We can consider, as a hypothetical, what other plans of salvation God might have chosen. He might have chosen not to create humanity, or not to create anything. He might have chosen not to allow Adam and Eve to procreate the human race after their fall from grace. And even given that God decided to create a human race, with billions of individual human persons, He might have chosen a different means of salvation: "though one blood drop, which thence did fall, accepted, would have served, He yet shed all." (John Donne) But God did choose a particular plan of salvation, and the Magisterium does have definitive teachings about that plan. And God is unable to change His mind about that plan, since God is unchanging perfection.
It still seems to me an open question as to how wide a range of choice God could have exercised in the plan of salvation. God cannot choose to do evil, not because He is constrained by anything exterior to Himself, but because He is Good by His very Nature. But God is also Perfection by His very Nature. And so He cannot make choices that would be foolish or contradictory or, it also seems to me, in any way substantially contrary to that Perfection. Of course, what seems imperfect to us, who are imperfection, may in truth be perfect to the One who is Perfection. But when we look at the plan of salvation chosen by God, even from our imperfect point of view, it is very good. I cannot imagine a more perfect plan of salvation.
It is sometimes said that God does not have to offer salvation to everyone, that He might freely choose to offer salvation to some persons, but not others. I disagree. It would be contrary to the infinite perfection and infinite mercy of God not to offer salvation to all fallen sinners. It would be contrary to the infinite love of God, if God were to create a human soul without sanctifying grace, and also choose not to allow any possible way for that soul to obtain sanctifying grace and eternal life. But even if one grants such a hypothetical, that God does not have to offer salvation to everyone, the Magisterium teaches that God has in fact chosen a plan of salvation based on a universal offer of salvation to all human persons. It remains a tenable theological position that God could have chosen a different plan of salvation, one without such a universal offer. But it would be contrary to the teaching of the Church to deny that God has chosen to offer the possibility of salvation to all human persons.
This concept is called the universal salvific will of God.
"In the New Testament, the universal salvific will of God is closely connected to the sole mediation of Christ: '[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all' (1 Tim 2:4-6)." (Cardinal Ratzinger, Dominus Jesus, n. 13)
"Vatican II adds that the Church is 'a sacrament. . . of the unity of all mankind.' [Lumen Gentium, n. 1] Obviously it is a question of the unity -- which the human race which in itself is differentiated in various ways -- has from God and in God. This unity has its roots in the mystery of creation and acquires a new dimension in the mystery of the Redemption, which is ordered to universal salvation. Since God 'wishes all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,' [1 Tim 2:4] the Redemption includes all humanity and in a certain way all of creation. In the same universal dimension of Redemption the Holy Spirit is acting, by virtue of the 'departure of Christ.' Therefore the Church, rooted through her own mystery in the Trinitarian plan of salvation with good reason regards herself as the 'sacrament of the unity of the whole human race.' She knows that she is such through the power of the Holy Spirit, of which power she is a sign and instrument in the fulfillment of God's salvific plan." (Pope John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, n. 64)
Therefore, no human person is unable to be saved by Christ and His Church. The offer of salvation from God to every created human person is part of the salvific plan of God. Regardless of what we hypothesize that God might have otherwise chosen, He did choose to offer salvation to the whole human race, to each and every human person.
Some theological positions are incompatible with the teaching of the Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God.
The view of Calvinism: God predestines some persons to Heaven, and other persons to Hell (double predestination). There is no pivotal role for free will in this view of predestination. Some persons are chosen by God to go to Hell, and others to Heaven, but neither choice of God is based on our cooperation with grace, nor on our personal sins. God's grace is all-powerful, and therefore His grace cannot fail. We know that some persons do end up in Heaven, and others in Hell, so these final destinations must have been chosen by God, or else He would not be all-powerful. Why does God so choose? For reasons beyond what anyone can understand at all. Such is the claim of Calvinism, and of some Catholics who have fallen into Calvinistic errors.
