Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Father William Most Collection

Is there infallible salvation for us too?

[Homiletic and Pastoral Review 90 (Oct. 1990)]

"Are you saved, brother? -- I am. I have just taken Jesus as my personal Savior." Many Catholics are now being drawn off into fundamentalist old line Protestant sects that promise them infallible salvation if just once in a lifetime they take Jesus as their personal Savior, or "make a decision for Christ." They mean they must get the confidence that the merits of Christ are applied to them. Then, as it were, they can think of a ledger. On the credit page, they write infinity, for the merits of Jesus. On the debit page, they write the number for their sins. No matter how great they have been, are, or will be -- they are all outbalanced by the infinity of His merits. So they are infallibly saved. No need to worry if they sin in the future! Halleluia! (And to think they used to charge Catholics with giving permission to sin by indulgences!)

Are they right? No, Luther was scrupulous. This is generally admitted by the best Lutheran theologians today. Thus in Justification by Faith. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, both Lutherans and Catholics joined in saying (##24 & 29): "In their [the Reformers'] situation, the major function of justification by faith was to console anxious consciences, terrified by the inability to do enough to earn or merit salvation.... The starting point for Luther was his inability to find peace with God.... terrified in his own conscience...."1 He found peace only when he thought he made a momentous discovery in St. Paul: justification by faith. One could get right with God simply by coming to believe the merits of Christ covered all his sins, past, present, and future. So Luther wrote to his great associate Melanchthon : "Pecca fortiter, sed crede fortius."2 That is: (Even if you ) sin greatly, believe still more greatly. Of course that was infallible salvation.

Was he right? Unfortunately no. Even a standard Protestant reference work, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible describes faith this way: " Paul uses pistis/pisteuein [faith/ believe] to mean, above all, belief in the Christ kerygma [preaching], knowledge, obedience, trust in the Lord Jesus. It comes by hearing with faith the gospel message (Gal.3:5...) by responding with a confession about Christ... and by the 'obedience of faith' (Rom 1:5: ...'the obedience which faith is')."3 To sum up: If God speaks a truth, faith requires that we believe it in our minds; if God makes a promise, faith requires that we be sure He will do it; if God tells us to do something, we do it (the obedience that faith is). Of course, all this is to be done in love: Gal 5.6: "faith that works through love."

It is obvious that this is much different from Luther's confidence that the merits of Christ are applied to him. So Luther committed a monumental error. If a man sins mortally, that sin is not forgiven by just believing that Christ has paid for it. St. Paul's teaching on the whole Christian regime can be summed up thus: we are saved and made holy if and to the extent that we are not only members of Christ, but are like Him.4 Now in His life there are two phases: first, a hard life, suffering, and death; second, eternal glory. To attain that glory we must be like Him in phase one. Hence Romans 8.18: We are "heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him, so we may also be glorified with him." What a tragedy for the soul that feels it can sit back after sinning and do nothing to be like Christ! That empty confidence will not make him right with God.

Have we in our Catholic system anything that is at least close to infallible salvation? Pope Benedict XV, in his decree for the canonization of St. Margaret Mary wrote the following: "The Lord Jesus deigned to address His faithful spouse in this statement, 'I promise you, in the profuse mercy of my Heart, that those who for nine continuous months approach the most sacred table on the first Fridays, the omnipotent love of my Heart will grant to them the benefit of final penitence: they will not die in the state of having offended me, nor without the holy Sacraments. In their last moments, my Heart will give them a safe refuge'"5

We notice that the Pope wrote without the qualification often found in speaking of private revelation, such as "it is said, it is told etc." No, he said it without qualification. The Church has further favored the nine first Fridays liturgically, so that on most first Fridays of the year outside of Lent the Sacred Heart Mass may be said where there are special devotions in honor of the Sacred Heart.

Of course, the words quoted by the Pope come from a private revelation. The Church's commission to teach covers only public, not private revelation. But the Church has surely shown it believes this great First Friday promise.

