Gambling with souls: The choice for or against God
Reading Phil Lawler’s commentary about Archbishop Viganòs concern for souls, I cannot help reflecting on the misunderstandings which rob so many pastors of the same concern. Much of this can be traced to that spiritual cowardice which passes for a prudent refusal to give offense, but there are other reasons concern for souls has gone out of fashion.
Let us examine this problem under four headings: Universalism, Psychology, Immanence, and Empathy. What we will see is that the very essence of saving souls consists in offering people a choice. But we live in a culture which believes there is no choice to be made.
Universalism is the theological error that all human beings are saved. Hans Urs von Balthasar pertinently asked whether we dare to hope that all will be saved, and though this has caused some consternation among his critics, it is certainly acceptable to hope that Our Lord will find a way to bring every single human person into union with Himself. Scripture itself states clearly that this is what God desires (1 Tim 2:3-4), and when we offer our own sacrifices for the good of souls, we engage in a salutary practice of that hope. But it is an error to conclude from Revelation (or from our own private ideas!) that all will indeed be saved, especially since the majority of Scriptural texts tend to weigh against that conclusion.
Nonetheless, a number of factors in modern history have conspired to generate what we might call a practical universalism among a great many Catholics—and, I dare say, even a legitimately greater awareness among my readers of the extensive possibilities for salvation compared with, say, fifty or a hundred years ago. One theological reason for this is the gradual clarification by the Church, during the course of the twentieth century, of the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics. This possibility was already present in St. Paul (see Romans 2:14-16), but in earlier centuries it tended to be overshadowed by other considerations. Today, perfectly faithful theologians understand that the Parable of the Talents has a very large meaning: In accordance with the gifts each one has been given—that is, in accordance with what the Holy Spirit has enabled each one to know of the Good in his heart—it is possible for each person to be saved by doing his or her best to live up to the measure of what he has received.
But this brings us to the first obstacle. Only a very functional, prescriptive attitude toward the Gospel could lead anyone to rest content with mere universal possibilities. A true Christian recognizes the Gospel as both a tremendous gift and a magnificent assurance—the means by which we enjoy the supreme unmerited benefit of God’s love, and the means by which we are brought through clear and tangible steps into an ever-greater union with God. When anyone truly recognizes the astounding glory of the Gospel, he ought to consider it to be the greatest gift he can share with another person. Through the Gospel (and the Church it includes), we give others the incomparable choice both to enjoy and to respond in the fullest possible way to God’s love.
When we fail to preach the Gospel, we fail to advance from a chance to a choice.
Another benefit of the modern world is our increased knowledge of what we are pleased to call psychology, a word surprisingly derived from psyche, the ancient name for the soul, the spirit, or (in the same sense) the “mind”. In our times, psychology has a primarily material interpretation, though some practitioners recognize the benefits of a therapeutic approach involving material, behavioral and spiritual treatments. Of course, there were many who possessed keen psychological insight long before psychology was added to the list of sciences. Perhaps St. Augustine is the greatest example of all time. But for present purposes, it is sufficient to state the obvious: We “moderns” are far more aware of the complex psychological causes of human behavior, and so of the difficulty of identifying authentic freedom under the pressure of these causes.
In consequence, when we read “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (Mt 7:1), we have even more reason then before to consider it good advice. This is not just a matter of extending to others the same benefit of the doubt we extend to ourselves. Our awareness of “psychology” reminds us that we really do not know all the interior obstacles, impediments, and restraints which interfere with another person’s reception of the Gospel, or even of the moral law in general. The problem with this awareness is that it too often leads us to forget the distinction between judging the sinner and judging the sin.
We are right to recognize that we can never fully know another person, and therefore we are right to leave judgment of the state of another’s soul to God. But it does not change the nature of good and evil that many have trouble recognizing and responding to the difference. Our very sensitivity to “psychology” leads us far too easily into the trap of regarding even the most patient moral teaching and the most loving spiritual exhortation as an impermissible assertion of our own superiority. In this state, we neither hate the sin nor love the sinner. Or to use a Scriptural analogy, we refuse to put out into the deep; we refuse to lower our nets for a catch (Lk 5:4).
But men must choose to be caught, and the result is the same as before: We fail even to offer a choice.
It is important to understand the immanence of God, to know that Our Lord walks with us in every moment, and that through baptism the Trinity dwells in our very souls. But it is equally important to recognize that God so transcends our human condition as to make it impossible to ever regard ourselves as remotely worthy of the blessings we have received. Paradoxically, as the blessings increase, our awareness of our unworthiness often diminishes. When we enjoy material blessings such as health, prosperity and comforts of various kinds, we tend to focus on the delights of this life, rather than yearning for relief in the next. Old age is a salutary reminder of the fragility of material blessings, but cultures characterized by excessive focus on this world are not formed by the elderly.