To the contrary, God's all-powerful grace is loving and humble and merciful. He does not use His grace to overpower free will; such is not the way with love. God wills that all human persons be saved. But given the fact that some persons freely choose to commit one or more actual mortal sins, and do not choose to repent, God wills not to take away or nullify their free will by His all-powerful grace. This is not the failure of grace, but the respect of grace for the free choice of the will. For God treats every sinner as a true human person, not as an object, and He does not nullify or marginalize the gifts of intellect and free will, which are what make us truly human and truly persons, rather than animals or objects.
But Calvin makes another serious error, one that is often overlooked. He holds that the choice of God concerning our salvation is so mysterious that it cannot be understood at all. To the contrary, mysteries that are beyond complete human comprehension are not beyond partial human apprehension. We are able to understand even the greatest mystery, the mystery of the Trinity, to a limited extent. Therefore, it is not true that the choices of God concerning our final destinations are beyond what anyone can understand, even partially. Calvin essentially proposes a complete separation between what faith and reason can understand and what God chooses concerning salvation. So he errs in this regard also.
The view of Lutheranism: God predestines some persons to Heaven. All other persons are not predestined to Hell, but are merely passed over (passively omitted) from predestination to Heaven (single predestination). What is the final destination of these passively omitted persons? It can only be Hell. But don't worry, you eternal denizens of never-ending punishment, God did not choose to send you to Hell, He merely chose not to send you to Heaven, and there was no other place to put you. This erroneous view of salvation has also, unfortunately, made some in-roads among the faithful.
To the contrary, there is no substantial difference between double predestination and single predestination. Both views give no cardinal role to free will. Both views allow that the sole fundamental reason a soul is sent to Hell is a mysterious choice of God, beyond even partial apprehension of the human mind, and not related to free will or personal sin. Both of these views must be rejected by faithful Catholics. For both views deny the Catholic doctrine, taught by Sacred Scripture (1 Tim 2:4) and the Magisterium, of the universal salvific will of God. Christ suffered and died to offer salvation to all human persons. To claim that some persons are predestined to Hell, irrespective of free will, is in effect an accusation against Christ. It is as if His sacrifice were too small, or as if His love were too stingy, to offer salvation to all.
Grace and Free Will
Grace is the effect of the Divine Nature on the created person. In the case of human persons, grace effects a change in the human soul. Grace does not exist on its own; it has no substance. It cannot be literally transferred from one person to another. When grace is obtained by intercession, the grace is not handed from God to the intercessor to the recipient. Rather, by that intercession, God directly affects the human soul.
Grace does not exist apart from free will. Grace is not given to material objects, or to plants, or even to animals. Since grace is an effect on the intellect and free will, any created thing without intellect and free will cannot receive grace. The Blessed Virgin Mary was able to receive sanctifying grace in the first moment of her creation, because she (like each of us) was created with a human soul, possessing intellect and free will.
The word 'grace' is never correctly understood, never correctly defined, apart from free will. The meaning of grace must incorporate the meaning of free will. To define grace without reference to free will is to fall into a Calvinistic or deterministic view of the human person and salvation. Grace has no meaning apart from free will.
Prevenient actual grace makes the human will truly free to choose. Subsequent actual grace assists the free will in choosing good. There is no way to define grace, nor even to describe its action, apart from free will. Sanctifying grace orders the free will toward the love of God above all else, and toward the love of neighbor as self. The will remains free to choose, and so sanctifying grace can be lost by the full and free choice of actual mortal sin. And therein lies the cause of the eternal loss of salvation: free will acting contrary to grace, with full knowledge and full deliberation, by choosing to commit mortal sin, with a refusal to repent through the last moment of life.
"God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end." (CCC 1037)
Predestination and Free Will
Does God predestine some persons to Heaven? The answer depends on the definition of predestination. I think that the Calvinistic definition of predestination has become also the popular definition. In other words, what the average layperson, Catholic or Protestant, considers the word predestination to mean, is that God chooses who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell, apart from any choices of their free will. Under that definition, we should say, "God predestines no one to Heaven and no one to Hell." However, that is not the proper theological definition.