A most remarkable case is reported to have taken place at the grotto of Tre Fontane in Rome, on April 12, 1947. Bruno Cornacchiola was a fallen away Catholic who had become so bitter and hostile that when he found his wife had a crucifix, he broke it over his knee. He also carried a dagger with the inscription: "Death to the Pope". On that Saturday he took his children to that grotto, after missing the train to Ostia. The youngest, Gianfranco, 4 years old, went after a ball in a grove there, but did not return. Bruno found him kneeling, saying: "Beautiful Lady, Beautiful Lady." Then his ten year old, Isola came, and began to say the same thing. Bruno was furious, and called Carlo, his seven year old son. He too said "Beautiful Lady". Bruno tried to lift the smallest child, could not -- he felt like a marble statue. Bruno screamed: "You who are hiding there, come out." But then he became afraid, and cried, "God save us." Then he saw two white transparent hands come from behind. They covered his eyes, and a sort of film was removed. He too saw the Beautiful Lady, barefoot, in a green mantle and white dress. She was holding a small grey book. She said to Bruno: "I am the Virgin of the Apocalypse. You are persecuting me.... The Nine First Fridays which you made before entering on the way of evil have saved you, for my Son always keeps His promises."

Of course, Bruno was converted at once, gave up his dagger, began to say the Rosary daily, and to preach in many dioceses. The Vatican bought the hill and grotto from the Trappists, and allowed pilgrimages there.

We notice the Blessed Virgin said: "My Son always keeps His promises". It was, of course, the Sacred Heart promise quoted by Pope Benedict XV. Bruno had made the Nine Fridays in good faith when he was young. If he had made them in presumption, intending to sin thereafter, they would have been worth nothing. But he was sincere when he made them, and only later went bad. So the Sacred Heart meant to keep His promise.

There are special assurances offered us also by His Mother. It is reported that St. Simon Stock on July 16, 1251 saw Our Lady appear, holding a Scapular, and saying: "This will be a privilege for you and for all Carmelites, that he who dies in this will not suffer eternal fire." The historical evidence for this vision is very good.6 Pope Pius XII on the 700th anniversary of the vision wrote to the Major Superiors of the Carmelites: "Not with a light or passing matter are we here concerned but with the obtaining of eternal life itself which is the substance of the Promise of the Most Blessed Virgin which has been handed down to us. We are concerned, namely, with that which is of supreme importance to all, and with the manner of achieving it safely."7 The Church enriched the Scapular with many indulgences, showing her belief in the vision.

Pope Pius XII however warned that it is not the mere physical wearing of the Scapular that is enough, no, he said in the same document: "May it be to them a sign of their Consecration to the Most Sacred Heart of the Immaculate Virgin."

So if one uses the Scapular as the outward sign of a really devout and lived consecration, there can be no doubt. For even if the vision of 1251 had never taken place, yet -- and now we enter the realm of public revelation where the Church does have a commission to teach -- a solid, strong Marian devotion does make a soul safe. Pope Pius XI (Feb. 2, 1923,AAS 15.104) taught: "Nor would he incur eternal death whom the Most Blessed Virgin assists, especially at his last hour. This opinion of the Doctors of the Church, in harmony with the sentiments of the Christian people, and supported by the experience of all times, depends especially on this reason: the fact that the Sorrowful Virgin shared in the work of the Redemption with Jesus Christ."8 He means: She shared in earning all graces, of course she can obtain this great grace. Similar statements were made also by Pope Benedict XV and Pope Pius XII.9 We do , then, have a most firm basis for holding that a solid and strong devotion to Mary makes one's eternity safe.

She herself is reported to have made also a promise parallel to that of her Son (Apparition to Sister Lucy of Fatima, Dec.10.1925): "I promise to assist at the hour of death with the grace necessary for salvation all those who, with the intention of making reparation to me, will, on the first Saturday of five consecutive months, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, say five decades of the beads, and keep me company for fifteen minutes while meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary."10 This promise was promulgated by the Bishop of Leiria, in whose diocese Fatima was located, on Sept. 13, 1939.11

Luther, as we saw from the agreed statements of Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII feared he could not do enough to earn salvation. We could quiet those fears in another way. St. Paul says often that we do not earn our salvation, rather, we "inherit: the kingdom (e.g., 1 Cor 6.9-10).

