that none of us will know until eternity. We cannot know or understand the mind of God. These two truths should keep us on the boat, neither falling into despair, nor into presumption. No man can know for sure if he is predestined, and yet man knows that he should rely on God for everything, even prayer. God's sovereignty is never upset, and the fact that men can choose how they live and respond to God is never compromised. Somehow all of this falls into God's sovereign creation, a creation that he predestines, yet allows to remain free.

As I have warned, this is not an exhaustive look at this subject. It only lays down a bare minimum understanding of God's sovereignty in predestination, and God's will that man may be able to make free choices. We cannot deny God's predestination of the elect, and we cannot deny that God gave man freewill. I welcome those who would like to reconcile the two using various theological positions such as the Augustinian, Molinist or the Thomistic schools of thought, for example.

Credit where credit is due.

I pulled most of this information from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's book "Predestination." For more information on how theologians have tried to reconcile these facts you can start with the following internet sources.

Canons of the Council of Trent. (See Canons Concerning Justification)

The first part of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's book. I would suggest buying the book and reading it. I would love to hear from those who have read Lagrange's book. Feel free to clarify anything I might have missed or anything that needs to be stated more clearly. This is certainly not an easy subject to examine.


Jeph said...

It is true that God gave man a free determination of will with regards to righteousness and evil at the point of creation. But the Council of Ephesus (431) and Orange (529) declare that when man fell by his own fault unto Sin, he brought all mankind with him in his plight. All are born in Sin and are devoid of liberty with regards to any spiritual good accompanying Salvation. They remain free, in that they willfully feed the sinful passions of their flesh, but they aren't free to think, will, act, nor do anything good in and of themselves apart from the divine enablement. Hence, the Councils mentioned concluded that God's grace is absolutely necessary in desiring and performing any virtue affecting their relationship with God.

Calvinists call this teaching as TOTAL DEPRAVITY, and this is one key factor in the Calvinist system (and/or Augustinianism) in the attempt to reconcile God's sovereignty in Salvation and human responsibility.

God could have thrown all undeserving filthy humans in hell due to their Sins and depravity, but He chose to save some and predestined them to acquire the gift of regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and final glorification.

Augustine said...

The very thought of predestination terrifies me. I generally know the Church's position; we have the freewill to determine our own destiny (even though God knows how it will turn out and so it is predestined?). I don't get it! I wish I could find a plain-English Catholic writing on the subject. I only have three university degrees so I can only understand plain English. This question is very serious. Luther is said to have stated something like 'if a man is already saved (by predestination)then even a thousand fornications and murders will not condemn him'. What to do, if anything, and, why bother? The Church merely saying that we don't believe in predestination answers nothing and one thing my three degrees taught me is to generally ignore long-winded tomes that beat the question but do not answer it, in plain English. I long ago should have heeded both the prophet and the philosopher who said 'don't think too much, it will only confuse and depress you.' This is a most important and profound conundrum that begs for a clear answer.

Matthew Bellisario said...

I agree that this is an important subject. However there are some things that we are just not going to understand completely. I suggest getting a copy of Fr. Lagrange's book, 'Predestination.'

You can find it here.

Bob Hazel said...

I have always believed that predestination is God's gift to those who believe in Him. I too am a sinner who acknowledges that as His children we are forgiven Original sin and that because of that forgiveness we are guided in that faith to be a good person and shun evil. It is our responsibility to then live our life through that Forgiveness as the sinners we always will be. As long as we live according to His plan we are rewarded on this life with all good things as simple and minuscule as they appear. Sinning is in His plan and as we acknowledge our sins and strive as we can to be more perfect, He shows us that He is in control of our lives.

asker42 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
asker42 said...

Check out the work by Fr. William Most. He wrote a book called "New Answers to Old Questions". It can be found online. He argued that people are saved by God's free gift alone, but people are damned by their rejection of God's gift. God has foreknowledge of how people will respond. This is the opposite of Molinism because predistination doesn't reside in how good the elect are, but rather in how the elect respond to God.

A person is not credited with their salvation, but are responsible for their condemnation.

Redentor de la Rosa said...

Augustine, you can try this:

Mark Hausam said...

Hello! Thanks for the post. I am a convert to the Church from Calvinism, and so am very interested in exploring the Catholic doctrine of predestination and comparing it to the Calvinist position. I've recently been doing a bit of writing on the subject If anyone is interested, this is something I've recently written up on the subject. My analysis agrees basically with yours.

Have a good day!