Does God predestine some persons to Hell? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that He does not. However, this assertion is followed, in the same sentence, by the assertion that free will is the determinant of who does to Hell. Elsewhere, the CCC teaches that God is all-knowing (208, 215-217), and unchanging (212, 260, 467, 469), and that He offers His salvific grace to all (74, 851).
God offers salvation to all human persons, including all graces whatsoever needed for that salvation. There is no human person who is unable to be saved by the grace of God, through the Church (the sole Ark of Salvation). God knows from all eternity who will go to Heaven and who will go to Hell. But free will is the determinant factor. If, hypothetically, God were to withhold His grace, no one would be saved. But the Church definitively teaches that God wills that all persons be saved, and so He does not withhold any graces necessary to salvation from anyone, no matter how extraordinary that grace might seem to be. Although grace is greater than free will, the mercy of God is such that free will becomes the determining factor of who goes to Hell. As the CCC teaches, in order to end in Hell, "a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end." (1037)
If free will determines who goes to Hell, then how could such an outcome be called predestination? It is because the proper definition of predestination includes free will, just as the proper definition of grace includes free will. Grace is meaningless without free will; grace does not exist apart from the free will of created persons. Similarly, predestination is meaningless without free will; predestination does not exist apart from the universal salvific will of God, His grace sufficient for the salvation of each person, His foreknowledge of who will be saved, and the free will of the created person.
"To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of 'predestination', he includes in it each person's free response to his grace...." (CCC 600).
God's foreknowledge is not literally knowledge in advance (although it seems that way to us). Rather, God is beyond Time and entirely unbounded by Time. So all the moments of time are the same to God, who is Eternity. The response of free will to grace is inherent to the very definition of predestination, as is the knowledge of God and the graces from His universal salvific will.
With this proper definition of predestination, we can say that the elect are predestined to Heaven, and even that the condemned are predestined to Hell. God does not predestine anyone to Hell in the sense of a choice by God apart from the choice of the individual to commit an actual mortal sin and to persist in that sin until death. But God does predestine some persons to Hell in the sense that He knows that they will freely choose to commit an actual mortal sin, and will freely refuse to repent, despite His gifts of ample grace for salvation.
Baptism and the Universal Salvific Will of God
There are three types of Baptism:
1. by water, which is the formal Sacrament of Baptism
2. by desire, which is a non-formal Baptism
3. by blood, which is also a non-formal Baptism
Each of these types of baptism grants sanctifying grace. No mere human person can enter Heaven unless he or she dies in a state of sanctifying grace. And sanctifying grace is only granted by one of the three types of Baptism.
Therefore, the Blessed Virgin Mary's Immaculate Conception included (but also far exceeded) a type of baptism. Her baptism was of the Blood of Christ, since her Immaculate Conception was effected by the merits of Christ dying for our salvation on the Cross.
A human person who is baptized has sanctifying grace, and he or she can only lose sanctifying grace by an actual mortal sin. Repentance from actual mortal sin is necessary to return to a state of sanctifying grace. Whoever loses the state of grace by actual mortal sin, and persists in refusing to repent until death, dies in a state of actual mortal sin and is sent by God to Hell. According to the CCC, 1037, this is the only path to Hell.
What happens, then, if a human person does not receive a formal Baptism, and he or she dies as an adult? Do such individuals have no opportunity to avoid Hell? The doctrine of the universal salvific will of God implies that all such adults have the opportunity for salvation. They could obtain sanctifying grace by a baptism of desire, or a baptism of blood.
Can an adult who does not obtain any form of baptism be innocent of any actual mortal sin and therefore deserve neither Heaven (no sanctifying grace), nor Hell (no actual mortal sin)? No, for God wills all persons to be saved, therefore He gives all persons ample opportunity to obtain sanctifying grace. An adult who fails to obtain any form of baptism, and who dies without sanctifying grace, therefore dies having committed the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace, despite ample opportunity.