Now if we inherit from our parents, we have not earned the inheritance. We get it because they are good, not because we are good. But we could have earned to lose it, to be disinherited. As one student said about salvation: "You can't earn it, but you can blow it."

There is a secondary sense in which we can be said to earn. After we have received justification, first grace, without earning it, the possession of that justification gives us a sort of ticket or claim to heaven (which could be called a merit -- but we got the ticket without meriting it), since it makes us children of God, and brothers and sisters of Christ, and, as such, we have a claim to inherit.12

These special promises do not contradict St. Paul, of course. They are really splendid, comforting extras, from the love of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart.

To return to the question in our title: Do we have infallible salvation also? The Council of Trent defined: "If anyone shall say that he, with absolute and infallible certitude, will have that great gift of final perseverance, unless he has learned it from a special revelation, let him be anathema."13

However in the capitulum on the material of this canon the same Council taught: "God, unless they themselves have failed His grace, just as He has begun a good work, will so complete it, working both the will and the doing".14

These two statements do not contradict each other. The first said we cannot have infallible assurance that we will have the grace of final perseverance. The second said that God will complete the good work "unless they themselves have failed His grace." So there are two things: on the one hand, God will certainly offer that grace, as St. Paul assures us.15 On the other hand, we may reject it, or fail His grace. If we reject it, we will not have it.

The Council said we cannot be sure without a special revelation. Do we not have such a revelation especially in the words of the Sacred Heart, who said flatly that those who make the Nine First Fridays will not die in His disgrace? and in the words of His Mother saying flatly they will not suffer eternal fire. Or as she told Bruno Cornacchiola: "My Son always keeps His promises." Of course He does! Still further, three Popes have endorsed the universal belief -- a thing infallible in itself16 -- that those who have a solid and strong devotion to the Mother of God, "will not incur eternal death" as Pius XI put it. And here, as we noted above, we are not merely in the area of private revelation, but in that of public revelation, where the Church does have divine protection for its teachings.


1Justification by Faith. Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, edited by H. George Anderson, T. Austin Murphy, Joseph A. Burgess, Augsburg, Minneapolis, 1985, ## 24 and 29.
2Martin Luther, Epistle 501, August 1,1521, in Luther's Correspondence, Lutheran Publication Society, Philadelphia 1918, II, p.50.
3Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement, Abingdon, Nashville, 1976, p.333.
4On the syn Christo theme (With Christ) cf. St. Paul saying a) We are members of Christ: 1 Cor 12. 12-27; Rom 12. 4-5; Col. 1. 18; Rom 6. 3; Eph. 4. 12-15. b) We should do all with Christ: Rom 6. 3-8; Col 3. 1-4; Eph 2. 5-6. c) So we must be like Him in all things: Rom 8. 9; 8. 13; 8. 17; Col 1. 24; 1 Cor 11. 1; 2 Cor 5. 17.
5Benedict XV, Litterae Decretales, May 13, 1920, AAS 12 (1920) p. 503.
6Cf. B. Xiberta, O. Carm. De Visione S. Simonis Stock, Curia Generalitia, Rome, 1950.
7Pius XII, Epistula, Neminem profecto latet, AAS 42. (1950) 390-91.
8Pius XI, Explorata res, Feb. 1, 1923. AAS 25. p. 104.
9Benedict XV, Inter Sodalicia, March 2, 1918. AAS 10. 182: "It is a most constant opinion of the faithful, proved by long experience, that those who employ the same Virgin as their Patron, will not perish forever." Similarly, Pius XII, Mediator Dei, AAS 39 (1947), p. 584: "The cult of the Virgin Mother of God, according to the opinion of holy men, is a sign of predestination."
10Cf. J. A. Pelletier, The Sun Danced at Fatima, Worcester,1951. p. 135.
11Ibid., p. 135-36.
12Cf. Council of Trent: DS 1532, 1582.
13DS 1566.
14DS 1541, combining Phil 2.13 and Phil 1.6. St. Paul also assures us God for His part will offer the grace of final perseverance in 1 Cor 1:7-9 and 1 Thes 5:23-24.
15Cf. note 14.
16Vatican II, Lumen gentium ยง12.



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