When we combine this unfortunate myopia with a legitimate awareness of God’s immanent action in the life of each person, we tend to get a Church full of people who assume that each one has his own access to grace, and so each one finds himself in whatever condition God desires for him. Surely each person has experienced manifestations of God’s Presence in the manner marked out by Providence for that person! This may explain why Catholics today are so prone to the Panglossian assumption that each person must somehow inhabit the best of all possible spiritual worlds for him. Material poverty we understand easily enough. But if God is immanent, can there be spiritual poverty? Traditionally, this confusion has had its salutary correction by adverting to God’s transcendence, by a recognition of the spiritual and moral gulf between the life we live now and the life we are called to live through union with Him.
But a culture preoccupied with this world, and stuck on a rather one-sided presumption of God’s immanence, ignores this transcendent dimension of the Faith in favor of a constant reading of “the signs of the times”. It is more or less exclusively in these signs that we are advised to find indicators of God’s workings and God’s will. Modernism, which holds that truth is essentially unknowable because it is always mediated to us through human culture, maintains a firm grip even on those who do not know its name. Yet we fail to interpret or judge these signs against transcendent realities. Rather, all signs of the times become signs to be affirmed—though what is being read are often messages from the dominant culture alone.
What was it the LORD said to Jeremiah? “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (Jer 14:14). When we simplistically read Divine immanence in cultural tendencies, we once again refuse to offer a choice for or against God.
There is a great deal of emphasis on empathy today—on our ability to understand and share the feelings of another person, who may be very different from ourselves. I suspect this emphasis is a legitimate product of Christian influence over the centuries, for the Christian teaching that we are all at the same time both sinners and beloved by God has had a profound influence on mankind. Just as this emphasis gradually led to a greater appreciation of the equality of women and a more general abhorrence of any form of slavery, so too did it lead to a genuine desire to regard those of other ethnicities and cultures as equally deserving of respect.
If we recognize that the current dominant culture of the West is shaped by a rebellion against God, however, we can see why empathy today has taken on a new element—a moral neutrality—when it comes to the principles enshrined in the natural law. Remember that the Ten Commandments are a concise guide to the natural law, and that Christian morality is drawn from this law of being that God has imparted to all of Creation. For this reason, rebellion against God in a post-Christian world takes the form of rebellion against the natural law. I do not mean that empathy today is rooted in a total moral neutrality; it is very clear that we are not to be empathetic in the slightest toward those who do not accept the ever-changing moral priorities of our dominant culture. But we have been carefully taught that empathy must transcend the alleged irrelevance of “Christian” morality.
Empathy today encompasses the key contemporary buzzwords of tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness, even or especially when it comes to divergence from Christian morality. A reasoned judgment that homosexual behavior is morally wrong is considered equivalent to an irrational bias against someone with a different skin color. Such category mistakes are profoundly influential among Catholics. Within well-known cultural limits, differences are to be affirmed as enriching. Thus it is almost universally considered a bigoted failure of empathy to suggest that those whose “experience is different” should be urged to accept the gift of Christ by reorienting their lives so as to draw into the closest possible union with Him.
It is terribly bad form to give anyone a choice.
With this last point about our oddly selective empathy, it begins to be more obvious how the errors of our dominant culture can skew insights that are otherwise valid. These insights should enrich our understanding of human nature and of the Christian message while suggesting even better ways to present the great gift that is redemption in Jesus Christ within the Church He founded for this purpose. Instead, these same insights have become twisted until they provide reasons for the failure of “concern for souls” to have the same traction now as it did as little as even seventy-five or a hundred years ago.
This twisting, of course, occurs under the immense weight of a contemporary cultural pressure which is set dead against concern for souls—against saving souls. The distortions of the insights I have been discussing make their misapplication appear to be rational and even good. Therefore, not only do they confuse people but they also enable those who are spiritually lazy to justify their lack of zeal for the Gospel. It is a massive combination of all these effects which paralyzes so large a portion of lay persons, priests, bishops, and even higher ecclesiastical officials today. For all its complexity, however, this is also an instinctively common form of worldliness.
We all know that such worldliness is a perennial problem for the Church; we can all answer the question of how many bishops stood with Athanasius against Arius in the fourth century, or with Thomas More against Henry VIII in the sixteenth. But it is no less our challenge again today. We must start somewhere, and it seems to me that reflecting on what it means to save souls—which at least can give bishops and priests an intelligible purpose again—is a very good starting point.
“He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30, Lk 11:23), said Jesus Christ. The modern Church has been deeply guilty of gambling with other men’s souls, merely by letting them ride. She needs to learn again to offer each soul the opportunity to place its own well-informed wager. The Church needs to learn again to offer a real choice—and to press for a real decision—for or against God.
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