The Council of Florence infallibly defined that persons who die in a state of actual mortal sin, or original sin alone, go to Hell. The CCC teaches that the commission of actual mortal sin and persistence in it through the last moment of life (which persistence is called final impenitence) is necessary for anyone to go to Hell. Either both assertions are true, and therefore dying in a state of original sin alone is a special type of actual mortal sin, or the CCC has asserted a heresy (one that no one has noticed or objected to since its publication).
The solution to this apparent conflict is clear and simple. Since sanctifying grace takes away original sin, those persons who die unrepentant from the actual mortal sin of omission of never having found sanctifying grace in their lives, despite ample opportunity, are said to die in a state of original sin alone. Even if such persons have committed no other actual mortal sins, and no actual mortal sins of commission, they nevertheless die in a state of final impenitence. For they refused the grace of God, offered amply in their lives, which would have brought them into a state of grace.
Feeneyism is the heresy of denying that non-formal baptism exists; Feeneyism denies that it is possible to obtain sanctifying grace by means other than the formal Sacrament of Baptism. This heretical claim rejects the teaching of the universal salvific will of God. Those persons who have no access to formal Baptism, perhaps because Christ has not been preached to them, are said to have no possibility to reach eternal life in Heaven.
Mitigated Feeneyism is a term I use to refer to the idea that non-formal baptism is not available to prenatals, infants, and little children who die without formal Baptism. Feeneyism denies non-formal baptism as a possible means of salvation for anyone, whereas mitigated Feeneyism denies the possibility of a non-formal baptism for the vast majority of little children.
The case of prenatals who die in the womb from abortion or miscarriage is particularly clear. They are unable to receive the formal Sacrament of Baptism. Regardless of whether their parents are Christian or not, they cannot be baptized with water. Therefore, only two possibilities remain.
1. Either they receive a non-formal baptism (of desire or of blood) sometime prior to death, or
2. they cannot receive eternal salvation in Heaven at all.
If the second case is true, then the universal salvific will of God is thwarted by abortionists, and by accidental death in the womb (miscarriage). If so, then a human person can lose his eternal salvation by the ill will of another person, the woman who chose the abortion, or the persons who forced abortion on her (as happens in China). If the second case is true, then a human person can lose his eternal salvation by mere accident, without any sin by anyone. If so, then the millions, perhaps billions, of human persons who have died in the womb throughout human history (and who will die in the womb in the future), are beyond the reach of the Church to save.
Worse still, if the second case is true, then the teaching of the Church on the universal salvific will of God would be false. The Church teaches that God wills all human persons to be saved, if they refrain from the only unforgivable sin (final impenitence). Moreover, if persons can be sent to Hell for original sin, without actual mortal sin and final impenitence, then the teaching of Jesus that all men's sins will be forgiven (Mt 12:30-32), other than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (that is, final impenitence), would be a false teaching. For no one claims that original sin is a type of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, nor a type of final impenitence.
But the second case cannot be true. Such a claim is not a tenable theological position, because the position rejects the ordinary teaching of the Magisterium in CCC 1037, and would even imply a direct contradiction of the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium on the universal salvific will of God.
What would be the reason that God would deny a non-formal Baptism to prenatals in the womb, who have no possibility whatsoever of obtaining a formal Baptism (by water)? Given the magisterial teaching that God wills all persons to be saved, and the very same direct assertion in Sacred Scripture (1 Tim 2:4), there is no theological basis for asserting that God would deny these souls salvation.
Therefore, the first case is true. All prenatals who die in the womb receive a non-formal baptism from Christ, by virtue of His suffering and death on the Cross, and they die in a state of sanctifying grace. They will all have eternal salvation in Heaven forever. No other conclusion is possible, at this point in the development of doctrine.
Why isn't it possible for us today to take the position asserted by St. Augustine, or St. Aquinas, or other reliable sources in Church history, that these children die without sanctifying grace, and therefore are denied Heaven? The answer is that the Magisterium has continued to teach and to clarify the teachings of Tradition and Scripture, since that time.
The theological opinion of a Saint can be mistaken. St. Thomas Aquinas (and also St. Albert the great) held an erroneous position on the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary (prior to the decision of the Magisterium on that question). If any Catholic today were to adopt that same position, he would be committing the objective mortal sin of heresy. For the Magisterium has decided the question of the Immaculate Conception, and the decision was contrary to the opinions of some of the Saints.
This one example is sufficient to prove that we cannot justify any theological position MERELY by citing a Saint or several Saints who held that same position prior to several hundred additional years of magisterial teachings. To ignore the teaching of the Magisterium, especially over an extensive period of time, is a sin of omission -- and a severe methodological error as well.
Once we realize that the universal salvific will of God implies that prenatals who die at that young age are given a non-formal Baptism (prior to death), we must admit that this would necessarily be the case for infants and little children as well. It would be absurd to claim that a human person who dies at a very young age is saved if he dies some time before birth, but is lost if he dies some time after birth (absent actual mortal sin).
Even though the born infant has the possibility of a baptism of water, the vast majority of infants who have died at that young age have not received a baptism of water. Most of the peoples of the world have been non-Christian, even to the present day. Many of the areas of the world where infant mortality is appallingly high are non-Christian areas. The infant who dies without a baptism of water has not committed an actual mortal sin of omission by not obtaining sanctifying grace; he or she has not refused baptism. So again, either the universal salvific will of God is thwarted by the 'accident' of whether an infant is born into a Christian family or not, or else God grants such infants a non-formal baptism.
There is no reason to deny that a non-formal baptism is available to infants. I am not speaking rhetorically when I refer to such a denial of non-formal Baptism to those who die very young as a type of Feeneyism. Such an idea is entirely incompatible with the Roman Catholic Faith at this point in the development of doctrine.
If infants are denied eternal salvation in Heaven, despite not having committed any actual mortal sin, then the teaching of Christ that only one sin is unforgivable is false, and the teaching of the Church on the universal salvific will of God is false. If so, then some human persons are denied Heaven for no reason pertaining to their own free will.
And this, in effect, redefines predestination, contrary to the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Predestination then becomes deterministic, because it is divorced from free will. In effect, these prenatals and infants would be predestined to Hell, in the Calvinistic sense of predestination, since they had no real opportunity for salvation. We could only conclude that the Providence and Grace of God decided to deny Heaven to these little souls, regardless of their free will and lack of personal sin, for no reason that we could understand, even partially.
This erroneous theological position would even redefine salvation for adults. For if an infant can lose Heaven without any personal sin, how can we sinful adults be saved? It is absurd to claim that the Mercy of God extends to adults who have committed many mortal sins and innumerable venial sins, but not to an infant who has not committed a single venial sin.
As for little children, who can understand right from wrong sufficiently to commit a venial sin, but not to such an extent as to commit an actual mortal sin (with full knowledge and full deliberation), they are entirely unable to commit the only unforgivable sin, final impenitence. Therefore, we again must conclude that they are given sanctifying grace in a non-formal Baptism, if they die at that young age. The same considerations as for prenatals and infants also apply to these young children.
It is not clear at what age an unbaptized person will have received sufficient opportunity for a non-formal baptism that he would be guilty of an actual mortal sin of omission for not having obtained sanctifying grace, despite ample opportunity. Some allowance for grave circumstances must be considered. A person who is so severely afflicted by a physical or mental disorder that he does not have ample opportunity to obtain a baptism of desire or of blood, would essentially be categorized with little children for the purposes of salvation. Even a person who is not so afflicted might be 'handicapped' by circumstances, so that God would grant the person whatever additional help was needed.
What is entirely clear is that the universal salvific will of God cannot be thwarted by circumstances. All human persons have ample opportunity to obtain eternal salvation in Heaven. All philosophical and theological theories to the contrary must be discarded, since these ideas are contrary to the current teaching of the Magisterium.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator
18 September 2011
For more on the topic of Catholic soteriology, see chapter 30, 'Grace and Salvation,' in my book: The Catechism of Catholic Ethics